Free to a Good Home: 12 Bits of Advice for First-Time Cat Ladies and Friends

This kitty eventually came to live with us and is now upstairs in our second bedroom, lounging on her cat tree with her companion. Her name is Mamma Mia.

It was two years ago in late December when we began feeding a Domestic Long-Haired cat who showed up on our deck. It was so cold and snowy that we set up a makeshift feeding station for her and a few friends who showed up.

Fast forward two years. That particular kitty and her bonded female companion live in our second bedroom, nearing time to be integrated into the household. We’ve had a lot of interesting turn of events:

I still consider myself very much a newbie, perhaps a newbie with some experience. The main thing I’ve learned is to admit and acknowledge what I don’t know. Almost everything I had learned about cats and kittens from tv, teachers, family, the neighbors, even books has been proven wrong. I’ve learned to let go of my preconceptions, pay attention to the cat ladies around me, pay attention to the wildlife rescuers and the dog rescuers, too.

Let me make a note – I’m using “cat lady” intentionally, but certainly do not intend to exclude men and non-binary individuals who are doing this work. I’m leaning into a stereotype on purpose.

I’m not sure if I would have listened to this advice two years ago, but I thought it was a good time to reflect on lessons I’ve learned and information I wish I had considered BEFORE getting into this cat lady business.

First, as I mentioned above, be willing to let go of everything you thought was true. That doesn’t mean ignoring my instincts or my heart, it means separating actual facts from things I thought were true in 1998 or 1988 or even 2008. Cats are not human and do not operate on the same motivations, inspirations, and feelings as human beings. They have feelings, but they also have instincts that are equally strong.

Tip: If you find yourself feeling like the advice you’ve been given is uncomfortable, don’t simply disregard it. Ask someone else. Confirm and double, triple check. It might be uncomfortable because it is bad advice, but it might also be uncomfortable because of your own stuff. The cats you want to help deserve you taking the time to get it right.

Second, don’t go it alone. Make sure your household/family are on board with your cat lady work. Educate and enlighten your neighbors so they are invested in what you do. Get connected with cat rescue orgs and groups in real life and online. You need and deserve support and encouragement, as well as advice, information, and extra hands.

Tip: If you take a vacation or have an unplanned illness, who will take care of your cats? If you have no answer, you need to actively and aggressively build relationships.

Third, educate yourself. We’ve read several books, hired a cat behavioral specialist to give us advice about our housecats, and Ledcat even took a multi-class training on cat behavior at our Humane Society. When I join new cat lady Facebook groups, I pour through the files section to learn. I don’t watch celebrity shows or anything flashy and headline grabbing. And I listen to the people in our life who are experienced with cats. If our pet sitter, Ray, tells us something – we pay attention.

Tip: If you use Facebook or Google groups, take a moment to search for previous threads about your topics BEFORE you post. The time you invest doing some basic research will endear you to the group members who answer the same questions over and over and over because folks do not want to (or don’t know how?) to research. Ask how to research and then do it! A lot!

Help us raise funds to support the Sheffield Trio – three eight-week-old kittens who came into foster care (and our bathroom) on Friday night. We need to pay off their spay/neuter and vet bills as well as purchase their hi-calorie food and other supplies. Thank you!. 

Fourth, it is never “All about the cats” or “Nothing matter but the cats” or similar sentiments. That’s not healthy or useful, often a predictor for getting in over your head. 99.99% of life decisions must be made in the context of a larger picture. You have to consider the circumstances and weigh the pros/cons of any situation involving cats. That requires you to consider your own capacity, the resources available, the needs of your existing household (human and pets), and more. Cats don’t live in a vacuum, they live around all sorts of life – other homeless animals, wildlife, human beings.

Tip: If you fall into this thinking, especially if someone is trying to guilt or manipulate you into doing something, mentally review all of your priorities – family, other critters, your budget, yourself, public safety, etc.

Fifth, take time for yourself. It is okay to need/want a break, a respite, a slowdown, or even to walk away from cat rescue. You accomplish nothing by destroying yourself. It is okay to “no” and “I cannot do that” and other statements. It is important that you give yourself some downtime. (See second suggestion above.)

Tip: If you feel like you cannot take any time off or take even a few hours break from cat rescue, you are in over your head and deserve to have someone point that out to you. No one can do this work 24/7. It is necessary that you set boundaries.

Sixth, cat rescue involves a LOT of tasks and chores. If you cannot foster or trap, maybe you can volunteer at a clinic to clean cages or socialize cats. Perhaps you can offer to transport cats and supplies from Point A to Point B. You can organize a fundraiser or get your kids’ community groups involved in a cat food drive. You can table at events to raise awareness and visibility of the work. It is not all or nothing work. Dip your toe in the water rather than leap headfirst.

Tip: Pick one volunteer task and give it a try. Clean cages one time. Drive a Kitty to and from their spay/neuter appointment if you are available. Do a little Facebook fundraiser to raise a modest amount. Volunteer at a winter shelter building party. Just one thing and see how it fits.

Bonus Tip: If you are online, you can do wonders by sharing the photos of adoptable cats. Share on your personal timeline, but also in the groups you belong to. More visibility for any adoptable cat means more visibility for all of them. It is a simple way to have an impact.

