Kitten adoption - How to predict future domestic short-hair happiness?
June 7, 2013 11:42 AM   Subscribe

Kitten adoption - How to predict future domestic short-hair happiness?

Our elderly cat Bagheera finally died a few months ago, after a long struggle with renal failure. We'd adopted him from a co-worker desperate to find a new home for him at about 8 months, and he had life-long unpredictable biting behavior apparently developed while trying to protect himself from the 3 ferociously aggressive terriers in his original home. He'd jump up on the couch with you, but was only occasionally outright affectionate. We felt badly for his trauma, and he did get more approachable and less bitey as the years went on, but I wish we'd known what we were in for before we took him home. Now we're ready to adopt again, and need advice on choosing our new kittens. They would be entirely indoor cats, and I think two would be ideal, as there are frequently long days without anyone home, though this summer my college-student son will be home while they are very little. I've contacted a local shelter, and they have oodles of kittens in foster homes, but how to choose? We'd like lively but affectionate animals. Are littermates a better bet than random kittens from different litters? Are there signs that should warn us away from certain kittens?
posted by citygirl to Pets & Animals (26 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Honestly, the easiest path to ensuring happiness is to adopt a bonded adult pair (littermates or otherwise) whose personalities are already well-known.
posted by Tomorrowful at 11:58 AM on June 7, 2013 [9 favorites]

What Tomorrowful said. With kittens you get 9 months of mayhem and you have no idea of future personality. A bonded pair is also harder to adopt since most people just want one cat.
posted by Ferrari328 at 12:06 PM on June 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have a friend who is great at picking out kittens. She always gets kittens (not adult cats), and her cats are the most playful, fun cats I know. I mean, I've only known four of them, but all four are/were awesome cats (and I'm not even crazy about cats). She has a battery of tests that she does, but I don't know the specifics. Maybe she's just gotten lucky, but she makes it seem like it's possible to pick out cat personality traits even in kittens.
posted by mskyle at 12:07 PM on June 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you get even slightly older kittens, it's much easier to see their personalities, and of course a foster family can tell you a lot about the cats. But to really tell, you need adults. You'll probably be fine with two kittens at the same time, but if personality matters you want adult cats.
posted by jeather at 12:08 PM on June 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Two is ideal, so they can keep each other company. We wanted to adopt a bonded pair, but were told by the local humane society that ideally you want the cats bonded to you more strongly than to each other. So we adopted Dizzy first, and three days later brought Louie home. The first couple of weeks were rough but they quickly became friends.

It's important to train them to not be bitey: my guys never bite or scratch humans or wires. It only took 6 months of consistent discipline: any time they used claws or nails when playing with humans they got a firm "no!" and immediate cessation of play. Same with wires. (One thing I forgot to do is to handle their paws often when they were kittens -- now they won't let me trim their claws.)

To choose kittens, get the ones that are not shy, and want to interact with you. The scared skittish ones, or ones who hiss and try to scratch when you reach for them, are for experts.

Sure, cats have different personalities. The most important thing is that their adult personality will depend on YOU. You must train them to be good kitties!
posted by phliar at 12:09 PM on June 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Nthing older cat(s). My sister walked into a shelter, asked them for an affectionate cat who wouldn't mind living alone in a quiet household without children, and they matched her up with a four year old demure lady who suits her to a stinky cat-breath tee.
posted by joyceanmachine at 12:11 PM on June 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Long-time kitten fosterer here. (Current fosters: 1, 2, 3; others here.) I am not an expert by any means, but I have a not insubstantial amount of anecdotal experience. Here are a few things I would keep in mind as you go through the process.

First and foremost, if you want to be sure you end up with a cat with specific personality traits, adopt an adult cat rather than a kitten. Just like people, cats' personalities can shift, sometimes dramatically, as they grow up. This little angel, for example, can quite easily become this monster. Older cats, however, tend not to change as much, personalitywise, so you're more likely to get what you bargained for. Adopting a bonded pair of adult cats with personalities you like is an excellent option.

Kittens, however, are easier to introduce to each other. Also, adorable. So there's that. If you're set on kittens, I think two is the right choice-- two are, in some ways, less work than one. They keep each other occupied, out of trouble, etc.

