Adopting a Senior Cat

We’re all easily enthralled with the cute antics of a kitten, but older cats are often loving and grateful for a home to live in, and they bring you lots of joy and many rewards.

“Older cat adopters are truly special people,” says Lena DeTar, DVM, interim director of Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

“When looking to adopt a senior cat, it is helpful to look carefully at the medical and behavioral history that the shelter or rescue has available,” says Dr. DeTar. “The great thing about adopting an animal with a longer history is that many challenges have already surfaced, been assessed, and treatments documented as successes or failures. If the behavior or medical concern and/or ongoing management isn’t something the adopting family feels they can handle, another pet of any age might be better.”

The shelter staff usually can give you a full report on the cat you’re considering.

“Since older cats often stay a long time, shelter staff and volunteers often have more time to get to know them and can detail their quirks and preferences at great length,” says Dr. DeTar.

Keep an Open Mind

“It is important to remember that animals, especially older animals, can behave differently in different environments,” says Dr. DeTar. “Sweet cats may become shut down and hide all the time in the shelter because it’s so different than their previous home. Meanwhile, cats with flea allergy or inappropriate elimination in a previous home might find relief just through some simple medications and a change of environment.”

Shelter Resources

“The stress of the shelter can be especially hard on senior pets,” says Dr. DeTar. “Getting these animals into a home is a priority for shelters; many shelters offer low-cost or fee-waived adoptions of older cats.”

Asking your veterinarian to do an exam within the first week or two is important for two reasons: “First, as we all age, we commonly develop medical problems. Finding out about these problems early often allows the problem to be managed before it gets too bad. Second, establishing a relationship with a veterinarian allows that vet to be more flexible if emergencies do occur,” says Dr. DeTar.


“Some cats will jump on your lap right away. You may need to earn that privilege from others first. Especially shy cats may benefit from anxiety-reducing medications that may or may not be prescribed by the shelter,” says Dr. DeTar.

When introducing your new cat to other pets, go slowly. The “get-to-know-you” period can take as long as a few months, depending on the cat’s personality.

Older cats know their worth and are usually extremely happy to be in a home that appreciates and loves them. If you can open your heart and make that choice, you’re helping the shelter, yourself, and the cat.