Thinking of adopting a cat but have never had one before -- help!
June 1, 2020 2:43 PM   Subscribe

My family is thinking of adopting a cat. I have no idea where to begin. We are in the UK. Details below!

We are thinking of adopting a cat. I have never had a cat (always had dogs) but we are not allowed dogs where we live.

I think I like cats, but not sure as I've never had one! I do like the company of a pet. My husband has long been resistant to cats in particular, but has eased up a bit as our daughter (5) very much wants one. Also, he is into the idea even more now that we have the occasional mouse that needs some kind of deterrent.

But I'm not sure where to begin. First, how do I find a cat that can deal with a (nice) kid?

Second, indoor cat or outdoor cat? I have a friend who absolutely thinks outdoor cats are cruel -- but to me, surely it sounds the opposite? Most of my neighbors seem to have outdoor cats but admittedly there are also a lot of "lost cat" signs. We have a garden (not fenced in -- i.e., a cat could easily jump over the low walls connecting the houses), and the previous owners had a catflap.

Also, we have quite a small flat (about 850 square feet) -- not sure if this matters, but I thought I'd put this out there. No idea where we would keep a litter box. We both work from home (even before the pandemic.) We used to travel a fair bit, but don't much anymore. We do have a few neighbors we could probably rely on to help cat sit.

My husband also has a slight suspicion he might be allergic, but no hard evidence -- this is obviously something we'd have to explore.

Also, any way of finding a cat that might particularly deter mice? (Not a dealbreaker if they are not interested.)

I also know of people who have had cat-regret -- how can I best think about whether this is a good move for us in advance?

Thoughts on how to proceed? Borrow one for a bit? Foster? Adopt? Aaargh
posted by caoimhe to Pets & Animals (26 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
People who live in America are going to come in here and tell you that having your cat roam outdoors is unconscionable, but most UK cat rehoming charities will not let you adopt most cats unless you have an outdoor space for them - the only exception being very elderly or disabled cats, or cats which have been raised as indoor cats since birth. The culture here is very different and it is generally regarded as cruel to keep cats indoors, especially in a small flat. Even if you disagree, you are unlikely to be able to adopt, rather than purchase, a cat unless you commit to letting it go out in your garden.

What cat rehoming charities absolutely will do is work with you to find the right cat - one that is friendly towards children, is relatively easy for a first-time cat owner, etc. They are very good at assessing cat characters and matching people and cats. I would recommend that you get the allergy issue sorted before approaching them though, as that will be a red flag; they don't want to give a cat to someone who's only going to return it a couple of weeks later. It's unlikely you will be able to get medical allergy testing, but cat allergies are usually pretty clear cut; just hang out with some cats and see how it goes.

My experience of having a cat has been that as soon as he arrived, as a tiny kitten, we immediately had no more mouse problem. I think they smell that a cat is near and wisely keep away.
posted by Acheman at 3:03 PM on June 1 [8 favorites]

Hm -- I'm tempted to go with borrow or foster to start with, if only to determine if your husband has allergies. Also, you do not sound overwhelmingly enthusiastic, which is fair! A trial kitty might be just the thing. To answer your other questions:

- Finding a cat who can deal with a kid. This is kind of my stock answer, but I would say contact a shelter(s) and let them know what you're looking for! The people who work there will absolutely know the cats' personalities, and many animals will have histories with (or without) kids. When I adopted my second cat, I was specifically looking for cats who were ok with other cats, and had certain personalities on top of that. (The cat I already had was super-active and could be overwhelming/a bully/is incidentally huge, so the new cat would have to be able to stand up to him!) It's pretty common to be able to search sites for cats that are ok with kids. I am also a huge proponent of adopting adult cats, because their personalities are largely pretty set. Also kittens are work.

