Cat/Choosing a cat

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With proper veterinary care and a good home, a domestic cat can be expected to live up to 15 years or longer. Since strong bonds of affection can be established between any pet and its owner, and given the length of time the two may be together, the process of choosing a cat can be difficult. Like any long term relationship, a certain degree of care and thought should be exercised in choosing an animal, since the relationship is often of such emotional significance to both animal and human.

Most cats are of a varied genetic background and are divided simply into either 'domestic shorthairs', the most common cat in almost all parts of the world, and 'domestic longhairs'.

Finding the right match for you

Given a good, loving home and proper veterinary care, it is not at all unusual for cats to live to be 15 years of age or more. Thus, a prospective cat owner can expect that the new companion animal may well be a part of his/her life for many years. This alone is reason to carefully consider the acquisition of a new cat.

Your reason for wanting a cat

By far the most common reasons given by people who want to bring a cat into their home and lives is for the companionship (either for themselves or for another cat which they may already have) or for their children.

How much time will cat ownership require

Before acquiring a cat, it is important for prospective owners to realistically assess how much time will be required for pet ownership and how much they are willing, long term, to give. A bad match here can lead to an unsatisfactory situation for both owner and pet.

The cost of cat ownership

Included in the cost of cat ownership is not only the initial acquisition costs (most shelters will have an adoption fee), but ongoing veterinary care in addition to the daily maintenance requirements of food and litter.

Some things to avoid

  • choosing on impulse
  • selecting a new companion animal by what the cat looks like
  • selecting an animal as a gift for someone else

Which type of cat?

Longhaired cats are preferred by the many people who find them especially beautiful. Domestic longhairs generally require more grooming than shorthairs, though - and are much more likely to have problems with hairballs.
A domestic shorthair, luxuriating in his home.

Pedigree or non-pedigree

There are a number of fully established purebred breeds of cat, in which a cat or kitten is not only of a recognizable sort but comes with registration papers from cat fancy organization. Despite the fact that the great majority of cats that are "homed" as companions are mixedbreed rather than pedigreed, the average mixbreed cat does vary in appearance somewhat throughout the world.

Male or female?

When cats are 'left entire', that is- not surgically sterilized, there are very distinct differences between owning a male, rather than a female, cat. Those differences have to do with the consequences of reproduction.

Unneutered females

Unneutered female kittens become sexually mature somewhere between about six months and three years of age. Almost all mixedbreed kittens will be capable of mating and becoming pregnant with their first litter of kittens by the age of one year. The 'late developers' who do not usually breed until two or more years of age are restricted to certain purebred varieties (usually larger cats, like the Maine Coon). Therefore, anyone who chooses a female cat or kitten for a pet and also chooses to maintain it with the ability to breed will probably not have just a single cat for very long. There will be many kittens, and then cats, in short order.

When cat owners live in regions where kittens are wanted and good homes can be found for them, allowing a female cat to have a litter or two of kittens is sometimes done quite responsibly. Adopting such a kitten from a neighbor is a time-honored way of obtaining a cat. The consequences to the mother cat were few at one time, but nowadays there are a number of diseases that she is subject to catching if allowed contact with local tomcats. In most regions of the world, the number of unwanted cats and kittens is so high that animal experts strongly discourage this practice.

Can't a female simply be kept away from males and, in that way, remain kittenless? Yes, that can be done, but grown females who are not neutered and who are kept from mating are usually unpleasant pets to keep company with, and show every indication of being in discomfort. Further, they are at high risk for diseases of the reproductive organs. (see Cat XXX)

Such cats come into "heat" every few weeks, and when they do, they spray urine over their environment and, almost always, yowl, roll, and posture nearly constantly until they successfully attract a mate. Once a female cat becomes pregnant she will return to her normal behavior until the kittens are born, however many will have another period of estrus while nursing that litter. A unneutered female cat is easily capable of producing between 4 and 18 kittens annually.

Unneutered males

An entire male also sprays urine as a means of attracting a mate, and as a marker for his territory. The odor of an unneutered tom cat's urine is very different from that of a neutered tom's, it is extraordinarily pungent. The litter box used by a fertile tomcat is not tolerated in most homes. Some entire Toms that are allowed access to both the outdoors and the household restrict their spraying to the outside. Others do not. When tomcats are not neutered until after sexual maturity, some continue the habit of spraying urine (including indoors) despite their changed hormonal balance.

When unneutered adult male cats are allowed outside, they normally dedicate a good deal of their time to prowling for females in estrus. When such a female is also outdoors, the entire neighborhood may becomes aware of a screeching, hissing, yowling, and moaning group of tomcats bent on doing each other bodily harm. Many of these toms incur bites, scratches and lacerations and return home with open wounds. These fights can also result in becoming infected with one of the fatal feline viruses.

For all these reasons, the best choice of a pet male cat is one that is neutered young enough (no more than a year of age, or so) to avoid these problems.

Neutered males & females

Now that the population of unwanted and homeless domestic cats is so large, there is general agreement that all responsible pet owners do neuter their cats. When discussing neutered animals, the debate over "male or female?" concerns more subtle considerations than those that apply to fertile ones.

There are individual variations in the personality of cats. The range of those characteristics among males overlaps that among females, and so there is probably no gender based recommendation that is firmly rooted in fact.

Cat or kitten?

One of the first decisions a prospective cat owner will have to answer is whether to get a kitten or an adult cat. Almost all cat owners find the cute, cuddly kitten virtually irresistible. But a kitten will require a lot more attention than an adult cat and the owner may not have the time or energy.

