Cats are beautiful, elegant creatures which can make very good pets. They can be very friendly and rewarding, although they won't repay you with the blind obedience you will get from a dog. Some medical studies suggest that keeping a pet cat is beneficial to your health, because the relaxing effect of stroking the cat lowers blood pressure. However, acquiring any pet is a major decision which you'll have to live with for the pet's lifetime. This article aims to help you decide whether cats are suitable pets for you, and if you decide that they are, to take you through the process of bringing a new cat into your home.
Before acquiring a cat or kitten, remember that it is a long-term commitment. The average lifespan of a cat is 12-15 years, and some cats live for as long as 25 years - think about whether you will be able to give a cat the love and care it needs for its whole life. Do not get a cat or kitten on impulse or as a present for a child (giving pets as presents encourages children to think of them as toys). If you are living in accommodation that does not allow pets, or are likely to have to move there, wait until your living situation is more stable before getting a cat. Check whether the local by-laws where you live impose any restrictions on cat ownership (such as mandating that all cats are kept indoors). Also make sure that you can afford the cost of keeping a cat, which includes food, litter, visits to the vet, and perhaps stays in a cattery while you are away from home. If you are very houseproud, cats may not be good pets for you, because they shed fur and they need to be trained not to scratch the furniture.
A Checklist of Items to Buy Before Getting a Cat
Food and water bowls
Cat carrier (for transporting the cat - eg, to the vet)
Cat food and litter (although if you are getting the cat from someone else, you may want to ask them what kind of food and litter it likes first)
Also consider getting the following items:
A brush for grooming (essential for long-haired cats)
A cat bed. Although a cat will sleep anywhere, it may want to retreat to its own bed when it is sick or doesn't want to be disturbed. You can use a beanbag or a cardboard box lined with a blanket rather than buying a commercial cat bed.
A scratching post, to discourage the cat from sharpening its claws on the furniture or curtains. This is less important for cats which are allowed to go outdoors because they can sharpen their claws on trees. You can make your own or use a log of wood with the bark still on
Cat toys. Again, you can make your own, and many cats will happily play with crumpled paper or a small object on a string
A collar and tag in case the cat gets lost. Make sure that you get the kind of collar which will break away if it gets caught on something
Choosing a Suitable Cat
Consider getting an adult cat rather than a kitten. Kittens are bundles of energy which demand considerably more looking after than adult cats. They are more likely to bite or scratch in a playful way without realising that it will hurt, which may be a concern especially if you have young children. Also, they may not be completely house-trained, and if they are younger than about six weeks they may not be fully weaned either. (Kittens should not be taken from their mother until they are at least eight weeks old.) Animal shelters find that many people will get a cute little kitten then abandon it when it grows up into a slightly less cute cat - please remember that it only takes six months for a kitten to grow up. If you have other pets, however, a kitten may be a good choice because it will be more willing than a grown cat to accept that it's not in charge.
Compared to dogs, cats are low-maintenance pets - they do not need to be taken for walks and can safely be left on their own during the day. They are suitable for households where everyone works full time, but consider getting two cats so that they can keep each other company, and try to choose reasonably independent cats. Two cats which grew up together would be ideal, because you can be sure that they'll get on. Also note that while long-haired cats look beautiful, they need to be brushed daily or their hair will become matted, unlike short-haired cats which can handle most of their own grooming.
Think about the personality you would like in a cat as well as its appearance. For example, you might want a lively and playful cat, one which is gentle with young children, or one which will get along well with your dog. Ask the cat's previous owner or the animal shelter about its personality. It is difficult to predict what a kitten will be like when it grows up, although pedigree kittens will probably grow up to have the personality typical of their breed.