- Indoor cats are safer for the cat, other cats in the neighborhood, and your local wildlife. I say this understanding that there is a strong cultural difference between cat ownership in the US and the UK, and you (and possibly I) will get pushback, but I would strongly urge you to keep your cat indoor-only. That said, you can't just...keep a cat. You'll have to provide entertainment, generally in the form of toys, treat puzzles, cat trees, etc. This is not nearly as overwhelming as you think it might be -- seriously a few sessions of 10-ish minutes of play and interaction a day will be fine. My two are indoor-only and are pretty content with a cat tree, a puzzle ball full of dry food, and like 1-2 play sessions a day. (The one cat would be fine with 1-2 play sessions a week, she is a strong independent lady who does not need my pathetic attempts with a feather toy.) You'll have to provide enrichment, but that's easier than dealing with a cat who's been hit by a car, or been mauled by a dog, or is ploughing through the local songbird population.

- Don't worry too much about the size; I had a cat in my studio apartment about the same size, he was fine. Make sure you have vertical space for them to climb. I think my current apartment is smaller than yours, and my two cats do just dandy -- though, again, with plenty of enrichment, places to hide, places to climb, etc. Right now I keep their litter box in the bathroom under the sink. It's okay. I wish I had a better place to put it, but you get used to it. Keep a broom nearby to sweep up any stray litter once a day or so. When I was in the studio, I had the litterbox kind of tucked away against a wall. Get one that's top-entry-only or otherwise covered, that helps hugely.

I think cats in general kind of deter mice? Like, their scent or the fact they're just there, though I also know of cats who just kind of happily watched as mice played across the floor, so yeah. You can ask if the cat has a history as a mouser when you go to adopt.
posted by kalimac at 3:08 PM on June 1 [3 favorites]

I have worked with a couple of cat rescues to adopt cats, and because they are generally resource constrained, they take making good matches very seriously because they can't really afford to have cats go to ill-suited families and then get returned. Which means they can be very helpful at helping you figure out what you want and what you should be thinking about.

From what I have seen, cat rescues (there are lots in the US, and I assume these exist wherever you live, but I could be wrong) tend to have strong opinions about a lot of things -- all cats should be indoors-only, de-clawing is unacceptable, annual checkups are mandatory, etc. -- and they may ask you to make some promises to abide by their ethics once you adopt a cat. This might feel a little intense if you're not an experienced cat owner, but I think the rules are kinda helpful when you're inexperienced.

I'd look for a cat rescue in your area and contact them for advice. They may ask you to fill out an adoption application (not for any particular kitty, but just to get the general screening questions answered) as a first step. You'll probably hear back from a volunteer who'll be your matchmaker.

In my experience, all cats like to chase mice. Not all cats know what to do once they catch them. All mice fear all cats, though, so even an unskilled cat will help with a mouse problem.

"Borrowing one for a bit" would be very stressful for a cat. In normal times, I'd say find a friend with a friendly cat and spend some time visiting them. You could see if local animal-related charities are looking for volunteers. The cat rescue may have cats who need a foster home right now (it's kitten season, which means they need more foster families this time of year). The pandemic is going to make this kinda tricky, unfortunately, because most normal options carry risk of COVID exposure.

The cat won't care that your flat is small. The cat will care that the window views are interesting, though. My cats are happiest when they have a space to sleep in front of a window -- ideally, in front of as many different windows as possible. We disagree about whether they are alllowed look out the kitchen window.
posted by katieinshoes at 3:12 PM on June 1

I myself am a relatively new cat servant, and I don't have children, so I hope you won't mind my chiming in.

I had never had a pet before my current lord & master, whom we adopted a little under 3 years ago through the local shelter via a foster family. We specifically chose an animal born into a foster situation, on the recommendation of the shelter's co-director; she said as first-time guardians without the experience necessary to care for kitties with specific needs, this would allow us to be totally sure the cat had been properly socialized around humans and had had enough time with momcat to be properly weaned, litterbox-trained, etc. It did work out well in our case, and our guy is energetic but not high-strung, comfortable with people and a fastidious litter box user.

I've never lived in the UK, but down here shelters offer lots of support and guidance to foster families because they're keen to keep animals out of cages or at least minimise how long they spend. If you and your family are looking to "test run" that could be an idea!

Shelter workers and foster families generally have a good idea of animals' temperaments and will be frank with potential owners: they want to see them adopted, for obvious reasons, but they don't want the poor things to be brought back (or worse abandoned) due to a bad match. So really do feel ok about being very specific if and when you visit: can tolerate kids, cuddly, laid-back, vocal, whatever. They'll know.

