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Meeting a Shelter Cat: Behavior FAQs

adoptable cat with ASPCA team member

When adopting a cat from a shelter, humane society, or rescue, you are helping provide a loving home to an animal in need. However, it's important to understand a cat's personality and behaviors before taking home the first cute kitten that catches your eye. Not every cat is the perfect fit for every family, but the staff at your local animal shelter can help you find the one for yours.

We reached out to our strategic partner The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals® (ASPCA®) to answer common questions about a cat's behaviors and what to look for in your future feline best friend. Marny Nofi, Director, Feline Behavior, ASPCA® Behavioral Sciences Team, was kind enough to offer her expert advice on this matter.

  1. What should a potential adopter consider when choosing a cat to adopt?

    If you're looking to add a cat to your family, we encourage you to base your decision on the individual cat's personality and behavior rather than a specific breed or look. Some cats can be independent, some may be too shy to be a children's pet, and others may love to be around people or want to play every second. Figuring out what type of characteristics and personality will fit into your lifestyle and family best will make the adoption selection easier.

    Ensure everyone in the house is prepared to have a cat and knows that the fun begins only after the cat feels safe and their needs are met. Once you're sure everyone is ready for feeding, litter changing, and grooming, you can divvy up chores among family members so everyone is prepared to care for the cat.

  2. What are the benefits of adopting a rescue cat?

    A huge benefit is that shelter staff know the animals well and can provide information about an animal's history, medical needs, behavior, and temperament. They also ensure cats are up to date on their vaccines and are spayed/neutered. Shelters also consider both a potential adopter's lifestyle and the animal's needs to make matches that are a good fit. Thousands of cats are waiting to be adopted from shelters and rescue organizations across the country, and adopting helps shelters conserve their space and resources for more animals in need!

    If you're ready for the responsibility of two new family members, ask the shelter's staff about any bonded pair or cats that get along well together.

  3. What sorts of questions should potential adopters ask to learn more about a shelter cat's personality?

    Past behavior tends to be a good indicator of future behavior. Find out as much as possible about the cat's behavior and experiences to help you get a sense of what the cat will be like in your home.

    Ask if there is information from a previous owner about the cat's personality as well as the cat's response to various people, environments, and experiences they may have had (e.g., car rides, children living in or visiting the home, etc.). Shelter cat behavioral assessment is typically gathered by the shelter's staff and volunteers—people who spend the most time with the cat.

    Also, ask shelter staff about the cat's or kitten's level of socialization with people, what they like (e.g., favorite treats and toys), how they might get along with children and any resident pets, and how they expect the cat to behave when you first bring them home.

  4. What are some common behavior issues cats may exhibit when you meet them at the shelter or after adoption?

    Cats tend to prefer consistency over change, though every animal has an individual personality and disposition. Some cats may be comfortable in your home right away, while others may take a few weeks or months to settle in completely.

    It's always a good idea to confine your new cat to one small room in your home should they need time to adjust. This will help reduce their stress and help them find their litter box, food, and water. It is also a great way to slowly introduce them to any animals that already live in the home. Remember to give them plenty of time to get acclimated and let them take things at their own pace. Once they are relaxed, using the litter box, and eating well, you can start to give them access to more space.

    Signs that your cat might be stressed, scared, or overstimulated include body language such as hissing, hiding, and swatting, as well as less obvious behaviors like lip licking, pretending to sleep, or shutting down, and dilated pupils. The more familiar you are with feline body language, the more you can understand what your cat is trying to tell you, which goes a long way towards making them feel comfortable in their new home.

    woman hugging a fluffy white and gray cat

  5. How does being in a shelter affect cats?

    Shelters can be stressful for cats, especially since their visit to the shelter may be the first time they encounter an environment other than the one they came from. While some cats adjust quickly to shelter life, others may remain impacted by shelter stress and, therefore, may not show their true personality.

    If you feel you aren't able to get a sense of a cat's true personality, it can be helpful to ask shelter staff for any information on the cat's personality prior to their arrival at the shelter or find out how the cat behaves with people they've formed a relationship with. This may give you a better understanding of what the cat you're interested in might be like once you bring them home.

  6. What should pet parents look for when seeking a behaviorist for their rescue cat?

    Rescue cat behavior can vary significantly from one feline to the next. Many shelters offer behavior help for animals adopted through their facility, so begin by reaching out to the location you adopted from. Seeking professional support as soon as you notice a problem behavior rather than waiting until it gets worse can give you a great advantage in resolving or managing the problem quickly and safely.

  7. How else can someone support shelter cats if they're not able to adopt?

    Reach out to your local shelter to see what support they might need with their current population. Many shelters offer opportunities to foster animals and volunteer. You can also donate items they may need for the animals in their care.

  8. What is the best way to prepare for meeting and adopting a shelter cat or kitten?

    Contact your shelter ahead of time to find out what their adoption process looks like. Ask what you need to bring with you, what is provided at the time of adoption, the hours they allow visitors, etc. If possible, bring the whole family to meet and adopt a new cat. This will help you gauge if the cat will be a good fit for the entire family.

    Don't forget to purchase necessary cat supplies like food and water bowls, a litter box and litter, scratching post, climbing tower, brushes, toys, treats, and food.

From spending time with the adoptable cats to asking the shelter staff about the felines' personalities, learning more about how to choose a cat from the shelter can ensure that you find a good match.

We want to thank Marny Nofi for taking the time to provide these helpful answers. On your exciting adventure of adopting a cat and officially becoming a cat parent, it's useful to understand the process of adopting a cat and all that could entail. However, some of the more exciting results of adopting a cat include finding cat toys all over your home, having a camera roll filled with adorable cat photos and always having a best bud around.

The information presented in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute or substitute for the advice of your veterinarian.

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