On the other hand, an adult cat will offer the prospective owner the knowledge of an already developed and known personality and will not require so much attention. Thus the adult cat can be left at home for longer periods of time without as much risk of damage to the house or furnishings.

How old a kitten?

The youngest that a kitten can be taken from its mother and littermates without causing it harm is about 6 weeks of age, like the kitten pictured here.

When kittens are born, their eyelids are sealed shut and will only open during the second week of life. At that time, the color of the eye is blue in all kittens, and will change over the next few weeks as pigment is laid down.

During the first month of life, the kitten develops from being totally dependent on its mother for food, warmth, and elimination to being able to handle these functions on its own. At about four weeks of age many kittens can successfully lap milk from a low saucer, but even if an individual kitten is able to maintain growth from feeding independently it is still "better off" remaining with its mother and litter mates.

Over the next few weeks, the kitten will develop the ability to eat solid food and somewhere between the sixth and eighth week of life they can be fully weaned. By 8 weeks of age kittens can receive their first immunizations and wormings.

Breeders of pedigreed cats most often refuse to sell kittens that are less than 8-12 weeks of age.

This kitten is just opening its eyes for the first time. It will not be ready to leave its mother for at least a month.

Socialization of kittens

How many cats to adopt?

Where to find a cat or kitten

Once you have made the decision to bring a cat into your home, and have made basic decisions about the type of cat you want (such as the choice between pedigree or non-pedigree, adult cat or kitten, and the sex of animal), there are a number of possibilities as to where to obtain your new friend.

Purchase from a breeder

If you have decided to acquire a pedigree cat for show or breeding, your best choice is a specialist breeder. This is also the most expensive option.

Buy from a pet store

A local humane society or shelter

One of the more common places people go to acquire a new cat is the local humane society or other animal shelter. Usually, there will be an adoption fee involved. This is designed to cover the costs of operation of the shelter and care of the animals while they are in the shelter awaiting adoption.

The level of care can vary widely from one shelter to another and the prospective adopter should find out what care was given to the cat from the time it was brought in. In some cases, when the animal is initially taken in, it will be given a thorough veterinary check and any necessary care will be given before it is let out for adoption. This could include routine matters such as nail clipping, bathing, and flea treatment. It might also include any spay/neuter operation, or even initial vaccines (rabies, in particular). Most shelters will not let an animal out for adoption otherwise as this is the only way, short of widespread euthanasia, to control the overpopulation problem.

Then, once the animal is put up for adoption, it will often be kept (and cared for - fed, etc) for several weeks or even months until a new owner can be found. As well, some establishments will offer a free, initial health check-up with approved veterinary establishments upon adoption.

One of the major advantages of obtaining a cat from a shelter is that the shelter personnel will have had an opportunity to interact with the animal, perhaps over a period of several weeks to a few months, and will be able to provide a better assessment of the cat's personality and fitness for the prospective adopter than can be obtained from a short visit with the animal. In particular, they could advise as to whether the animal is appropriate for a household with small children, or other animals (dogs or cats).

There are also moral arguments to be made here as all cats deserve a loving home.

The "cardboard box" approach

Gatos mamando.pav.jpg

Many people have very fond memories of a pet cat (or, more usually, a kitten) which they picked out of a litter in response to a free kittens advertisement in a newspaper. Or perhaps they found their new pet when they encountered some children seated in front of a grocery store entrance with a large cardboard box filled with several kittens and, again, the free kittens sign.

It is not that uncommon for families with small children to allow their female adult cat to have a litter of kittens as a way of teaching their children about the reproductive and rearing process. Afterwards, they try to find homes for the newly born kittens, hence the free kittens signs.

This can be a very good way to acquire a new pet cat. But first make sure the new kitten is at least 6 to 8 weeks old, as explained above. One of the big advantages of this method (aside from the cost, or at least the cost of acquisition) is that you get to meet the mother cat and also see the environment in which the kittens were born and raised. The most important factor in the development of the cat's personality is the personality of the mother cat and the environment in which the kitten was bred.

Just remember, though, that free does not mean there will be no costs involved. Almost immediately, you will have to take the new kitten to a veterinarian for a check-up and initial shots. And it would not be a bad idea to take the cat on condition of a clean bill of health from this initial check-up!

What you need to get before you bring your new pet home with you

  • cat carrier
  • litter box and litter
  • food dishes and food
  • water (no milk as it might damage the kidneys)
  • brushes and grooming aids (especially if it is a long-haired cat)
  • cat-proof the house

Health considerations: feline viruses

Currently there are at least two problematic viruses passed through the free ranging cat populations of the world. One is so-called Cat AIDS, or Feline Immunodeficency Virus, and the other is the cat leukemia virus. The danger from these viruses is not to people, but to other cats. These viruses are fatal, eventually, but the animal can be infected with either (or both) for months or years before illness is apparent. This does mean that if a kitten or cat is adopted as a stray or from a shelter there is the possibility of that animal harboring one of these viruses, and passing it to other cats it then comes into close contact with, perhaps other cats in the home or neighborhood.

Further reading

  • Connie Jankowski, Adopting Cats and Kittens: a Care and Training Guide
  • Michael Pollard: The Complete Encyclopedia Of The Cat (Parragon Publishing. Bath. UK. 2005 ISBN 1-40544-388-X)
  • Elaine Wexler-Mitchell, DVM, Guide to a Healthy Cat (Wiley Publishing, Hoboken, New Jersey, USA. ISBN 0-7645-4163-3)

Internet resources