Yes, But Which Cat Should You Take Home?

How to choose a shelter cat.


You can’t decide to bring home the one beautiful cat from the shelter because, as you already know, all cats are astoundingly beautiful. Besides, you shouldn’t be choosing a pet based on looks. You should choose one with the personality that will best suit your household, considering such things as whether you have a rambunctious family that likes to toss a football in the living room, a quiet household where you live alone, or a home with other pets or children.

You also want to decide on a cat that’s right for your personality. For some people, that’s a playful cat who likes a lot of interaction and attention (relatively speaking). For others, it’s a more quiet sort who enjoys some one-on-one petting and lap time here and there.

But how do you make the decision? A cat caged in a shelter is probably not going to be able to fully show his true colors. You, too, are out of your element at a shelter and may feel pressed to choose with a lot of other people and animals around when what you need is some quiet time to sort through the options. Here’s how to get it right.

  • Don’t rush. This is a decision you’re going to live with for years, so you should not feel any pressure to choose a cat quickly, either from within or from others. If you go to a shelter one day and decide not to bring home any of the cats available because you just don’t think there will be a fit with any of them, that’s fine. You own the situation — no one else. (Hint: Don’t promise the kids, “We’re getting a cat today.” Tell them you’re going to look at cats but that it may take a few trips to more than one shelter to find just the right one.)
  • Really talk to the shelter staff. The back story of so many cats at shelters is unknown. But shelter staff who have been taking care of the animal may already have a sense of the temperament of a cat in which you are interested. You can ask if the cat is friendly and outgoing, shy but interested, or shy and afraid. You can find out how the cat feels about being stroked, or even held, whether he sits alone at the back or looks to see what’s going on.
  • Spend some time with the cat. What you learn might be limited because a cat may be very wary with a stranger, especially in a strange place. And you will also be in the presence of a shelter employee or volunteer, which could make first impressions less reliable still. 
  • Consider an older cat. A lot of people, understandably, want to bring home a kitten, or at least a very young cat. They imagine seeing the cat through its entire life, and the urge is understandable. But with an adult cat, and especially a cat who’s perhaps at least 7 to 10 years of age, it is often easier to ascertain temperament, even in a shelter environment. The cat has been who he is for a relatively long time, so there’s more truth to “what you see is what you get.” (Added bonus: Older cats are more in need of adopters than younger ones.)
  • Consider fostering before adopting. Depending on the shelter, fostering a cat may not automatically mean you have first dibs on the animal if you want to transition to adoption, but it often does. And when you foster a cat, you really learn how well he will do in your home. 

No matter what cat you end up bringing home, it’s important to recognize that your home environment may change the way the animal acts. Time may change behavior, too, as the cat settles in and becomes more comfortable. What seemed like a shy, demure animal at the shelter may come to be a cat who likes to rule the roost. And a super-friendly and active shelter cat may settle down and expect a little more alone time than you anticipated.

However your pet’s personality reveals itself to you over time, lean into it. When you bring home a newborn from the hospital, you’re not sure exactly what you’re going to get, even though you know the baby’s lineage. But you love your new charge no matter what and learn his ways so that you can make his life in your home as happy and secure as possible. Ditto for cats.


  1. Ok, this isn’t about a cat-but once adopted a very old (pet) rat, I put him in w/ the females (he was too old to do anything but sniff their butts) they brought him food & kept him clean. He lived for 6 more months.


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