Choosing an adult cat


There are many fantastic adult cats which need homes and don’t get the chance because many people only consider a kitten.

There are also many benefits to choosing an adult cat – until you have a kitten you do not realise that they are quite hard work and require a lot of attention and care so that they don’t get themselves into trouble! Adult cats are usually a lot more sensible.

You would be forgiven for thinking that choosing an adult cat would be simpler than choosing a kitten – after all the cat’s personality and coat type have developed fully so there is no guess work to be done. Isn’t what you see what you get? When it comes to the cat being long or short haired, large or small, fat or thin, or if it has lost a leg or a tail in an accident, then yes it is pretty straightforward. However, what is not so straightforward is ascertaining what the cat’s personality or temperament is. This is because the behaviour you see is a combination of the cat’s genetic makeup, its early experiences as a kitten, what life has thrown at it since then, and last, but by no means least, the environment in which it is currently being kept.

If you are taking on an adult cat from a friend or relative and have seen it at home, then you can be relatively confident that you know what sort of cat it is. This can be complicated by the fact that a cat’s behaviour can change if it is stressed – this could be caused by another cat living in the house or cats outside; difficulty in dealing with other things it finds stressful such as children or noise. However, you will probably have a pretty good idea.

Sometimes an adult cat will just turn up at the door or in the garden and gradually comes to live with you. Some cats like to spread themselves over several different homes which offer different things, so just be aware that they cat may not be a stray, but you are one of several homes it enjoys. If you want to find out if it has another owner you can ask your vet to check for a microchip, put up signs in the area asking if it has an owner or attach a paper collar asking if there is a owner elsewhere.

In countries where there are rehoming/rescue organisations this is the most common place to source adult cats. In other countries cats are bought through pet shops or individuals.

First of all, some background into what makes a cat behave at it does – what helps to form its personality and thus what sort of pet it will make in your home.

What shapes a cat’s personality?

Genetic influence

‘Friendliness’ can be influenced by genes and, like people, cats will have a genetic component as to how they react to the world. Some will be bold, some naturally nervous or shy. For moggies or non-pedigree cats, the combination of genes from each parent is not usually controlled by people and frequently the father of the kittens is never seen. A friendly mother will pass on friendly genes as well as being relaxed and interactive with people as an example to her kittens. For pedigree cat breeders who control the matings of their cats, there is a chance to breed from friendly cats to incorporate this into the next generation.

Breed disposition

Cats in general have very individual personalities – some are noisy, some are active, others are very laid back. However, there are some breeds where some aspects of personality are likely to come through – Siamese cats, for example, are known for their talkative nature and some breeds are quite demanding of attention. So it is best to ascertain what you might be taking on or what you want your cat to do – there is no guarantee it will happen, but it is more likely where this behaviour is seen among this group or breed of cats.

Early experiences

Think of the different cats you have met in your life. Some have been extra friendly, some nervous or fearful, some bold, some even perhaps have behaved aggressively. The cats we come across in our lives can vary from pet cats to community cats to wild living or feral cats. How they have come to be those cats depends on their parents, where they were born, how much handling they have had and what experiences they had both at an early age and later in life. All of these things can have a profound effect. 

A pet cat could be defined as one that’s happy to be around people and to interact with them – just what most of us want. However, at the other end of the spectrum is the feral cat, an amazing creature which, although it looks exactly the same as a pet cat and is of the same species, can behave very differently – in fact more like a cat belonging to a wild species (more of this later) and not happy in a home. 

Cats have a wide range of personalities. How confident or fearful a cat is in adulthood will be affected by what happens in kittenhood. Much of this ‘personality’ development has already taken place before we get our kittens. For the cat, learning to enjoy the company of people takes place pretty early in its life – somewhere from about two weeks to seven or eight weeks old. During this time the kitten hasn’t yet learned to fear everything, and its mind is open to forming bonds with other animals or people and to learning how to deal with new experiences without being overwhelmed by them. Think about human children when they’re toddlers, and how fearless they often are – running off without a care, touching and tasting everything, falling over and getting up again. But as they get older they begin to worry and look for reassurance when they do things.

If kittens don’t experience people or human activities during the early weeks of their lives they may never be able to see them as part of ‘normal’ life. Whatever happens in the feline mind as it matures in the first couple of months, it learns to avoid and fear things that aren’t familiar to it and this then seems to be fairly fixed thereafter. So a kitten which hasn’t been handled by people, met dogs or experienced everyday things such as vacuum cleaners, doorbells, children laughing and screaming and so on may automatically find them very threatening and react accordingly. It will try to avoid any interaction, perhaps hiding away or being aggressive if it’s pursued to be stroked. This often happens with kittens born to stray or feral cats which don’t meet people at an early age. People think that they’re being kind in trying to nurture or ‘tame’ such cats, but often all they’re doing is causing great stress. The cat’s mind doesn’t really have the ability to respond because the pathways weren’t created when it was young enough. Cats do continue to learn beyond eight weeks of age, but if the fundamentals are missing there may be little or nothing to build upon. So a fearful kitten is likely to be a fearful cat and no amount of love from an owner may have an effect on this.