Littermates are never a bad idea. There's no introduction process, they already have their relationship dynamics worked out, etc. That said, you can certainly go with kittens from different litters, make sure that they're close to the same age, which seems to matter. As does sex. My experience is that two male kittens or cats from different litters are the most likely to form a bond, followed by a one male/one female pair. Two females have been, in my experience, the most problematic.

In terms of choosing a cat or kitten, you're never going to get a full picture of the animal from a brief visit to the foster home or shelter, so ask the fosterer(s), and listen to what they tell you. They are doing this because they care about the animals' welfare, and part of caring about the animals' welfare is seeing that they go to the right homes, so they are more than likely going to be totally honest with you. If they say, for example, "Oh, god I wish we could keep this dude," that's probably an awesome kitten.

Finally, if you feel strongly about an affectionate animal, be wary of feral or semi-feral kittens. They can require a ton of work to make them affectionate, and even then it may not be successful, although it feels really good when you do succeed.

I've been doing this for years, and would be more than happy to answer any other specific questions you have, either in-thread or via mefi mail. For now, I'll leave you with a short video of 7 orange foster kittens in the bathtub (with no water in it, FFS).
posted by dersins at 12:14 PM on June 7, 2013 [12 favorites]

Yeah, baby kittens are adorable, but it's harder to tell their real personalities while they're still so little and generically baby-fluff-brained. I've been semi-adopted by a pair of outdoor kitten sisters, and it's only since they've hit the 6+ months mark that they've become distinguishable from each other—one's loud but outgoing, one's shy but cuddly.

With many cats it is helpful if they were raised from baby-kittenhood to be comfortable around humans and other cats and even dogs. It's also good to leave kittens with their mother and siblings a decent time before adoption (3 months? 6 months?), because the mother teaches the kitten litterbox manners, etc., and the siblings teach the kitten to play gently ("if I bite my playmate hard the game stops!").

OTOH many sweet laidback kitties were sad orphans and many neurotic horror felines were raised with impeccable care, so it really comes down to the individual cat.
posted by nicebookrack at 12:16 PM on June 7, 2013

I'm currently raising a pair of littermate kittens, which I've never done before. It's definitely taken away some of the hassle of a previous experience raising two kittens who were not littermates, and were a few months apart in age. That said, the two kittens who did not come from the same litter grew up to be the most loving, constantly-snuggling-together, inseparable pair of adult cats I've ever seen. So that can work out just fine, too.

Mine seem to have distinct personalities at 4 months, but who knows? Maybe they'll change up again in a few months before settling into adulthood. There's really no way of knowing. If you're going to get young'uns, tell the fosterers what you have in mind, and then just be prepared to love whoever you get. Give them lots of attention and get them accustomed to company and handling early on, and you're probably not going to wind up with someone super-bitey like your previous cat.

Good luck! (I mean it. The kittens, they are awesome and they are the light of my life right now but my god, I forgot how different kittens are from grown-up cats. It's exhausting and hilarious.)
posted by Stacey at 12:22 PM on June 7, 2013

Best answer: I don't know what your local shelter offers for a kitten package (the one in my city is fantastic and offers neuter/microchip/free first vet exam/pet insurance for 14 days or something), but one thing I wish I had done before adopting all my cats is this: on top of the adoption fee, have a savings fund of about $500 sitting around before I take kitty home. See, kittens are a bit sensitive and chances are that even the best shelter is battling RI/intestinal troubles/eye infections - it's really nice to be able to tell the vet to go ahead and treat that aggressively without worrying about the money.

Littermates or not, doesn't matter, though it'll streamline the introduction process if they are being housed together in the shelter already.

Get the kitten(s) used to handling early and often. Look at ears, teeth, push gently on paws to extend claws, that kind of thing - anything that you or the vet would have to do, you want them used to so they don't completely go insane when you have to trim nails or clean ears. We've accustomed all three of our cats to constant gentle handling, and all three of ours can be more or less manhandled without causing a fuss (okay, they make a verbal fuss, but I'm not burritoing them, that's the main thing).

Do not play any games which involve their teeth/claws and your body parts. Pouncing is adorable in babies and horrible in adult cats.

