Selecting a pet cat

Pets are an important part of the American household. Your pet-owning experience will be most enjoyable if you carefully consider which pet best suits your family, home, and lifestyle. The primary reason cats are given up to animal shelters is unfulfilled expectations, so make an informed decision. Avoid acquiring animals on impulse or as gifts. Take time, involve your family, and give careful consideration to the following questions before selecting a cat.

What’s special about cats?

Cats make wonderful companions. Their entertaining antics and affectionate behaviors have endeared them to millions of owners for thousands of years. Easily housetrained and relatively low maintenance, cats make good indoor pets and most will readily adapt to a variety of households.

What choices do you have in cats?

Purebred and mixed-breed cats come in a variety of shapes (head, ears, body, and tail), sizes, colors, personalities, and hair coats. Purebred cats have been selectively bred to enhance certain physical and behavioral characteristics that some owners find desirable, while mixed-breed cats have varied characteristics and also make wonderful pets. Veterinarians can provide you with a lot of valuable information even before you acquire your cat, and some veterinarians choose to specialize in feline medicine or  providing a feline-friendly clinic environment.

What are the special needs of cats?

Feeding, social interaction, exercise, play, and elimination are daily needs that must be met if you want a healthy, happy cat. Some cats have long or thick hair coats that require daily grooming to prevent matting and skin irritation. To reduce the risk of injury and disease, cats should be kept indoors and provided with an enriched environment that includes plenty of opportunities for positive interactions and play. A cat’s litter box must be kept very clean, and filled with the litter type they prefer, so that the cat continues to use it. If there are multiple cats within the home, multiple litter boxes should be available in several locations.

Who will care for your cat?

As the owner, you will ultimately be responsible for your cat’s food, shelter, exercise, and physical and mental health for the rest of its life. While families should involve their children in caring for a pet, youngsters need the help of an adult who is willing, able, and  available to supervise the daily care of a cat. You should make arrangements in advance for you cat to be cared for during a planned or emergency absence.

Does a cat fit into your lifestyle?

Cats can adapt to most types of housing if proper accommodations, food, grooming, and exercise opportunities are provided. To help decide if a cat is the right pet for you, answer the following questions:

  • Do you have the time to devote to providing for a cat’s needs for care and attention?
  • Do you rent or do you own your home? If you rent, does your lease allow you to keep one or more cats?
  • Can you adapt your home to allow a cat to express normal behaviors such as exploration, predatory play, and scratching?
  • How long is your work day? Do you frequently have obligations after work that would interfere with caring for your kitten or cat?
  • Will your new cat get along with your existing pets?
  • Do any family members have allergies to pet hair or dander or are likely to be intolerant of normal cat behavior?

Should you get a kitten or an adult cat?

Kittens require additional time for litter box training and socialization, as well as more frequent feeding and supervision. If you can’t make this commitment, consider the purchasing or adopting of an adult cat that is most likely litter trained and will usually adapt well to a new home. Breeders, rescues and shelters should be familiar with every cat they are placing and able to match you with a cat whose temperament and needs are a good fit for your family.

Can you afford a cat?

The purchase price for a cat can vary tremendously by breed and source, and will just be your initial expense. Cats need high quality food, proper housing, mental stimulation (e.g., toys, playtime), and regular visits to a veterinarian for preventive care. Other costs may include emergency medical treatment, grooming, boarding, identification, licensing, sterilization (spaying or neutering), and accessories. Today, pet health insurance is readily available and may help you defray unexpected expenses resulting from illness or injury.

Where can you get a cat?

Purebred kittens and cats can be purchased from reputable breeders. Both mixed-breed and purebred kittens and cats can be adopted from animal shelters and rescue organizations. If you have the necessary skills and experience, you might consider adopting a cat with special medical or behavioral needs. 

What should you look for in a healthy cat?

A healthy kitten or cat has clear, bright eyes and a clean, shiny haircoat. It should not appear thin, overly fat, or show signs of illness, such as nasal discharge or diarrhea. When choosing a cat, pick one that is active, inquisitive, and seeks affection and attention from people. Sometimes cats are uncomfortable in noisy or unfamiliar environments, so keep that in mind during your evaluation. An adult cat should allow handling and petting without hissing or scratching. A kitten should be relaxed when picked up and handled. The best age at which to obtain a kitten is when it is between 7 and 9 weeks old. Your veterinarian can also provide information about health conditions and behaviors that may be common in a particular breed you are considering.

What must you do to prepare for your cat?

Before bringing your new cat home, prepare places for it to eat, sleep, and eliminate. Purchase necessary accessories such as a litter box, litter, toys, and food and water bowls. Pet-proof your home by keeping toxic chemicals and plants out of reach, and make sure windows are securely screened when open so that your cat cannot escape. Be sure to provide appropriate scratching materials, such as a scratching post, so your cat can stretch and sharpen its claws without damaging your furnishings.

Plan to spend time training your cat so that it becomes comfortable with handling and grooming, and so it learns how to play and interact appropriately with people. Provide different kinds of play with a variety of toys, balls, or even a climbing tower. Kittens need frequent attention to socialize them to people and acquaint them with new things and experiences, and these are best provided before the kitten is 9 weeks of age.

If you already have a cat and wish to add another, matching personality types and a staged introduction may help the transition go more smoothly. For example, quiet cats should be matched with those of similar temperament. When another cat or kitten enters the home, introductions should be supervised and should proceed slowly with periods of separation until each cat learns to accept the other. If problems arise, consult your veterinarian for help.

Appropriate toileting areas are essential when multiple cats live together. This means at least one litter box per cat in more than one location. Food, water bowls, scratching posts, and resting areas should also be spaced throughout the home.

To ensure they live long, healthy lives, cats require regular veterinary medical checkups. Ask your veterinarian about a vaccination program and other preventive medical care appropriate for your cat’s lifestyle and to protect against disease risks in your area. Cats are good at concealing when they don’t feel well, and your veterinarian can also help you learn how to detect subtle signs of illness.

When you acquire a pet you accept responsibility for the health and welfare of another living thing. You are also responsible for your pet’s impact on your family, friends, and community. A pet will be part of your life for many years. Invest the time and effort necessary to make your years together happy ones. When you choose a pet, you are promising to care for it for its entire life. Choose wisely, keep your promise, and enjoy one of life’s most rewarding experiences!

Kitten tips

  • Seven to nine weeks is considered the ideal time for a kitten to move into a new home.
  • Spaying or neutering your new pet is an important part of responsible pet ownership. Talk to your veterinarian about the best time to have your kitten spayed or neutered to prevent unwanted litters.
  • Talk to your veterinarian about an appropriate vaccination schedule for your kitten or cat to make sure it is protected from diseases.
  • When possible, meet the kitten’s parents — their physical and behavioral characteristics may provide a clue as to how your kitten will be as an adult.
  • If you already have a pet (or more than one pet) and plan to get a cat, remember that your other pets may be less enthusiastic about your new addition than you are. Ask your veterinarian about the best ways to introduce your pet to its new animal family.
  • String is NOT a good toy for cats. If a cat eats string (or ribbon), it can develop life-threatening intestinal problems. There are many safe toy alternatives available at pet stores.

Selecting a Pet

​Interested in exploring other types of pets? Selecting a Pet for Your Family has information that will help.