Consider whether your cat will be kept indoors or allowed to roam outdoors. In the UK, the vast majority of pet cats are allowed to go out, but in the US, more cats are kept indoors. Outdoor cats are less prone to obesity because they get more exercise and they are less likely than indoor cats to eat out of boredom - indoor cats need a lot of play and stimulation to prevent them from becoming neurotic or bored. If you have more than one indoor cat in a small house or flat, they may well develop psychological problems from the stress of being cooped up together all day. However, some people feel that it isn't safe to allow their cats outdoors unsupervised (for example, they might live near a busy road or have a neighbour with a vicious dog) or are concerned about the damage outdoor cats could do to the local wildlife. If this applies to you, try to get a cat which is temperamentally an indoor cat, or a kitten which has never been allowed outdoors.
Where to Get a Cat
Sometimes a cat will adopt you rather than the other way around, especially if you put out food for stray cats. One researcher said:
My second cat was a stray which used to hang around with my first cat, then when it died, seemed to realise there was a space for a cat in our household, moved in and stayed with us for ten years.
If a cat starts hanging around your place, and you want to take it in, but you're not sure whether it is really a stray (cats have been known to maintain two homes), put a collar on it and attach your phone number and a note explaining the situation. If the cat has an owner, they may call you or remove the collar.
If you want a purebred cat or kitten, you need to find a responsible breeder - the best place to meet them is at cat shows. Note that pedigree cats and kittens are expensive, and that if the only reason you want one is that you like a particular colour or appearance of cat, you may well be able to find a similar-looking moggy. You may be able to obtain an ex-breeding cat that is now too old to have kittens at a reduced price. Never buy a pedigree cat without papers, and ask to see the vaccination status of the parents and a vet certificate showing that they have tested negative for FeLV (Feline Leukaemia Virus) and FIV (Feline Immunodeficiency Virus). Ask the breeder for a written guarantee that if a veterinary surgeon finds a problem with the cat or kitten then you can return it. In the UK, breeders should be registered with the Governing Council of the Cat Fancy.
You can go to the animal shelter and give an unwanted cat a good home. You may well be saving a cat's life this way, since many (though not all) animal shelters will put down animals which have been there too long to make room for new animals. You can meet the cats they have there and select one which you like and which seems to like you. The staff at the animal shelter will ask you about the home you will give the cat, and may ask to visit you to ensure that your home is suitable for the cat you want to adopt. If the cat has not been spayed or neutered already, they will ask you to sign an agreement to have this done. These are all necessary precautions to make sure that the cat will have a loving and stable home with you.
Kittens, and occasionally cats, can also be obtained through friends or adverts in the paper or on bulletin boards (check the boards at your local vet's). Often these kittens will be described as 'free to a good home' (although people with kittens to find homes for are advised to charge a nominal fee, which they can give to charity if they wish, for the kittens' safety). Make sure that the kittens seem healthy and are no younger than eight weeks. To avoid encouraging irresponsible breeding, check that the owners have spayed the mother cat.
Be very cautious about getting a cat or kitten from a pet shop. Pet shops often acquire their kittens from 'kitten mills', where cats are kept in poor conditions and bred for profit. Often the employees will know very little about the kittens and where they came from. Also, kittens in pet shops tend to be very expensive, even more expensive than a pedigree kitten bought from a breeder. There is an exception to this rule; some pet shops work in conjunction with animal shelters to help re-home their cats.
After Bringing Your New Cat Home
Show it where its food bowl and litter tray are.
Some people recommend buttering a new cat's paws to help it settle in - by the time it has licked the butter off it will have calmed down.
Take it to the vet for a check-up, and to have it neutered and vaccinated if this hasn't been done already.
Have it microchipped - this involves injecting a chip into the cat's neck. The chip contains a unique number, and when it is implanted by the vet, they also fill in a form with the chip number and the owner's personal details, so that this information can be entered into a national database. If the cat gets lost then handed into an animal shelter, they can scan the chip, look up your details in the database and contact you. In the UK, microchipping is required before your pet can have a pet passport.
Since vet fees can cost thousands of pounds for complicated treatment, it is advisable to take out health insurance for your pet.
A cat's homing instinct takes about a month to reset. During this time, try not to let the cat out unsupervised.