For many, a kitten is the only choice: A healthy feline baby is nearly irresistible, and the choices are many during “kitten season,” which is at its height now. But feline experts say that for many people, saving a cat others pass on — an older cat, or one with special needs — can be intensely satisfying on a personal level, and that benefit is one that should not be discounted.
“This is all about what you get for the giving, and sometimes when you choose the cat who’s being overlooked, what you get is a really deep bond with that animal,” said Bonney Brown, director of the Renobased Nevada Humane Society. “Many have cared for a cat for a lifetime after what started as an impulse decision to save that pet.”
Veterinarians know the appeal of special needs pets — often because they adopt such animals themselves.
“A lot of us have this desire to nurture,” said Miami veterinarian Dr. Patricia Khuly, a popular blogger and frequent contributor to pet-related publications. “I know there are plenty of veterinarians who advise not to take on a sick pet, but we veterinarians are often the worst at taking our own advice.”
Dr. Khuly herself has adopted more than a few sick pets, but she also said it’s essential to approach choosing any pet with open eyes and a sense of what’s involved — emotionally, practically and financially.
The place to start is with a clear-eyed evaluation of a pet’s health and behavior.
An initial read on the health of a cat or kitten isn’t difficult, said Khuly. “Eyes clear and bright, devoid of crustiness or secretions. Nostrils clean, nice pink gums, a clean, full coat and ears free of debris. Breathing should be easy and not labored,” she said, adding that a kitten should also be able to walk and eat on his own, follow a finger and show interest in his surroundings.
Nevada Humane’s Ms. Brown said asking shelter staff or rescue volunteers for advice can help narrow the choices. “We ask people to think about what they’re looking for. A quiet companion? A playful kitty? Are there children in the house? Other pets? The shelter staff usually knows the animals, and can help you choose one to meet your expectations.”
Behavior problems can be more difficult to predict than medical ones, since some cats react so badly to losing their homes that they shut down emotionally. Brown said shelters have tried to help cats maintain their true personalities by trading small cages for large rooms where cats share space, or by increasing the number of volunteer foster homes so cats don’t have to stay in the shelter while waiting for a new home.
She also notes that the behavior problem that pushes many to give up on a cat — house-soiling — is in many cases cured by the change of scenery. “We often find the problem so specific to the cat’s previous environment that the problem doesn’t shift from one home to the next,” she said.
Ms. Brown and Dr. Khuly agree that knowing what you’re getting into is the key to a successful adoption, whether you’re dealing with the craziness of a kitten, the normal readjustment period of a newly adopted adult cat or the special needs of an animal with chronic health problems or behavior issues.
“You need a working relationship with your veterinarian,” said Dr. Khuly, who stresses this is even more true when considering a special-needs cat.
In the end, of course, the decisions are yours. But when you open your heart to a hard-luck kitty, you may find that the one who benefits most from the relationship is not the cat... but you. ¦