Do not rush to reassure a nervous kitten. Use clicker training, favourite toys or food rewards to distract them; physical affection can reinforce the fear response, not good.

Monitor the introduction of toys. All three of my cats interact with their toys differently; the oldest is fine with anything, the middle one literally destroys them, and the youngest will eat them (ask me how I know, post-$2600 vet bill). But do get a lot of toys. They help to redirect kitten energy and hunting behaviour (from your feet, hands, hair...).

Do get a lot of litterboxes. The recommended number is number of cats + 1, and it's good advice. Remember to position them in such a way as to prevent ambushes... it can really put a kitten off if sibling can pounce them when they try to pee.

I'm going to disagree with the comments thus far - I adopted oldest cat at 4.5 months, middle cat at 6 months, and youngest cat at a short 8 weeks, and I knew what their personalities were going to be pretty much within a month of ownership. That being said, you probably won't be able to suss that out at the shelter.

Finally, try to have people over to socialize kittens - not huge house parties, but have friends come over so cats become okay with strangers in the house. Make strangers a happy event - lots of healthy treats and maybe some playtime! Get kittens used to crates (cat carriers - I prefer solid-sided) and harnesses - when they are older, it can be nice to take them outside on walks (baby kittens should not go outside because they are dinner for birds of prey). Cat carrier is self-explanatory - you don't want to be wrestling an adult cat into a crate because they only see it once a year; my cats will sleep in theirs and are very comfortable with them. If you think you'll have to travel with them, maybe some car rides, too.
posted by Nyx at 12:26 PM on June 7, 2013 [5 favorites]

Oh, and I agree: no more than one female cat unless they are adult pair-bonded cats so you can see already that they will get along.
posted by jeather at 12:31 PM on June 7, 2013

Best answer: I adopted two littermates Malcolm and Eartha were bonded littermates. I could not have asked for a happier arrangement. My friend knew them when they were first born and she did a fabulous job socializing them.

Neither one of them is particularly cuddly, but they both like to be petted. Malcolm will get on his back, paws in the air and insist that you rub his belly.

Eartha is a beauty, but she's the alpha cat and bossy as hell.

Talk to the people who are fostering your kittens or the adoption folks. They can't guarantee anything, but they'll know stuff and can guide y ou.

We too keep the crates out and mine them with treats so that the cats enjoy them.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:43 PM on June 7, 2013

nthing two males, slightly older kittens and also a pair bond where possible. It is hard to predict kitten personality though. I got a 2 year old adult and later a kitten. I made sure the adult was a calm personality, and his steadiness rubbed off on the kitten, who otherwise would have been a holy terror. Now they're fairly bonded.

If I was to do it again, but I'd look for a few things:
- put the kitten with an older cat
- dominance: does s/he show aggressive / dominance behavior towards the other cats? does s/he growl?
- energy: can nothing stop this kitten? (too much energy not good)
- intelligence: does s/he look like they're trouble? too smart is not good, stooopid is best.
- fear: do they startle at anything or are they friendly towards things that should scare them?
- social: interested in the other cats? touching noses with other cats (the nicest form of greeting)

Finally, let the cat dictate the relationship in terms of amount of affection, contact, touching etc. My mother's best advice: put the cat in your room, sit on the floor and read a book. He may hide under your bed for a day. Or explore. When he's ready, he'll come to you to sniff you out & then he'll be yours. It's worked for all my cats and now they follow me around the house and clearly have bonded with me.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:57 PM on June 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think there is a difference between character, which is truly inborn, and behavior, which depends greatly on you.

I'd look for two kittens (and I agree male/male or female/male and very similar in age) that respond warmly to you.

After that, raise them with lots and lots of affection -- picking up and petting and playing fun games and talking to them, is what I mean -- and clear expectations such as no biting. You can establish clear boundaries reliably by rewarding for staying within them and ignoring/leaving when they are exceeded, or with a mild negative response for exceeding boundaries. Also, notice their boundaries. Some cats hate having their tummies touched or their tails petted, for example.
posted by bearwife at 12:57 PM on June 7, 2013

Make friends with the staff or foster folks and ask them which cats come with good stories. Our cat was helped through an expensive (though not chronic) illness that would have normally resulted in euthanasia, because even in obvious pain she was purring, friendly, and snuggly, and they fell for her.

