Article: Adopting a Shelter Cat? Here’s How to Prepare

By Steve Dale, CABC

June is both the ASPCA’s Adopt a Shelter Cat Month and the American Humane Association’s Adopt a Cat Month. Either way, it’s a very special month for cats.

Cats definitely need adopting. According to the ASPCA, about 3.2 million cats enter shelters annually. However, only about half are adopted. While some are euthanized for medical or behavioral issues, most are euthanized simply because there aren’t enough homes.

Adopting an adult cat (especially those hard-to-rehome senior cats) may save a life. If you already have a cat or two, adding another — using gradual introduction techniques — is certainly possible without causing a household cat war.

If you’ve never had a cat before, you may learn that your preconceived ideas about cats are probably wrong. For example, cats aren’t aloof; they love their people. It’s just that cats being cats aren’t generally quite as demonstrative as most dogs. Even better, while 10 years may be elderly for a large-breed dog, a cat with a decade of life under the belt is merely middle-aged and can give you years more of companionship.

With those factors in mind, here are 10 things to know about adopting shelter cats:

  1. Cats, like dogs, have individual personalities. Discuss with family members in advance the kind of cat you think might be the best match: do you want an active cat who is a sort of feline superhero or do you want a couch potato kitty? Also, if you happen to be a senior citizen yourself, maybe a senior cat is best.
  2. During a shelter visit, you’re getting only a quick glimpse into a cat’s personality. For example, that cat you’re calling “lazy” might have just played with two consecutive visitors, and is now pooped and taking a well-deserved catnap. Ask an adoption counselor who sees all the cats daily to assess what they’re really like.
  3. Shelter cats are already spayed or neutered and treated for parasites, and often they have received additional medical care or have been microchipped. What a bargain!
  4. Shelter cats are a relative bargain, but over the life of your cat there will be costs involved for food and medical care. Any pet is a financial commitment and responsibility.
  5. Stock up. Your new arrival will need a litter box (or two), cat litter, food and water bowls, food, scratching posts, safe and stimulating puzzle feeders or interactive toys, a cushy bed, a brush for grooming, a toothbrush and pet toothpaste, and nail clippers.
  6. Catproof your home. That means, among other things, no lilies or other dangerous plants and no dangling yarn for a cat to swallow. Even an adult cat can get into trouble.
  7. Take your new cat to a veterinarian for a post-adoption exam that includes a baseline for heart rate and blood work so there will be a basis for comparison in the future.
  8. Fear Free. Seek out a Fear Free practice or Fear Free veterinarian to help make veterinary visits palatable before the cat has an adverse reaction. Learn more at
  9. Think two. Cats require exercise, mental stimulation, and social interaction. Two cats may be better than one, providing twice the benefits for one another and for you. For example, purring has been shown to be beneficial for our health; when cats purr, we smile. What’s wrong with smiling twice as often? Make sure that the two cats you’re adopting get along well; littermates are always the best idea. If you currently have a single cat, adopting two can keep them focused on one another rather than your existing cat. (Of course, it’s possible – albeit unlikely – that the two will gang up on your existing cat).
  10. Make nice. Get advice on introducing new cats into a home with an existing cat, multiple cats, or a dog. In general, the newcomer(s) should be secluded in a sanctuary room such as a second bedroom, den, or guest bathroom. Use comforting tools such as the calming pheromone Feliway, combined with play, a great stress-buster. If the newcomer is scared and hides, never force yourself or try to drag him out. Instead, be quiet and patient, using enticing treats to help develop trust. The cat will come to you when he or she is ready. Finally, the more time you take to let cats get to know each other and become familiar in their new surroundings, the better.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Steve Dale, CABC (certified animal behavior consultant), hosts two national pet radio shows and is on WGN Radio, Chicago. He’s a regular contributor/columnist for many publications, including CATSTER, Veterinary Practice News, and the Journal of the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America. He’s appeared on dozens of TV shows, including Oprah, many Animal Planet Programs, and National Geographic Explorer. He has contributed to or authored many pet books and veterinary textbooks such as “The Cat: Clinical Medicine and Management” and co-edited Decoding Your Dog, by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. He speaks at conferences around the world.