I was concerned the cat would generate lots of expenses, but so far other than some couch covers and replacements following various brutal toy murders, I'd say his maintenance works out to under 3 euros a day. I do expect this to change when he begins to age.

As far as I know the ASPCA and SPA (here in France) recommend in the strongest possible terms keeping cats indoors. I do seem to recall the RSPCA is more open on the question. I totally understand that it seems unnatural to some, but frankly we have created a terrible, terrible, dangerous world for animals to live in, and the most humane thing to do in almost all cases is to keep kitties inside and enrich their environment as much as possible (perch, cat highway, lots of interactive play, cosy spots to lurk...).

Living with an animal has changed my life and introduced some inconveniences which occasionally annoy me: we can't just wander off for a week like we used to, have to buy and install window protection so we don't suffocate or lose the cat in the summer, he's broken some stuff...but he is such a source of true joy and such a wonderful creature, I am so glad we made the decision to get him. Don't rush the decision if your family aren't sure yet, but a pet can be a wonderful addition.
posted by peakes at 3:26 PM on June 1 [1 favorite]

Yup, my experience is it's awesome, not much work, and a 10 minute play session morning and evening leaves my indoor only cat in pretty good shape.

One big piece of advice I saw on MeFi though and am glad I followed is I visited a shelter several times and picked an adult cat that was human friendly. Kittens are so very cute but also very unpredictable in personality as they mature.

I can't speak to the general UK/US split, FWIW I wasn't even decided on indoor/outdoor when I adopted, but I've become very strongly indoor only as I think about the number of birds he'd be killing and see the way he's happy even in a relatively (1000 sq ft 2 bedroom) place. No desire to leave when I leave a door open or something.
posted by mark k at 3:48 PM on June 1 [2 favorites]

Re the indoor / outdoor thing - it does depend a bit on the age and personality of your cat. Mine aged 9 or 10 does go outside, but as far as I can tell she's not really very interested and I don't think it would be too much of a hardship if she couldn't. (I have a 18-year-old one too and he is definitely not bothered these days.) Also what the traffic is like around you. You would need to keep a new cat in for I think they say 30 days before it went out anyway. My outdoor ones for the last 20 years have never caught anything except once a stag beetle, as far as I know, and I think I would know. I did have a previous one who caught birds, and this is now something I would find extremely difficult to deal with.

Friends have had good success with the Blue Cross, which locally anyway is the only cat rehoming charity which does not want to do a home visit first. I haven't succeeded in finding cats through charities myself - locally they always seem to have more people wanting the cats than they have cats. But this is probably just my experience.

I would be very careful about offering to foster (bad experience myself with a foster cat with very high medical needs, though from a very small cat charity and they are probably less reliable or consistent).

My most recent cat I found through Pets for Homes online, but I would probably not recommend that given you don't have a lot of experience with cats. I didn't get much info from her previous owner, and although it's turned out more-or-less ok, the cat is a bit quirky. (Feeling disloyal here as she's sitting on me purring, and has been very good company in these isolated times - but she is a pee-er on things and has an out of control appetite.)

how can I best think about whether this is a good move for us in advance?
I guess think about the downsides and how you would cope with them. What would be a deal-breaker - a pee-er on things, a diabetic cat who needed injections, a high vet bill, a cat who woke you at night (my elderly one does that), a cat whose bottom you had to clean sometimes (my younger cat), a cat who seemed anxious when you were away, one who wanted to play when you came in from work and were tired, expensive or complicated diet (I have to cook most days for my old cat, though that is about his age and health, not a typical cat thing)? How resilient would you be as a family in the case of cat illness, accident, loss or death? How would the various cat-related tasks (litter tray, feeding) be spread around the family?