Someone who sees lots of cats thought she was special. I have had a few cats but am no expert, and didn't notice her the first time we walked through.

Guess who was right.
posted by tchemgrrl at 1:11 PM on June 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

My one warning is that a cat that is immediately affectionate in a shelter can become a cat that is incredibly attention demanding and annoying in your home.
posted by srboisvert at 1:12 PM on June 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

The ASPCA's Feline-ality system lists 9 personality types. Some shelters use this system to systematically test and disclose the personalities of their animals -- I couldn't find one doing a quick search in Philadelphia, though. It does take time to test the animals.

Also, the system is for adult cats, not kittens. However, I believe that it *is* possible to tell the personality of a kitten, if you see it interacting with other kittens.

However, reading through the personality types may help you focus more on the type of cat you want.

Also - if you want really great cats, invest the time - it's an investment in yourself, too, since it's fun and will make you happy -- to do actual clicker training with them. The only reasons are 1) it's fun for the cat; 2) it teaches the cat that you will listen to / notice him, so he'll be more likely to interact with you and actually try to communicate; 3) it will give them an outlet for their physical and mental energy; 4) the cat will go absolutely bananas when he thinks it's clicker training time, because it's so fun.
posted by amtho at 1:24 PM on June 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

Yeah, cats act funny in shelters. When I adopted Gus I chose him because he seemed so playful and active. The second he got home, he decided that nothing in the world was better than being lazy. He preferred not moving to running away from you when you tried to dress him up in doll clothing, so I once had some great pictures of him. Very affectionate, very easygoing -- probably the most easygoing cat I've ever met, and top 10% for affectionate -- very very different to how he was in a shelter (though probably better, he was a really awesome cat).
posted by jeather at 1:26 PM on June 7, 2013

We've been through a string of cats acquired as kittens, and as companions, and I can confirm the 'no females unless pair-bonded'.
We had a lovely, but very bossy little miss of a cat. She was adopted within weeks of her main buddy (who deperately needed a companion!).
They got great as kittens, less so as adults - somehow, neither of them really learned how to be solidly Alpha, or not - so there was a lot of tussling.
We got miss a kitten after companion died, and that was....okay. She wasn't really wild about him, but tolerated him.
Sadly, they both died within a few months of each other.
Now we have two littermates, adopted at 3 months - and they are awesome! Well socialized, a clear "alpha", and so much fun. Although we are at that stage where We Can't Have Nice Things.

Regarding Kittens/Bathtubs: Those guys needed a ping-pong ball!
Best kitten game evar: Kittie Bathtub Hai Alai!
posted by dbmcd at 2:54 PM on June 7, 2013

Another suggestion: Now that it's kitten season, mom-cats and kittens turn up in the shelters - and usually the kittens go and mom stays in the shelter, because adults are less appealing. If you can find a friendly mom-cat, why not adopt her together with one of her (male if at ALL possible) kittens? That way you get a bonded pair, and, if mom is friendly, then the kitten is more likely to inherit a calm and easy-going temperament. And you do a good deed for a mom-cat and the shelter as unspayed females are so often kicked out or dumped at a shelter when they get pregnant.

And another voice in the chorus of try not to introduce two unfamiliar females. If you get two girls, they should already be bonded. (FWIW, I have two adult girls who were introduced as adults. They get along OK now, with one clearly the Queen Cat [fittingly, her name is Daenerys] - but I have a big house. I have NOT had good experiences with more than one non-bonded adult female in a smaller condo/apartment.) I talked to a shelter worker and she agrees that the atmosphere is "different" and more tense in the communal kitty room when it's mostly females. I don't have the Science to back me up, but it seems that cats are matriarchal more than not.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 3:10 PM on June 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

I don't know how you'd pick a kitten to be a certain type of adult cat.

I've known cats who started out extremely aloof, who then turned into total love-sponges at age ten.

