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I adopted a cat during COVID-19. Here’s what I learned about online searches, socially distanced meetups and how to spot the right cat.

In 2013, choosing a shelter cat was a long, leisurely process. I returned to my local shelter again and again, hanging out with various candidates and chatting with helpful volunteers.

By the time my husband and I and our twin boys, then 10, settled on a cat, I had met the top candidate several times. In the end, he actively picked us out, walking up to two of us and just standing there, tail raised in friendly greeting, ready to be taken home.

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If you’ve tried to adopt a cat during the pandemic, you know that meeting up with multiple cats for hours at a time is a thing of the past.

For one thing, social distancing is a must. For another, the competition is keen. PAWS Chicago, which normally places 5,500 animals a year, has received 30,000 virtual adoption inquiries since March, according to volunteer program manager Grace Souza.

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Kelly Jackson interacts with a 6-month-old kitten named Ida at Pippen Fasseas Adoption Center at PAWS Chicago on Oct. 21, 2020, in Chicago. Jackson adopted the kitten and renamed it Sadie.
Kelly Jackson interacts with a 6-month-old kitten named Ida at Pippen Fasseas Adoption Center at PAWS Chicago on Oct. 21, 2020, in Chicago. Jackson adopted the kitten and renamed it Sadie. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune)

But that doesn’t mean you can’t make the new process work for you.

We learned a thing or two during our recent search for a new cat and ended up with an affectionate and outspoken buff tabby who delights us every day.

Here’s what you need to know:

The search has moved online. Shelters will let you meet a particular cat, but they won’t let you browse in person, so it’s a good idea to start with online searches at Petfinder or Adopt-a-Pet, both of which include helpful search filters. Large shelters list cats on these websites, as do smaller shelters and rescues. At Adopt-a-Pet, private individuals can list their cats as well.

Get your application in early. If you see a cat that seems to be the perfect fit, respond immediately. There are a lot of people scanning the profiles, and in many cases, applications are considered on a first-come, first-served basis. You may want to consider paying $10 a month for a premium Adopt-a-Pet membership; you’ll get early alerts that new cats have been listed. We tried premium and found it helpful.

A 4-year-old cat named Sweater perches on a window at Pippen Fasseas Adoption Center at PAWS Chicago on Oct. 21, 2020.
A 4-year-old cat named Sweater perches on a window at Pippen Fasseas Adoption Center at PAWS Chicago on Oct. 21, 2020. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune)

Consider fostered cats. Cats that are being fostered in private homes have some big advantages. The people caring for them are often experienced volunteers who will be able to give you up-to-date information about how a cat behaves in real-life situations, and they can alert you to any problems or challenges. (Foster cat parents don’t want the cats to be returned, so they have an incentive to tell you the full story.)

Try a few well-regarded shelters directly. I contacted two, and one seemed to have some great cats. I never got off the waiting list, but you may have better luck, particularly if you’re flexible or up for a challenge. PAWS is waiving adoption fees for some long-term shelter cats through Sunday.

Have a list of non-negotiables. We found it very helpful to make a short but honest list of what we really wanted: a big, friendly, healthy cat that seemed to genuinely like us. As the process got more intense, those rules helped us resist taking a cat home because we felt sorry for him, or because we were embarrassed to say no in front of bighearted shelter employees.

Adopted during the pandemic, this outspoken Chicago street cat is enjoying the couches and companionship at his new home in Oak Park.
Adopted during the pandemic, this outspoken Chicago street cat is enjoying the couches and companionship at his new home in Oak Park. (Sam Roe)

You can still go to some shelters. When our online search led us to a cat at the Anti-Cruelty Society in Chicago, the shelter set up an on-site meeting in a pleasant private room with cat toys and treats. We wore masks, socially distanced and played with the cat. It wasn’t a bad way to size each other up, and at the end of the interview, both sides had come to a decision: The cat tried to make a run for it, and we said we were going to pass. We saw another cat and made appointments to see two more. Saying no felt terrible, especially in the case of one cat that seemed wrong for us but very determined to find a home. He still haunts me a little, but the cat adoption specialist told us he would very likely get adopted in days; cats were going fast.

Listen to the cat. Like many cat people, I subscribe to the theory that you don’t choose the cat; the cat chooses you. I wasn’t expecting the same insistent “Take me home, you numbskulls” behavior exhibited by our previous cat, but I did want real chemistry. A few months into our search, we went to the Anti-Cruelty Society again to meet a cat we weren’t particularly excited about. He wasn’t very big, and we didn’t have much information about his personality. And then we met him: a stray still slender from his days on the streets, with a frosty blond coat and the most adorable little pink nose. He took a few minutes to warm up, which seemed catlike and proper, and then proceeded to strut his stuff. He played with toys; he took treats from our hands. At the end, he actually lay down next to me and snuggled his head in the crook of my arm. It was a “drops mic” moment — the perfect end to the perfect interview — and my husband and I looked at each other, stunned. We’d found our cat.

Kelly Jackson offers a toy ball to a 6-month-old kitten named Ida as she interacts with the feline for the first time at PAWS Chicago.
Kelly Jackson offers a toy ball to a 6-month-old kitten named Ida as she interacts with the feline for the first time at PAWS Chicago. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune)

Be patient. Moving into a new home is an adjustment for anyone. For the most part, our new cat — shelter name, Tan Boy; real name, TBD — has behaved remarkably well. But there have been moments, most notably when, about a week after his adoption, he crouched right in front of me and peed on my son’s backpack. I panicked a little: Was this going to be the new normal? But I did a little research and learned the likely explanation: litter box fussiness. I upped my litter box cleaning routine, and the problem stopped. Now Cat, as we’ve taken to calling him while vigorously debating his new name, is a delight, a comfort and source of much-needed entertainment. I can say from experience, the right cat is out there. Happy hunting.

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