I mean, for me the good things about cats hugely outweigh the bad, so I'm probably not the best person to advise on thinking it through. You probably do want to find a way of spending some time with cats first, and the cat charities can probably help with this. They will certainly let you visit and talk to cats in cages. Not sure if they will let you interact with cats more closely, but it's definitely worth asking.
posted by paduasoy at 4:12 PM on June 1 [1 favorite]

On Indoor Vs Outdoor: I'm in the UK, and yeah, most shelters will not let you adopt a cat without outdoor space for it, unless said cat is sick/ elderly and has always been indoors. You say you have a garden but live in a flat - is the garden yours or is it shared? My preferred solution is to build some kind of catio that allows the cats to go outside without letting them roam and get hit by cars. Not an option for me currently because I have no garden, so instead I adopted a pair of 10 year old cats who have always been indoors, but I still feel guilty they can't go out - it's so great for my mental health, how can it not be for theirs. I'm attempting leash training so they can get some outdoor time.

In our small flat the litter box is in the bathroom. Its big and obvious but it keeps it out the "nice" areas.

The biggest change for us has been our ability to take holidays - we now need to find someone to feed the cats twice a day and hang out with them, and it's a whole stressful thing for me because they're super social creatures who don't like being left alone.
posted by stillnocturnal at 4:13 PM on June 1 [1 favorite]

We adopted kittens and they are both good with kids in different ways but it would have been impossible to pick out which one would be the chill quiet cat and which one the energetic loud but cuddly cat, so if you go with a kitten make sure your kid is okay with that range. We visited a few cat cafes prior to make sure I felt the cats would be safe with the children.

We have indoor cats that we take on a walk in the garden in a harness ~1 day.

Stocking cat food, cleaning the litter box, tolerating AM wakeups for food, letting them sleep when they are tired and playing when they are acting silly is pretty much the duties besides the annual vet visit and they give a lot in return.
posted by typecloud at 4:14 PM on June 1

Indoor cats live longer, on average. A lot longer. Ours isn't one; he was a street urchin when somebody took him to the animal rescue. He gets mopey if we won't let him out, so he gets a couple of hours outside before breakfast. He has a long, active tail that has been injured three times outside, requiring veterinary treatment. He can't stand a harness; when it's put on, he lies down and refuses to move.

Do find a way to establish that nobody in the house is allergic. A preliminary family visit to the animal shelter, with cat interaction, ought to do it.

We have the litter box in the bathroom. The exhaust fan helps with the intense smell when he poops.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:17 PM on June 1

Also here to point out allergy risk. I’m thinking of allergies here. I know quite a few people who get rashes from petting cats.

Can you foster to adopt?

More likely than not, everything will go great and it’ll be a wonderful foster fail.
posted by Neekee at 4:40 PM on June 1 [1 favorite]

Fostering sounds like a great idea. I'm allergic to some cats, but have found that I actually adjust to them after a little while (a couple of days) and then stop sneezing. It does help allergies if they go outside some of the time. It's true that a lot of Americans are anti-outdoor cats since they kill birds, etc. But I personally feel like it's better for the cat if they can go outside, as long as you're not on a really busy street. I've had cats in the past that prefer to hang out in the back garden and don't wander, which is ideal.
posted by pinochiette at 6:14 PM on June 1

Like pinochiette, Mr. Carmicha is only allergic to some cats and tends to acclimate to them over time. That said, I recommend keeping your bed/bedroom off limits to your new kitty so that your husband has a cat free zone where he can have respite. Over time you might relax this rule if it turns out that he's ok with the cat, but it's easier to give a cat more space than to take some away.
posted by carmicha at 6:24 PM on June 1 [1 favorite]

An adult cat with a known personality is probably best. If you get a kitten, get two. (The best way to tire out a kitten is a second kitten.)

> Also, we have quite a small flat (about 850 square feet) -- not sure if this matters, but I thought I'd put this out there.

A small flat is still better than life in a shelter.

Thoughts on how to proceed?

Don't forget to make the house safe for cats what with securing blinds cords out of reach with removable plastic hooks and so on. (Each of the entries on that list is because of tragedies in the home.)

Medically, most table scraps are unhealthy for cats - I no longer give my cats cheese after a nearly fatal incident, but the little orange one is a fiend for bread and rolled oats and there we know a few crumbs are safe. And the current two would get bits of lettuce, broccoli leaves, or carrots if they had any interest.