Whatever kind of cat you get, give it lots of affection. Who knows, even the most distant cat might someday learn the ways of love.
posted by mikeand1 at 5:36 PM on June 7, 2013

Nthing that a kitten needs to be showered with love, but a particular kind of love. One that lets the cat do its thing, but when it's ready, handle it, kiss it, get it used to people touch. As a result, I have raised two tiny grey kittens into two big mamma's boys. And one neurogically challenged 1-year-old (maldevelopment of the cerebellum) who didn't walk while at the shelter into a running, purring, playing little delight. The latter was brought home with one of the aforementioned kittens, and they were immediate fast friends. Maybe I was just lucky.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 5:58 PM on June 7, 2013

Response by poster: So many great suggestions. Thanks to all! I had never thought about making the crate a neutral, or even nice, retreat. It was always a terrible struggle to take Bagheera to the vet, and this is a great idea! Ditto the suggestion to get multiple litter boxes. It's been a long time since I've had a small kitten, and even with renal failure, Bagheera made it to the (single) box every time until the last couple of days.

Dersins, we adopted a semi-feral kitten many years ago, and while she was tons of energetic fun, when stressed she acted . . .feral. We had to toss several upholstered chairs she urinated and pooped on when we left her in the care of a neighbor when we had to travel for a week. The mystified teen we charged with feeding and watering correctly reported that the litter box was pristine. We could never civilize her after that.

Thanks also to the suggestions on the gender mix. We will certainly take that into account. For those who suggested that adopting paired adults is an acute need, I agree. But the pull of kittens is like the pull to adopt an infant rather than a 16 year old -nearly irresistible. One has only to look at the seven tawny kittens in the bath to see why!
posted by citygirl at 6:51 PM on June 7, 2013

I was coming in here to suggest what Rosie M Banks said. If you get a mother cat whose personality you like, and one of her kittens, she will train it up and it is more likely to behave similarly.

And seconding what everyone said about kittens being different from their adult personalities and about behaviour in shelters or foster homes being different from behaviour at your home. We sat on the floor at the RSPCA and waited to see which kitten would approach us. Shoggoth did and seemed very snuggly and social and willing to play. When we brought her home and forever afterwards she has kept that personality with us, but has been terrified of any strangers. She won't approach anyone else and hides when we have visitors. It's weird, because at the shelter, we were strangers, but she was fine with us.

Also, while she was a snuggly goofball who loved to play as a kitten, by 1 year old she was no longer interested in curling up on our laps, and by 2 years old she is back to snuggling, but not interested in playing. I'm still not sure if her adult personality has emerged!

My friends recently adopted a kitten from a foster home. I was there when they met him, and he was a scared little ball of fluff who hissed at them and hid under the couch. He didn't seem properly socialised. I tried to warn them off, but they took him anyway, and back home he instantly became a lovable little friendly creature with no fear at all. So yeah, kittens iz a crapshoot.
posted by lollusc at 6:54 PM on June 7, 2013

Also, there is nothing sweeter than watching a mom cat raise her kitten. If you're feeling super-adventurous, you could foster a mom + an entire litter, and find homes for all but one of the kittens. It will be an experience you'll never forget.
posted by amtho at 7:54 PM on June 7, 2013

Rosie M. Banks: "If you can find a friendly mom-cat, why not adopt her together with one of her (male if at ALL possible) kittens? That way you get a bonded pair, and, if mom is friendly, then the kitten is more likely to inherit a calm and easy-going temperament."

Our two are a mother-and-daughter pair. When we adopted them, Penelope was (according to the shelter) eight months old and Bella was a year and a half. Bella was confident and friendly even in the shelter's get-to-know-you room; Penny spent much of the time hiding in the corner, behind a piece of furniture.

At this point, four-ish years later, Little Miss Skittish has turned into the kind of cat who will hurl herself to the floor with a thump then roll onto her back and wave her paws at you entreatingly, trying to get you to pet her tummy. She outweighs her mama by at least 50%, but Bella is still very much the boss of the relationship. When they're not chasing each other around and wrestling, they're snuggling together in a pile on the end of the bed, or snoozing on the cat tree.

Bella's been snoozing on my lap for the last half hour, and the front of my shirt is damp from where Penny was just standing on me, purring and stomping and doing happy paws and drooling with happiness. Eesh. Love you too, cat.
posted by Lexica at 4:31 PM on June 8, 2013

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