Whether you go to a shelter, a rescue, a breeder, or you simply open your door to the neighborhood stray, there are many factors to consider when selecting the purrfect cat for you. The most obvious, of course, is whether the fluffy addition will be liked (or at least tolerated) by all residents of the home. With that question in mind, most people seek out cats with a friendly disposition, and good behavior patterns, which usually come in the form of a willingness to scratch a scratching post rather than furniture, poop in the designated bathroom spot, and play nice with the other household critters. Another consideration that you hopefully contemplate often is, whether you, the owner, can provide the kind of environment that your cat will thrive in. You want a cat that you will love to pieces, and you want your cat to be happy too. Unfortunately, scenarios with the potential for making a very unhappy kitty, or an unhappy household, are sometimes easier to spot in hindsight than beforehand.
The cat pictured above (once named Cody) is a 3-year-old male who was surrendered to Suzie’s Cat Refuge late this past summer, by a nice woman who simply felt that he wasn’t happy living in her home. She had adopted him from a shelter in the early spring, and he apparently hadn’t come out of hiding since. She said that he made occasional attempts to socialize, but would quickly change his mind as soon as her four-year-old daughter entered the room. Kids, it turned out, were problematic for a timid cat like Cody. Incidentally, the woman was also pregnant, and due to give birth any day, so in order to spare Cody from stress that would certainly not be improved by introducing another child, she made the difficult, but honest decision to find him a happier home.
In the beginning, I questioned why a shelter would adopt a shy cat to a household with children. This would usually be an automatic no-no to anyone who understands the particular needs of shy cats. My question was answered, not more than five minutes after releasing Cody into the foster room. Given how he had been described (because that was his owner’s honest experience), I was kind of expecting the socialization challenge of a lifetime. I figured he would slink his way out of the carrier, dart under the recliner, and with some luck, maybe pop his head out in a month or two. The actual result, however, was pleasantly the opposite.
We found Cody to be an attention-seeking lovebug right from the very first day. And chatty! Oh my goodness, he had an opinion on every topic! I never got around to asking him what he thinks of Donald Trump, but I’m certain he would have a lot to say about America’s political climate in general, and perhaps even offer a unique perspective on the meaning of our existence. Suffice it to say that Cody was very NOT shy when he came here. So, if his caretakers at the shelter had a similar experience, then there may have been no reason for assuming that he wouldn’t thrive in a family setting. Armed with the knowledge that this would have to be a consideration going forward, I would later place Cody (now named Stormy) into a quiet, one-person home with no children or other pets, where he is spoiled rotten, and no longer feels the need to hide.
Rescuers try their hardest to place animals into the type of home where they will get along best. Visit the website of any shelter or rescue, and while perusing the list of adoptable cats, you will find descriptions that read, “This cat is recommended for a home with no small children,” or, “This cat does not get along with dogs,” etc. But sometimes, such as in the case with rescued strays, or any cat with an unknown history around kids or animals, some are placed for adoption with many guesses as to the kind of home environment that will work for them, and everybody just crosses their fingers and hopes for the best. Often, it works out fine, but if it doesn’t, then it becomes a question of the new owners’ ability to recognize the problem, and their willingness to make it right.
Recognizing the Problem
Most cats will experience some degree of stress when relocating to an unfamiliar place. Makes sense! After all, if somebody shoved you into a box with holes, put you in a car, and then turned you loose in a totally strange environment, you would be a little shaken yourself. Thus, cats may hide for up to several days, or hiss and growl when they first encounter people or other animals. They may not even eat very much right off the bat, and potty accidents during this time aren’t terribly uncommon either.
Even once fully adjusted, cats may periodically have minor scuffles with your other pets, or hide on occasion, probably when your child is having a birthday party, or you decide to go on a cleaning spree and run the vaccuum. But these ordeals should be fairly benign, and short-lived. Fights with other pets should never draw blood, or cause such stress that the cat is reluctant to eat or use the litter box, and no cat should be living in such fear that it feels need to hide constantly. Each cat will adjust at its own pace, of course, but a good rule of thumb is that within three to six weeks, the cat should be comfortable exploring the abode, bonding with at least some of the household humans, eating and eliminating normally, and behaving civilly toward other pets.