Beyond that, medically, if you cat seems off, in terms of eating or eliminating or so on, call the vet. Call the vet early, rather than waiting overnight or something, because cats can get really sick really fast and they're basically hardwired to hide it.
posted by sebastienbailard at 8:25 PM on June 1 [1 favorite]

Re: indoor vs. outdoor cats, I have a felion whom I found as a kitten almost three years ago. I cannot imagine letting him roam around outside by himself. There are dogs and cars and other cats and poisons which all represent a grave threat to him. I would be heartbroken if he died or was seriously injured because of my irresponsibility. Mortality for outdoor cats is astronomically higher than for indoor; outdoor cats live on average something like 2-5 years, and indoor, 17! In the neighborhood of my last home, there were a significant number of outdoor cats. I watched a parade of them come and go. I saw more than a few injuries, such as a leg that was hideously broken and hanging off by a thread.

There is no reason an indoor cat has to be bored. My cat has a cat tent that we take outside, today we all went out on the deck with it. We all (2 humans, a bird and a cat) enjoyed it. I keep the windows partly open for him when the weather is nice, so he can sniff breezes and hear the birds better. You can also get a leash for your cat, although I've been too worried to try that because of the occasional review on amazon where someone claims it broke/failed and their cat got away. My cat has a tall cat tree by a window, and a window seat attached to another window where he likes to watch birds in the morning. He has toys out the wazoo, and we are always making him new ones when something catches his fancy (for example he went through a phase where he adored almond rocha wrappers fashioned into a ball and skittered across the floor). And then there are petting sessions and "moth tv" (sliding glass door with a light outside it that attracts moths) and water fountains and sunbathing and grooming... yesterday he sat on the toilet and watched me clean the bathroom, with great interest. Daily chores are fascinating to him. He is not a bored cat by any means, just because he is indoors.

Others have touched on the issue of wildlife destruction by outdoor cats. They've done studies following cats as they roam and seeing how many animals they kill. Owners who think their kitty is innocent of this are just wrong. Their kill rates are high, even when they are fully fed at home. In my last neighborhood, I found numerous bird corpses that were just left on the ground.

I don't have much of an opinion about whether you should or shouldn't get a cat, but if you get one, and you care about it as a being and care about its welfare, and maybe the welfare of the wildlife around you, the clear choice is to keep your cat indoors.
posted by nirblegee at 9:39 PM on June 1 [1 favorite]

One little-talked about benefit of outdooring your cat is that, just like with us humans, once your cat has experienced shitting outside they will never want to go back to shitting indoors. This is great news for you as a cat owner. It means you almost never have to clean the litter box, and you never need to start your day off by cleaning out a particularly vile excretion. Instead your cat just hops outside through the cat flap, does their business, and then goes about the rest of their cat day (napping, eating, being petted). They really don't want to be seen going to the bathroom anymore than you want to watch them going to the bathroom, and given half a chance they will take care of this facet of their life completely invisibly. This removes a lot of the upkeep and unpleasantness of owning a cat and just leaves you with the positive parts.
posted by Balna Watya at 11:38 PM on June 1

Whether your future cat(s) will be indoor or indoor/outdoor*, you will need a litterbox no matter what, so it's time to think about where to put it. Cats that get to go out will still need a toilet, because they will have to stay inside sometimes.

*I'm not going to get into that because it's not what you asked and it's been done over and over.
posted by Too-Ticky at 11:43 PM on June 1 [1 favorite]

Thanks all! Indoor/outdoor is the most food for thought (though yes, just perusing the shelter listings here in the UK, most seem to require outdoor space.) I have a friend who might never speak to me if I let a cat outside though. We do have our own garden, with direct access (even though we're just a flat) but we have no way to keep a cat inside those bounds (unless there is a way to do this electronically?)

