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Cornell Feline Health Center

Supporting Cat Health with Information and Health Studies.

Choosing and Caring for Your New Cat

Before choosing a new cat, do your research and think about your options. Keep in mind the personality, age, and appearance, you’re looking for as well as the kinds of pets you already have at home. If you’ve never owned a cat before, it’s also important to know what taking care of your new cat will involve in advance.

In choosing a cat, you must first decide whether you want to bring home a kitten, a juvenile, or an adult. Generally, kittens are curious, playful, and energetic. You get to watch them grow and mature, and can influence the development of their personality. A kitten may also be more readily accepted by pets that you already have. An adult cat’s personality is already established, so you’ll have a better idea of how the cat will fit in your particular home situation. Healthy adult cats usually require less intensive care and supervision than kittens or juveniles do.

A second thing to consider in choosing a cat is whether you want a pedigreed or a mixed-breed animal, either of which can be excellent companions. Mixed-breed cats are generally categorized as either domestic shorthairs or domestic longhairs. The greatest advantage of getting a pedigreed cat is that its size, appearance, and to some extent, personality, are likely to fit the profile of its particular breed. With a mixed-breed cat, you will be unable to predict its adult size and appearance as accurately.

There are several indicators of good health and temperament. Healthy cats should have clear, bright eyes with little or no tearing, and the nostrils should be clean. Runny eyes, sneezing, or a nasal discharge can indicate a respiratory infection. The inside of the cat’s ears should be clean and free of any discharge. A black, tar-like discharge in the ear canal usually indicates an ear-mite infestation, while a pus-like discharge may be visible in the ear canal if there is a bacterial or yeast infection. The mouth and gums should be pink and moist, with no evidence of ulcers or sores. The cat’s coat should be glossy, and there should be no bare spots, dry skin, dandruff, or any evidence of external parasites. The cat should not be too thin or have a protruding belly, because either condition can indicate the presence of internal parasites or some other medical disorder.

In terms of behavior, the cat should be friendly and comfortable with people. A physically sound kitten is active, bright, responsive, rambunctious, and eager to join in play. Beware of a cat that frequently runs away and hides, or that appears lethargic and sleeps more than seems normal.

If you choose to adopt a cat with health problems, know that the cat will need to be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible. The costs of treatment may be high, but cats with medical problems often recover and flourish with adequate care and a loving home.

Before bringing your new cat home, make sure that you already have the basic provisions it will need, including a litter box, food, and ideally, a scratching post.

Litter Box
Your cat must have access to a litter box. Cats are naturally fastidious, and most will instinctively use a litter box. The litter box can be simple or extravagant, but most cats prefer simple boxes without hoods. Keep in mind that kittens and elderly cats suffering from arthritis may need a box with sides that are low enough for them to enter easily. Most, but not all, cats prefer unscented, fine-textured litter.

Be sure to keep the litter box clean and to change the litter frequently. Cats may avoid a litter-box area that isn’t clean. Provide as many boxes as you have cats, plus one.

Your new cat will need separate food and water dishes, kept far away from the litter box to avoid contamination. It is important to keep the dishes clean and the contents fresh. Cats may reject old food or stale water.

For the sake of your cat’s health, you should feed him or her the appropriate amount of a well-balanced, nutritionally complete diet formulated for his or her life stage (adult or kitten). First, find out what your new cat has been eating. Even if you don’t expect to stay with that diet, you should continue feeding some of the old food as you gradually switch to the new. Whether you feed dry, canned, or semi-moist food, check the packaging to ensure the product meets the standards established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). See for more information. If your cat is eating a diet that meets the AAFCO standards, you can be assured that it is receiving an adequate supply of vitamins and minerals, so supplements won't be necessary.

Obesity is common in cats and can predispose them to serious health problems, so monitor your cat’s weight and work with your veterinarian if weight loss is in order. On the other end of the spectrum, low body weight may also contribute to or be an indication of health problems.

Scratching Post
Scratching on objects is a normal marking behavior for cats, and most cats can be taught to use scratching posts. Once you’ve figured out your cat’s preferred scratching materials and orientation, you’ll be better equipped to buy a suitable scratching substitute. For example, if your cat likes to scratch on furniture, a vertical scratching post might be a good choice. A cat that likes the horizontal motion of scratching on a floor carpet may prefer a flattened cardboard box or a log placed on its side. A cat that scratches on drapes may prefer a vertical post tall enough for a long stretch, such as those that mount on a wall or door. Take your cat to the new scratching area or object that you’ve approved, and reward him or her with treats, strokes, and praise for using it. In some cases, rubbing catnip on a scratching post may prompt a reluctant cat to use it.

