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Find information on animal health topics, written for the veterinary professional.

Selecting a Cat

By John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhD ; Susan Aiello, DVM, ELS

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Cats do not require the same level of attention or activity often demanded by dogs. This makes them excellent pets for people who have decreased mobility, a busy lifestyle, or limited living space (such as apartment dwellers). However, as with dogs, you should consider temperament, breed characteristics, age, and other factors when deciding whether cat ownership is right for you.

Temperament and Communication

Cats are very different than dogs in temperament and character. While dogs are pack animals that crave and need social contact, cats are mostly solitary hunters with a very different type of social structure. Some cats spend most of their time alone, while others live in groups and spend most of their time together. Because cats often tend to seek attention on their terms, some people perceive them as aloof. Of course, many cats are highly affectionate and frequently solicit attention from people.

Cats show affection by purring and rubbing against a favored individual.

Cats show affection by purring and rubbing against a favored individual with their face and tail. Aggression and fear are associated with an arched back, raised hackles, spitting, and hissing. In addition to the purring that is associated with affection, cats communicate by making other types of vocalizations. Low-volume calls are associated with greeting or requests for attention. Loud calls include cries of complaint or bewilderment, urgent demands for attention, and the well known mating cry of a queen in heat.

Breeds

There are many breeds and types of cats. Mixed-breed cats are typically categorized by the length and color of their hair coat. For example, there are domestic short-, medium-, and long-haired cats, with colors including gray, black, brown, white, calico, and tortoise shell. Coat length is an important consideration when choosing a cat, because longer-haired cats require more grooming to prevent and eliminate mats. Long-haired cats are also more prone to hairballs.

Many breeds of purebred cats have distinctive characteristics. For example, the Abyssinian is an active, high-energy breed, while Persian and Scottish Fold cats are generally calmer. Siamese cats are very intelligent but often require more attention and tend to meow loudly when ignored. You may want to refer to one of the many cat books available that describe the characteristics of various breeds or check with your veterinarian before making your selection.

Sex

You should also consider whether you want a male or a female cat. Male cats that have not been neutered are more aggressive and usually fight for territory or dominance. They may spray urine along surfaces outside and inside the home, as a means of “marking” territory. Intact cats, both male and female, try to roam during the mating season, which can lead not only to unwanted kittens but also to bite wounds, car accidents, ingestion of poison, and other problems. Many of these undesirable behaviors can be decreased by spaying or neutering when the cat is young, although some cats may still spray when they sense their home environment is being invaded by, for example, new cats or cat odors.

Age

Kittens raised with your family usually integrate well into the environment. However, kittens have a lot of energy and require a lot of care and attention. Adult cats are usually calmer, less demanding, and less destructive.

Finding the Right Cat

Cats can be obtained from a variety of sources, each of which has advantages and disadvantages. For example, adopting a kitten from a friend or a breeder may give you a good opportunity to obtain information on the home environment, state of health, and behavior. You will probably need to locate a breeder if you have an exact type of purebred cat in mind. However, young and older adult cats at animal shelters are usually already spayed or neutered and vaccinated, and adopting from a shelter saves lives of cats that might not otherwise find a good home. Some owners choose to buy a cat at a pet store. While a pet store may provide health records or registration papers, conditions in which the cat was kept or raised before arriving at the store will likely not be known. Many people also adopt cats as strays from their neighborhood.

Judging the Physical and Social Health of a New Cat

Positive Attributes

Negative Attributes

  • Active, friendly, sociable, curious

  • Timid or aggressive (hisses, spits, arches back)

  • Healthy weight

  • Thin or scrawny, with ribs or hip bones sticking out (Note: A pot belly on a thin kitten may be a sign of worms, a very common and easily treatable condition.)

  • Clean, shiny coat free of mats, sores, or fleas

  • Dirty coat stained with urine or feces; red spots or sores on the skin

  • Clean ears and eyes

  • Discharge from the eyes, excessive wax or debris in the ears

  • History of vaccination and veterinary care

  • Signs of respiratory problems (for example, a cough or runny eyes or nose)

  • History of eating a high-quality cat food

  • History of illness (such as vomiting or diarrhea) or behavior problems (such as not using the litter box)

When choosing a cat, look for a healthy individual with a good temperament (see Table: Judging the Physical and Social Health of a New Cat). Ask questions, and use your eyes and nose to look for problems. Sick kittens or cats are often listless and scrawny and have a dull hair coat. They may have urine or diarrhea stains (or associated odors) on the fur. Adult cats should be sociable and friendly. Kittens should be curious and adventurous, neither timid nor aggressive. Feral (wild) kittens or cats generally do not make good pets unless they have had considerable human contact during their first few months of life (see Kitten Care).

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