Before you actually get a cat, figure out what kind of cat you want: kitten or grown-up cat; longhair or shorthair; purebred or alley cat; male or female; tabby, patched, or solid-color.
If you've got your heart set on a particular size, age, sex, breed, or look of cat, do a little extra research before you set out to find one. You might be surprised to find that the look you love doesn't fit well with your lifestyle. For example, if you like a quiet home, a Siamese may not be the cat for you: They're notorious "talkers." Likewise, a Persian is gorgeous to look at, but unless you're committed to do almost daily grooming (or to pay a professional to do it every week or so), a nice shorthair cat might be a better idea. Do you travel a lot? Then you need a more mature cat -- at least eight months old or more. Two cats are better still so they can keep each other company while you're away.
Cat or Kitten?
Everybody loves kittens. They're cute, funny, and cuddly -- there's no doubt about it. But don't make the mistake that they're "babies." By the time a kitten is ready to be away from his mother and live in your home, he can walk, run, jump, and climb like the feline equivalent of a ten-year-old child. What's more, if you get a kitten today, in just a few short months you'll have a full-grown cat -- a cat who will live an average of 12 to 15 years.
If you have the time, environment, and energy to raise a kitten, by all means do it -- it's a wonderful experience. Just remember that kittens are high-maintenance. They demand a lot of attention. They need routine veterinary care consisting of booster shots, worming, and spaying or neutering. Most all young kittens start off affectionate and passive, but they need some socialization and training to stay that way; and even still, you won't know what their adult personality will be like until they grow up.
Finally, very young children and very young kittens usually don't mix well. It's nice to think that a toddler and a ten-week-old kitten can "grow up together," but it really doesn't happen that way. In six months, that little ball of fur your child could carry around will have grown into ten-pounds-plus of adult cat, and your three-year-old will be...three and a half years old!
Finding the Right Cat
There's certainly no danger of a cat shortage in these United States -- there are plenty of cats to go around and then some. In most parts of the country, you could just open your front door at sunup, and a cat would probably walk in before you finished breakfast.
In fact, the number of cats around puts you in somewhat of a quandary. How do you choose the right one? Will it be healthy? What about hidden health or behavior problems? What happens to the cat if things don't work out in your home?
Getting a cat isn't like getting a lawn mower or a hair dryer; they don't come with guarantees. Each one is going to be different, which means unique joys and problems come with every cat. Still, sources for cats should help you make a decision. Although the source can't promise the cat will never get sick, they can take steps to give the cat the best possible chances of staying well. Good sources for finding the right cat for you include:
Friends and neighbors. The odds are somebody you know has a cat or kittens in need of a home. Many times, taking a cat from a neighbor or friend works out best for everyone, especially if it's a kitten from your neighbor's cat's litter or an allergic friend's family pet. Your personal relationship with this source usually means you'll get the straight story on this particular cat, too. A couple of warnings about getting your cat from a friend or neighbor, though: Don't expect the cat to have the extensive veterinary care that a cat from a shelter or breeder has, and be careful about mixing business and friendship.
Animal shelters. Millions of homeless cats end up being euthanized in animal shelters every year. Adopting from a shelter saves a life, makes room for another cat, and is an inexpensive way to obtain a pet with low-cost shots and neutering. Be prepared to go through applications and interviews, some of which might seem a little too personal and pushy. Don't take it personally -- they have good reasons for it. Also, be sure to check the facilities and the condition of the adoptable pets. Since the animals live in close company, illness, worms, and fleas can be a problem. Pet Finders (www.petfinder.org) maintains a database of cats available for adoption from local shelters.
Breeders. If you want a purebred cat, this is the way to go. Good breeders are extremely knowledgeable about cats in general and their breed in particular and are careful about who they sell their cats to. Beware of "bargain" purebreds and "basement breeders" (people who breed strictly for profit). A reputable breeder is interested in maintaining a high-quality animal, keeps careful records, and usually only produces one or two litters per breeding female per year. Ask for a breeder referral from national breed associations such as the Cat Fanciers' Association (www.cfa.org).
Stray cats. Sometimes you don't even have to worry about finding the right cat, the right cat finds you. Many folks swear that these are the best cats to have. There's no adoption interviews or fees when you take in a stray, and more than likely you're saving a life. On the other hand, you'll have to cover the cost of shots, worming, neutering, and the like. Many strays have other health problems that may not show up right away and can get expensive to treat. Sometimes local humane societies will help out with initial vet care, or an area animal hospital may offer reduced rates for treating a foundling cat, but don't count on it.
Another important decision you need to make when choosing a cat is whether or not you will have an indoor cat or an outdoor cat. Learn about the ramifications of each decision in the next section.