Making it Right
It’s probably a no-brainer (at least, it should be) that the first step toward “making it right” is doing your best to prevent problems in the first place. If, for example, you own a dog, and you happen to know in advance that the feline of interest has a fear of, or aggression toward dogs, then please do not open your home to that particular cat. If you go to a shelter or rescue, be honest when filling out the adoption paperwork. Give the rescuers a clear and truthful picture of the type of home you will be offering, and only take in animals that you have good reasons to believe will be a good fit for your home.
If, in spite your due diligence, you discover that your home is an inappropriate match for the cat chosen (or vice versa), here are some suggestions for managing a few of the more common mismatch scenarios. And take note, finding another home for the cat is not always desireable or necessary.
Problem: The cat doesn’t get along with other animals in the home.
Solution: Again, due diligence. If you already have pets, don’t open your door to a cat with a known history of not playing well with others. Starting your new kitty off in a private room, or secluded space, with his own food, water, and litter box, allowing him to gradually acclimate to the sounds and smells of your home environment, can also help ease his introduction to the other members of the household, and prevent territorial disputes later. Some cats just don’t like to share, however, and even if they do, your preexisting animals might not be keen to the new addition. If they simply cannot coexist, no matter what you do, then your options are, 1) Keeping the animals separate from each other, or 2) Finding another home for one of the animals.
Option# 1 is not a practical solution in every household, and it presents a few challenges. Because my house functions as both a foster space, and as a loving home for our own three cats, I have a fairly well-developed system for keeping cats separate. However, in order to ensure that no one feels neglected or lonely, I have to divide my time between two sets of animals, and cats are notorious for always wanting to be on the opposite side of whatever closed door is in front of them! When I’m upstairs spending time with foster kitty, my own cat, Farrah (a self-proclaimed “mama’s girl”), sits at the top of the stairs wondering why she’s not allowed to join me. Likewise, when I’m downstairs spending time with Farrah and the other cats, foster kitty sits at the top of the stairs, meowing her little heart out from behind the gate, wondering why she can’t come down. Thus, Option# 1 is doable, if you have the right setup for it, and you have a certain knack for blocking out the forlorn cries of jealous animals whose turn it is to wait.
Option# 2 begins with the question of which animal to relocate. My personal opinion is that whichever animal was there first, really ought to be entitled to first dibbs on your pad. However, I’ve seen situations where the opposite decision was made, and it still worked out fine. A couple of friends of mine had two 3-year-old male cats, who were perfectly happy until the dog was introduced. I, personally, would have tried to find a home for the dog, rather than the cats that had already been there for three years, but in the end, the cats were given to a trusted friend, not a shelter, or a random stranger. They adjusted beautifully in their new home, and in fact, were probably relieved to be free of the barking hell beast. My friends are also enjoying the heck out of their new dog, so it worked out well for everyone. At the end of the day, what matters most is that everyone is happy, and a decision is made with the animals’ best interests in mind.
Problem: The cat doesn’t get along with kids, or other people in the home.
Solution: Some people just have an unusually loud speaking voice, or a particularly thundersome walk, or other mannerism that sends the cat slinking under the couch with her tail between her legs. Regardless, the problem has almost certain to do with the human, and not the cat. Identifying the problem behavior, and convincing the offender to change it for the sake of the cat, may be all that’s needed for everyone to coexist. Speaking and walking more quietly, and avoiding direct eye contact with the cat, over time, can go a long way toward repairing the relationship.
Of course, the younger the human, the more you have to lower your expectations. As in Stormy’s case, living with children ranging from infancy to four years old…well…let’s just say that getting kids that age to “quiet down” would probably require more duct tape than the average parent keeps on hand. Cats that don’t like noise aren’t going to be happy in homes with children below a certain age, and that’s just all there is to it. Thus, finding a quieter home for the cat may be your best option. You may still be able to have a cat! Just try to find one that’s more outgoing, one that has a known history of living happily with kids, and allow him to adjust gradually by starting him off in his own space.
