In praise of cats of a certain age

Posted: Wednesday, July 20, 2005

It's easy to fall for a kitten. They're just so darned cute! But before you take one home, consider whether you might be happier with a more mature cat.

Kittens are kittens for eight months. They are cats for about 18 years after that. And beyond a kitten's sex and color, there's little you can tell about what kind of cat it is going to be: large or small, nutty or mellow, quiet or talkative. I once chose a tiny kitten, the runt of the litter born to a diminutive mother cat. By the time my kitten was 18 months old, she weighed 16 pounds and stood eye-to-eye with the neighbors' cocker spaniel. Apparently, the kitten took after her dad.

All kittens are very playful for the first eight months. At our house, we call it the "curtain climbing" stage. Why do kittens climb curtains? Because they're kittens, and that's the kind of thing kittens do. I've seen various kittens dive into a plate-glass window, leap like flying squirrels from the second-floor balcony, and wade into a hot pizza. One persisted in jumping into the refrigerator every time I opened the door.

These kittens aren't misbehaving. They are exploring the world, and developing senses, coordination and skills through play. It's nature's way of bringing up baby, but dealing with it may be a bit more than you had in mind.

The period of super-active play tapers off in the eighth month. Within the following weeks, each kitten's unique temperament becomes apparent. Simultaneously, the kitten reaches almost full adult stature and its coat length and texture stabilize. There's plenty of kittenish behavior and growth to come, but you have a very good idea of what kind of cat the youngster will be. If you want the best of both worlds, kittenhood minus the crazies, look for a cat between 9 months and 2 years old.

Most cats reach full adulthood by age 2. Between ages 1 and 6, they will be active young cats. Most of them mellow out beginning around age 6. As a friend of mine puts it, they turn into "grand, old cats." Thus they remain for the rest of their lives.

Mature people often prefer the company of the grand, old cats. They are more companionable, creatures of habit rather than impulse. Also, we who are no longer spring chickens can't help but be concerned about what will happen to our pets when we can no longer care for them. From that standpoint, it makes sense for mature humans to choose older cats.

People of any age choose a cat over a kitten if they want to be sure it will not kill birds. Hunting is not instinctive, but a skill kittens must learn from their mother when they are a few weeks old. Miss that window of opportunity (or have a non-hunting mother), and they are non-hunters for life. Because hunting lessons come before a kitten is old enough to leave its mother's side, you won't know whether a kitten will be a hunter unless you know the mom.

Some people want a skilled mouser. They, too, choose from more mature cats who already have demonstrated that they can do the job.

People who want a declawed cat are wise to adopt one that already has been declawed. It's not uncommon for cats to develop behavior problems after their claws are removed. Some become biters after they lose their primary means of defense. Others will no longer use the litter box because of sensitive nerve endings that can make it painful for the cat to dig. Adopting a cat who has been declawed and adjusted successfully is a surer bet than declawing a youngster and hoping for the best. It also saves the cost of the surgery.

Finally, in this community, there are people who seek out and adopt the elderly cats of people whose age or illness has forced them to part with their pets. I can't think of a more caring thing to do for those animals -- and for the people who love them.

• Linda Daniel has spent her life in the company of cats, most of whom simply showed up at her door. She volunteers at the Gastineau Humane Society.

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