How to select a cat at a shelter

I have never selected a cat from a shelter! Although I was a foster carer. So, you might want to turn the page right now and ignore what I say. But I’m going to apply common sense and my knowledge of cats to answer the question. Like anybody else you probably have an idea of the kind of cat that you want to adopt. It might be a kitten or even an elderly cat although people are far more likely to choose the former than the latter. I think it’s better to go into a shelter with an open mind and no preconceived ideas. You don’t know what might turn up and it might be a lot better than starting off with a preconceived idea.

Handsome shelter cat who got adopted by jumping on her lap and staying there!
Handsome shelter cat who got adopted by jumping on her lap and staying there! Photo: Reddit user.
Until September 7th I will give 10 cents to an animal charity for every comment. It is a way to help animal welfare without much effort at no cost. Comments help this website too, which is about animal welfare.

RELATED: Video: POV-what a senior cat at a shelter sees and hears as adopters walk by

Time to express their character

As I understand it, most shelters have a visitation centre where you get the chance to interact with your chosen feline. There is no doubt in my mind that you’ve got to allow the cat of your choice to express themselves. They’ve been cooped up in a cage, in a strange place with strange people perhaps for quite a long time. They are not going to be themselves. This particularly applies to timid cats. But the timid cat might flower in your company when taken home and there are advantages with timid cats. They are less likely to want to roam far and wide and are more likely to be content with living inside the home. This is peace of mind for a cat caregiver.

Taking time and going against the grain

I think what I would do is to enter the shelter with an open mind and look for a cat that I like the appearance of. I know that sounds superficial but everybody starts off with appearance and then they go on to character and personality. So, after I’ve selected a cat that I think I could live with I would like to spend perhaps up to 30 minutes with that cat to see how they interact with me; to allow me to see into their character and their inherent charm. And perhaps if that did not work out to select a cat that I would not normally select – go against the grain – and sit with them for a good while and see what happens. It is a voyage of discovery for both parties. This is the beginning of a lifetime commitment. It should be a fairly slow and considered process.

Confident and timid cats

The more confident cat is more likely to come forward and interact which is why they are more often adopted than the timid cat. Sometimes cats can barely move from behind their cat litter tray or hiding place because they are so fearful. I must say that I’m attracted to that kind of cat because I want to repair them. I want to give them a better life. And there is a reward in that. If you start off with a cat who is frightened because of their past life and because they are in a shelter, it is wonderful to tease out their character with your love after adoption. That’s the reward and it is more likely perhaps that they will bond better with you because you have made them feel so much more content.


On the Internet you will see many stories of cats that have been rescued from the street rather than adopted from shelters. These cats are in a similar mental state to shelter cats although often in worse health. But the beauty of this process is that the person who rescues the cat nurtures them, takes them to a veterinarian for treatment, and goes through all those little hurdles to build up their cat’s health and mental welfare. This is a bonding process and a great foundation for a relationship between human and cat.

Ginger tabby senior cat in a shelter cage watching out as potential adopters reject him
Ginger tabby senior cat in a shelter cage watching out as potential adopters reject him. Screenshot from Albert Harris video.

Kittens or adults?

And I wouldn’t be stuck on kittens. There are pluses and minuses with kittens and older cats. With an older cat you know what you’re getting because their character is formed. And with a kitten they are going to run around your place tearing up your furniture. It’s quite nice to have an older cat who plonks down and knows the ropes when you get home. They are probably more adaptable and more able to accept change. And once again there is the reward of knowing that you have adopted a cat that others have rejected. That’s giving. That’s altruism and it is good.

Cat adopts you

I’ve always said that in many ways the roles are reversed when adopting a cat at a shelter. The cat adopts you because they come forward and perhaps sit on your lap or interact with you in a way which tweaks your brain and gets the juices flowing. You decide in an instant that this is the cat for you because of their behaviour and to a lesser extent their appearance. So, it might be better to just sit with your chosen cat and let them decide whether you are the one they want to live with.

Discuss with shelter staff

P.S. Clearly a conversation with shelter staff will also help in selection. They will know the cats’ personalities and health. Health is also an issue as some cats will have inherited genetic diseases. These are chronic conditions. They should not be a major factor in deciding. These cats need the love of a human as much as the others.

Below are some pages on shelters.

2 thoughts on “How to select a cat at a shelter”

    • Yes, you remind me of Sarah Hartwell the owner of She’s never adopted a cat as far as I know. They come to her. I’ve adopted cats the same way myself. There are enough out there for them to find cat lovers and a home.


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