Problem: The cat does not use a litter box consistently.
Solution: I debated whether to even discuss this issue here, because it almost belongs in an entirely different article, one that focuses more on behavior, I suppose. However, people often do perceive this as a problem of the cat not being a good fit for the household, and it’s one of the most common reasons why cats get surrendered to shelters. Thus, I decided that it fits well enough into a discussion about finding the right match, although in truth, a cat with a litter box problem is unlikely to be a good fit for anyone’s home, which is why you should try to resolve it before making a choice to get rid of the cat.
If your cat is peeing in inappropriate places, the first thing you should do is have your vet examine her for health problems such as bladder stones, urethral blockages, kidney disease, or urinary tract infections. All of these, and more, can cause your feline to go outside the box. If all potential health causes are ruled out, then move onto identifying possible environmental causes.
Often, the culprit is simply location. We humans like to put litter boxes in the laundry room, because it’s a nice out-of-the-way location, and it often has a cement floor, which allows for easy clean-up. But Murphy’s Law dicatates that the moment your cat decides to squat down for a wee will be the precise moment that your washer launches the rinse cycle. Watching your cat leap three feet into the air when the machine suddenly changes modes may be hilarious to you, but it’s stressful to the cat, and it’s a surefire recipe for accidents. Try placing the litter box in a large closet, or a quiet den or office, or any place with minimal human traffic and no appliance noise.
Occasionally, the litter box itself is part of the problem. Some cats may require more than one litter box, or they may have finicky tastes regarding the type of litter used. I like the wood pellet kind, myself, but I’ve had at least one foster cat that refused to use it. Some cats won’t use a litter box that’s too dirty…or too clean, even! Scooping the litter box daily, and reserving a poop to place into a freshly scrubbed and sanitized litter box can help make the feline bathroom atmosphere more appealing, and signal the appropriate place for “doing business.”
The amount of clutter you carry can make a difference too, which, not having inherited one smidgen of my mother’s housekeeping skills, is something I have to think about all the time. Piles of dirty laundry or unzipped duffel bags filled with stuff might look too much like a bathroom to some cats. Keeping tidy and tucked away, that which might be taken for a litter box can help prevent confusion on the appropriate place to go.
If, for whatever reason, your cat simply is not great with litter box usage (and some cats aren’t), please consider every alternative before surrendering her to a shelter. The shelter system is overtaxed as it is, and a cat with a history of litter box problems is very unlikely to be adopted, even if the problem was the owner’s fault. As a last ditch effort, consider keeping your kitty as an outdoor cat, although this is only an option for cats that are fixed, up-to-date on vaccines, and armed with a full set of claws. They will also require a garage, barn, or other shelter to hide from inclement weather, and they should be given flea, tick, and deworming medicines regularly. This is not an ideal solution. Every bad thing that can happen to your cat is far more likely in an outdoor environment, but for cats that are happy being outside, who refuse to exhibit proper indoor behavior, it’s a better option than giving them to a shelter.
Hopefully, one thing you’ve gathered from reading this is that a bad fit can sometimes become a good fit, with a little bit of work and ingenuity. It’s always best when the problem can be resolved, and the cat is allowed to remain in the home. However, when all efforts fail, and the only option is to relocate the cat, take comfort in knowing that merely being a poor fit for a particular cat (or vice versa) does not necessarily make you a failure. It depends on how you respond to the situation. Finding a happier home for a cat that couldn’t get along in yours is not a bad decision! On the other hand, dumping or abandoning a cat that you don’t want is never the right thing to do. Giving your cat to a shelter or rescue is an acceptable alternative when there are no other options, but before you do this, consider what will happen to the cat, especially when choosing the particular shelter. Senior cats, or cats that have health or behavior concerns are almost certain never to be adopted, so please make sure they go to a no-kill rescue, a foster-based one, if you can find one, where they will at least be allowed to live out their days in comfort. Whatever your decision, make it with compassion, and let it be one that results in a better life for everyone, including you.
-Rachel, Suzie’s Cat Refuge