Regular brushing or combing can keep a cat’s coat clean, shiny, and sleek and help you monitor his or her skin for parasites and signs of disease. As an added benefit, loose fur removed during grooming will not wind up on the furniture, and your cat will ingest less hair and have fewer problems with hairballs. Brushing is much easier if you train your cat to accept this activity when he or she is young.

Regularly trimming your cat’s nails reduces the likelihood of damage caused by sharp claws, and lessens the possibility of a nail growing into the foot pad and causing infection. If you start the routine early on, you will find the task becomes easier as your cat gets older. Ask your veterinarian for a lesson on how to clip nails.

When you adopt your new cat or kitten, ask about prior vaccinations, nutrition, parasite control, and grooming that he or she has received. Any new cat should be checked by a veterinarian as soon as possible after coming home with you. If you already have other cats at home, and especially if the newcomer’s health history is not known, keep the new cat separated from your other cats until your veterinarian has had a chance to examine him or her. If no health history is available, your veterinarian will likely run a few tests to ensure that your new cat is free from disease. Cats with and unknown health history should receive tests for feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), which may predispose cats to infections and cancer.

Your veterinarian will also check your new cat for internal parasites (including intestinal worms) and external parasites, such as fleas, ticks, and mites. He or she can provide effective treatments for these parasites and discuss options to prevent reinfestation.

Vaccines are one of the best ways to ensure your cat is protected from deadly infectious diseases. Vaccines help a cat’s immune system fend off invasion by a particular disease-causing organism. Vaccines contain antigens, which to the immune system “look” like the organism but don’t cause disease. When a vaccine is given to a cat, the immune system mounts a lasting protective response, so if your cat is exposed to the disease-causing organism later on, its immune system is prepared either to prevent infection or to reduce the severity of the disease.

The most common combination vaccine, usually called FVRCP, protects your cat against three diseases: feline panleukopenia, feline viral rhinotracheitis, and disease caused by feline calicivirus.Generally, the first FVRCP vaccination is given when your cat is six to eight weeks old. The vaccine is then repeated (or “boosted”) at three- to four-week intervals until the kitten is sixteen to twenty weeks old. After this initial vaccination series, boosters are generally given one year later and then every three years.

Your cat should also be vaccinated against rabies virus, a requirement by law in many states. Cats should receive this vaccine at eight to twelve weeks of age (depending upon the vaccine type), then one year later. A rabies booster shot should be given every one to three years, depending on the vaccine type and local  requirements.

Vaccines can also help protect your cat against several other disease-causing organisms. Consult with your veterinarian to decide which vaccines your cat needs.

Cats are usually spayed or neutered at six months of age or older. However, some veterinarians recommend performing the procedure at an earlier age. Spaying is the surgical removal of the female reproductive organs (ovaries, oviducts, and uterus). It is a recommended procedure for all female cats that will not be used in a breeding program. Besides helping to prevent unwanted pregnancies, removing a female cat’s reproductive organs eliminates the behaviors associated with the heat cycle (including howling and restlessness), while also greatly reducing the risk of mammary cancer.

Neutering is the surgical removal of parts of the male reproductive organs (testes, epididymis, and parts of the vas deferens). Aside from preventing the male from impregnating a female, neutering can reduce male aggressiveness, urine spraying, and the pungent odor of intact male urine.

How Do I Know if My Cat is Sick and Needs Treatment?
Even provided with balanced nutrition, vaccines, and a good amount of love and attention, cats can still get sick. By spotting the signs of illness early, you can ensure that your cat gets the proper medical care. A sick cat may have a dull and patchy coat, either because its skin is directly affected by disease or because a sick cat may stop grooming. Other signs of illness include a lack of appetite, persistent vomiting, diarrhea, nasal or ocular discharge, sneezing, weight loss, straining to urinate, painful urination, bloody urine, frequent urination, excessive thirst, frequent or infrequent urination, difficulty breathing or rapid breathing, lethargy, and/or any swelling that appears rapidly or continues to increase in size over time.

If you see any of these signs or you have doubts about your cat’s health, contact your veterinarian.

Updated May 2017