Skip to main content

10 Questions to Ask a Shelter About an Adoptable Cat

From medical history to adoption fees to litter preferences, here is everything you need to know.

by Jodi Helmer
April 12, 2022
A hand reaching towards a cat peaking out of a cage.
adogslifephoto / Adobe Stock

Your pet wants you to read our newsletter. (Then give them a treat.)

Caring for cats is a breeze, right? You keep their food dishes full, their litter boxes clean, and let them decide whether to snuggle or (more likely) not. While they may not require bathing or daily walks like dogs, cats still have distinct personalities and needs. That means the cute Calico in one cage at the shelter might need a much different living situation than the Maine Coon living in the adjacent cage.

“Cats have so many different nuances to their behavior,” says Caitlin Phillips, people and operations manager at Animal Rescue League of Boston. “To find the right fit for your lifestyle, ask lots of questions.” If you’re wondering where to get started, you aren’t alone. Here are 10 questions to ask at a shelter or rescue before adopting a cat, so you can feel confident that you’ve left no stone unturned.

1. What is the cat’s medical history?

In addition to inquiring about their vaccinations and spay/neuter status, ask whether the shelter has tested for diseases like feline leukemia (FELV) or feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), which can impact the type of care they need and their ideal living situations. Knowing what tests and procedures the cat has already had — and what still needs to be done — can help you plan and budget for their care, adds Dr. Kate F. Hurley, director of the shelter medicine program at University of California Davis and co-founder of the Million Cat Challenge. 

2. Does the cat have a history of litter box issues?

Going outside the box is one of the top reasons cats are surrendered to shelters. Poor litter box behavior could be a sign of medical conditions like urinary tract infections or kidney stones, or an aversion to a specific type of litter or litter box location. Unaltered cats may also exhibit poor bathroom behavior. According to Phillips, “Intact male cats have a pungent smelling urine and may be more likely to spray this scent in your home.” Knowing that an adoptable cat may need treatment or some trial and error with different kitty litter and litter box locations is an important factor in deciding whether they’re the right fit for your home. 

3. How old is the cat?

Kittens have boundless energy and endless curiosity, which is why it requires a lot of engagement and supervision to keep them happy and out of trouble. Senior cats may be contented to sleep in a sunny spot, but may need a special diet or additional vet care to keep them healthy in their advanced age. Asking this question will help you find an adoptable cat who is most suited to your lifestyle.

4. Has the cat lived with other animals?

Some cats are surrendered to the shelter for not getting along with other cats in the home. These are not the best adoption candidates for families with one (or more) cats at home, while cats that are used to having feline friends might benefit from being adopted into homes with other cats. Shelters and rescue groups may also be able to “dog test” adoptable cats to determine whether the cat would be comfortable living in a home with a respectful canine companion.

5. Is the cat used to being indoors or outdoors (or both)?

“This question can be very important to picking the right cat for your home,” says Phillips. A cat who is used to being outdoors might struggle to adjust to being confined in the house, which could lead to escape attempts, marking, or other nuisance behaviors. Providing enrichment can help but Phillips warns that it can be difficult for cats to adjust to extreme changes to their environment. Cats who are used to being indoors with 24/7 access to air-conditioning and snuggling in a king-sized bed can’t be expected to adjust to life in the backyard.

6. How would you describe their personality?

It can be hard to assess whether a cat is snuggly or standoffish when they’re in a small cage, but shelters often have the 411 on which cats like to be pet and which would rather be left alone. “Sometimes cats show really different behavior before the shelter opens,” says Dr. Hurley. Adopting from a foster-based rescue can also give you insights into how a cat acts in a home.

7. How much grooming does the cat need?

Shorthaired cats may be able to take care of their own grooming needs, but Dr. Hurley notes the long hair breeds like Persian and Angora cats may require regular brushing or professional grooming to help keep their tresses tamed.

8. What is the adoption fee?

While Dr. Hurley notes “there is no such thing as a free cat,” shelters often run reduced-or fee-waived adoptions to help cats get out of the shelter and into their forever homes. Don’t forget to ask what the adoption fee includes. Shelters may provide spay/neuter, initial deworming, vaccinations, and a microchip as part of the adoption fee while others require adopters to cover those costs on their own.

9. What are you feeding the cat?

Cats are very food sensitive; switch up their kibble and it can cause serious stomach upset, according to Dr. Hurley. Before bringing a cat home, ask the shelter what brand and type of food they have been feeding them, and start your new family member on the same food at home. If you want to transition to a new brand or switch from dry food wet food (or wet food to dry), doing it gradually can help your cat adapt without tummy troubles.

10. What do I do if it doesn’t work out?

Shelters and rescue groups work tirelessly to make ideal matches, but sometimes adoptions don’t work. Dr. Hurley believes it’s important to understand the policies and what you should do if the cat you bring home turns out to be a poor fit. “It’s an important relationship…and sometimes, in a shelter, you can’t tell if it’s the right  match,” says Dr. Hurley. “There’s the right cat for every person and the right home for every cat.”

Related articles

Jodi Helmer

Jodi Helmer is a North Carolina-based freelance writer who shares her home with an embarrassing number of rescue dogs and relies on four feral cats to patrol the barn. When she isn’t refilling food and water dishes, Jodi writes about animals for Scientific American, Sierra, WebMD, AKC Family Dog, Living the Country Life, and Out Here.