The point of this discussion about cat personality is to try to and help new owners to understand what shapes the potential personality of a cat in relation to being a pet cat, living closely with people. Most owners want a cat that enjoys being with them and their family and friends. If you choose a fearful cat because you feel sorry for it, and think that just by being kind you’ll bring it around, you may have a long and disappointing relationship. The cat may actually be very stressed, because you’re asking it to live in a household that holds many fearful challenges for it. On the other hand if you live a very quiet life and want a cat that’s not too demanding and will gradually get used to you and won’t be challenged by noisy teenagers or loud music, banging doors or lots of visitors, a rather less robust character may suit perfectly. If you want a cat that lives outdoors most of the time and simply want to respect it as a cat, appreciate its mousing activities and feed and care for it at a distance it’s comfortable with, then there are some less people-orientated cats which will be very happy to live this type of life. Additionally if the cat has had traumatic experiences, such as being treated cruelly, this will impact on how it deals with the world. In order to survive in a dangerous world, cats must learn about their environment. They do this as we do, through fear, frustration, pleasure and the other emotions we’re familiar with – they have to be fast learners to survive in the big outside world.

Life experiences

A cat is a fast learner because as a species, it has to fend for itself without ‘friends’ or a pack to back it up. It has to be self sufficient and therefore it has to learn quickly from each experience it has and adapt its behaviour to avoid threats and dangers and to maximise on the good things. So on top of the cats genetic input and early kitten experiences, what it has learned from its life experiences so far will also affect it. For many cats you will never know what these have been and it can be difficult to know if a cat is nervous because it lacked early experience as a kitten or whether life has been cruel and it has become fearful. Given the chance to settle in a secure and stable environment may allow the cat to become confident again, something unlikely to happen if its early experiences with people are missing – hence the difficulty in ever being able to ‘tame’ a feral cat which has had little or no human contact.

Current environment

Really the only place where we get unknown adult cats from is a rescue or rehoming organisation. Many people like to take on an adult cat because they feel it deserves a new home and because they don’t want to go through the whole kitten stage again which requires time and effort (and quite a lot of patience!).

When you go to see a cat in a rescue environment it will be housed individually, in a small group of other cats or, unfortunately in some cases, in large groups of cats. For cats, living in large groups is pretty unnatural (unless they are related cats which live as a colony around a source of food or are a neutered colony which again is quite self-selecting as to which cats stay around). Therefore cats in groups of any type can be under a great deal of stress and this manifests itself in how they behave. A cat may be relaxed and interactive if you approach it when it is on its own, but reactive and aggressive when in a group because it does not want to let its guard down. So how cats are kept in a rescue organisation may affect the outward show of ‘personality and temperament’ which potential new owners see. Therefore the rescue organisation has to bear this in mind and try to find a way for owners to meet a potential new cat in a situation where it is relaxed. International Cat Care is currently funding a project to find a way to help rescue owners to assess cats so that they can be understood better and better matched to new homes.

What to look for

When we think about getting a cat most of us automatically go for the most obvious thing, coat colour and pattern. Ask anyone who works in a rescue organisation and they’ll tell you that the gingers and the tabbies are usually chosen first while the black and black-and-white cats take longer to home. Cats are creatures of great beauty and we can’t be blamed for being attracted to the most exotic or interesting fur. However, over what might be the 20 years that a cat might live with us, even the most battered and war-torn old tom can work his way into our hearts. Beauty in cats is definitely skin-deep, but their strength of character and appeal is a lot deeper.

See the cat on its own, with no other cats around (which may influence its behaviour), and sit quietly until it relaxes. Let it come and investigate you and see how it reacts to being touched. Some cats will immediately interact, others will try and hide. Of course, being wary is an important part of survival so a cat can’t be blamed for being cautious. However, there’s a difference between caution, timidity and outright fear, and this is what you need to gauge. Caution can be overcome with a gentle and quiet approach. Timidity may take longer and may linger throughout the cat’s life, but with the right owner it can be overcome to some extent.

Fear of people is another matter and may not be easily overcome. It may have come about through cruelty, but it may also be part of the cat’s own innate character, a result of its own early experiences. So gain as much information as possible. The cat may have come to the rescue centre as a stray, in which case the centre won’t be able to tell you much. However, it may have been handed in with details of its past history (although it may not all be true or there may be holes in the story). However, it does give you something to go on, as will the experience of the staff who’ve been looking after the cat and getting to know it.

Checking the cat’s health

Some cats have gone through a lot in short lives and may look rather battered – they may even have lost a limb or tail. However, none of these things need be a problem. Ongoing illness may be more difficult both in terms of care and of expense, so it is worth finding out about the cat’s health status.

General health points to look for when choosing a cat:

  • Check for signs of ill-health – runny eyes or nose, dirty ears, a dirty or sore area under the tail which may indicate the cat is suffering from diarrhoea.
  • The cat should look well, with bright eyes, a good coat and ease of movement.
  • Ask about the cat’s health, whether it’s been neutered, vaccinated, wormed, treated for fleas etc, and whether there are any ongoing health issues.
  • If it needs ongoing medication, ask to be shown how to give the tablets, eye-drops or ear-drops so that you know what you have to do.
  • Information on what the cat is eating should be available so that you continue to use the same food until the cat has settled in, after which you can gradually change it if you need to or want to.

Taking on an older cat

If you are taking on a much older cat it is quite likely that it will have health issues. Try to find out as much as possible as this can be expensive and there may be a need for a higher level of care. Many people like to take on cats which are older and are very willing to care for them – they can be delightful companions.

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