Also, I didn't mean to sound unenthusiastic about this idea -- I love the idea of having a cat, but want to make sure I'm being realistic, and not all "shiny new Christmas present" about it so that's why I featured a lot of negatives.
posted by caoimhe at 12:43 AM on June 2

It helps to think of your cat as another person in your home, with the rights that affords them. Then be considerate of their feelings and needs. While dogs are more oriented to doing what their human wants, cats do what they want. If you respect that then they'll be much more inclined to make their wants overlap with yours and you'll get the snuggles and company and they will be chilled. After all, must be very stressful living with giants who constantly scoop you off the floor or who shoo you off furniture.
posted by kitten magic at 12:56 AM on June 2 [3 favorites]

Nthing the adult cat suggestion. I don't have kids but have kids over often to babysit for family. My sister brought her daughter to the pound with us (some of my city friends found that a bit odd but we lived in a small town and lots of parents treated the pound like a free local zoo, just pop in for a visit with the kids) and found the loveliest 3 year old cat who loved my niece straight away.
posted by hotcoroner at 2:20 AM on June 2

Thanks for being a responsible cat person! It's important to ask these questions now.

Cats can be happy even in small apartments if they have their own space they can retreat to, where nobody bothers them (under the bed, in a seldom used room...
) Cats come out for snuggles when they want and retreat to privacy when they want. You don't get to make then come. That's the main difference to dogs. They'll never be happy if they don't get their own retreat space. I stress this so much because kids and their kid friends will be fascinated by the cat and tempted to hunt it down.

Once you let the cat out into the garden, she'll be an outdoor cat. No reversing the process. You will never be able to confine the cat to your garden or control where it goes. Cats stake out their own territories.

I don't know if I'd want to lose a friend over that. But since you're adopting, you might argue that you're not actually increasing the number of outside cats in the world. You just adopted a pre-existing outside cat.
posted by Omnomnom at 3:30 AM on June 2 [1 favorite]

Letting a cat out is not only a matter of the cat's personality, but of the geography immediately around where you live. I chose my apartment in a big city partly because of the positioning vis-à-vis busy roads, the little back yard and the potential for letting my (then) two cats go outside. Except for deep winter, my current cat loves going outside to mooch around the alley and the adjoining houses and come back home. She doesn't go anywhere near traffic, and I judge it a reasonable balance of risk versus her weight and mental health. My vet knows she steps out and allows for that with her immunizations.

Make sure your child understands the cat is not a toy. She's old enough to get that. If you adopt from a responsible rescue, they will be able to advise you on the cat's personality so you don't end up with a fractious cat who bites and scratches. It's really nice for a kid to have an affectionate animal, especially if she has no siblings.
posted by zadcat at 6:48 AM on June 2 [1 favorite]

Oh, and one more thing: often just having a cat in the place is sufficient to deter mice. No self-respecting mouse is going to move into a place where they get a sniff of cat. Your cat doesn't have to be a certified killer for this to work.

But note: a cat can be a total sweetie with people and still an effective mouser. You don't need to adopt a grizzled feral beast and keep it hungry to get a cat who'll kill rodents for fun. My old cat Spike loved people – and other cats, and dogs – but was an efficient killer of mice.
posted by zadcat at 7:08 AM on June 2

One little-talked about benefit of outdooring your cat is that, just like with us humans, once your cat has experienced shitting outside they will never want to go back to shitting indoors.

This has not been our experience at all, for either humans or cats, nor has any of what follows the quote.

It helps to think of your cat as another person in your home

It also helps to remember that the new person thinks differently from how you think, and has super powers. Cats' eyesight* and hearing are much better than ours, and their noses are more sensitive than dogs'.

* However, they can't focus on anything closer to them than about 25 cm.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 10:03 AM on June 2 [2 favorites]

Re the shitting outside issue: not true in my experience of half a dozen indoor-outdoor cats in the city.

And don't forget: if they're shitting outside, they may be using a neighbour's garden, or yours. Cats have no regard for property lines, and you do not want to make enemies nearby by encouraging your cat not to use a litter box.
posted by zadcat at 10:08 AM on June 2 [1 favorite]

+1 to building an enclosure in your garden. The cat has direct outside access with none of the downsides.
posted by Ahniya at 10:44 AM on June 2

Came back to say - I have been told that keeping cats in at dusk and dawn prevents a lot of catching of birds and small animals. (Cats are crepuscular, which is a good word.)
posted by paduasoy at 9:38 AM on June 3

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