Seventh, remember – most folks doing this work are volunteers with jobs, families, pets, 3700 commitments, and always limited money. Your call may not be returned lickety split or your FB message responded to. Be patient and gentle with the people and the kitties. No one is deliberately trying to keep a cat from accessing help, quite the opposite. If you feel irritated or overlooked, you know how all of us feel most days because the humane animal welfare systems are also overextended and underfunded.

Tip: One clear way to respect people’s time is to listen to their advice/instructions (how to set a trap, when to trap and when NOT to trap) and not go rogue. If you do go rogue and have to call someone in a panic, that is okay but listen to how they instruct you to set things aright. If you feel hesitation about their advice, ask someone else. Ask them to clarify. But one mistake can end up costing hundreds of human hours and even more money.

Eighth, always have a plan. Do not trap any animal and then ask “Now what?” Never ever do this. There are ZERO walk-in free clinics. If you put a plan in motion, know the details. Where is the animal being treated? Who is driving? Who is paying? What are the hours? What happens after surgery? How do you know if you can keep the homeless cat or kittens? Do you have supplies? If you try to wing it, you will definitely do some damage to the other volunteers, the monies, and the cats.

Tip: If a person giving you advice tells you something to be good to be true  (“XYZ clinic takes walk-in feral cats for free” or “Call Mary. She has 100% availability to drop everything and come running to solve the problem” or “Feral cats can survive just fine hunting for mice/birds.”) – stop, drop, and roll away from that person to someone with a more realistic albeit frustrating multi-step plan.

Ninth, you can handle the sad moments. One summer, we had a kitten brought to us by one of our ferals and it was dying; we had to drive to the ER vet and have it put down. A few weeks later, a neighbor found a cat hit by a car and just left it to die across from our backyard. We found a way to get it into a carrier and also had it euthanized at a local vet. These are terrible moments, but you do what has to be done. You cry. You feel like quitting. And sometimes you do quit or find a different focus for your energy.

Tip: Make yourself a list of emergency and low-cost veterinary resources in your community. Program it into your phone to be able to refer and share information.

Tenth, it is all about the money. There’s never enough. Almost daily, someone posts a Paypal or Venmo request to help with a specific bill. If you can chip in $5 or even $1, do it. And when you need them to chip in to your fund, they will. The money sort of circulates around the animal rescue world, including dog/horse/bird/wildlife rescue as everyone puts in their bits, like passing the hat. If you can afford to make a larger donation, consider contributing to an emergency veterinary fund or the healthcare fund of your local cat rescue organization. Often they are 501c3’s so you might be able to get an employer match.

Tip: Pass the hat among the folks you know who want to help and don’t know how. Giving $5 is a concrete way to respond to “how.”  Designate cat rescue at your event’s 50/50 raffle. Donate your bingo winnings. Not only do you concretely fund more resources, your gesture has a positive ripple effect on everyone.

Eleventh, good intentions = impact. Good hearted people can fuck things up massively by not considering the impact of their choices and decisions. That can range from taking on too many rescue animals in your home to calling around frantically on a Friday afternoon to find a vet for the cat you trapped without a plan. If you donated and your thank you note did not arrive in a timely fashion, it might be that volunteer had a dying cat to deal with that particular week. If you want to donate pet items that people aren’t excited about receiving, take a step back and look for particulars about what is needed. If no one responded to your big fundraiser idea, it might be due to them having to rehome that overextended caretakers cats and deal with a super stressed kitten that’s been confined to a trap for 24 hours because someone didn’t have a plan.

Tip:  Give people the benefit of the doubt, but don’t be shocked that cat ladies are occasionally schmucks.

And number twelve, please try very hard not to look at cats as human beings. This is called ‘anthromorphizing‘ them. It is a very human tendency, but one you need to learn about and monitor in yourself. Cats are living creatures with feelings and their own psychology. I’m not worried that you dress up your cats in costumes, but I know from first-hand experience that watching your rescue kittens cry through the bathroom window screen to their feral mother two stories below is heartbreaking. But it is instinctive and not the same thing as a human parent being separated from their children. Cats don’t raise their offspring to adulthood. They are not Disney characters. Love them for being cats not humans, but also learn about their actual psychology – see number one about letting go of your preconceptions.

Tip: Cats have a place in our families, households, and communities. They can help to fill our hearts and lives with genuine love and affection, but if you find yourself projecting human expectations on your cats – do a mental check to make sure you are being fair to them. They can be your number one priority, but they will never be human beings. 

Again, let me toss this request for financial support for our Sheffield Trio out and ask if you can chip in $5 to help us cover their unexpected $600+ vet bill and the foods and other special supplies they need.

One final bit of advice – make sure you take time to enjoy the here and now moments, the present, with the cats in your care. It helps remind you why you do this work. Take a few extra moments to play with your pet cats. Sit back and observe your feral cats eating their supper. Be mindful of and enjoy the small moments to help sustain you during the difficult times. If you feel overwhelmed by all of the work, focus on one small thing with one particular cat.

This is my opinion alone and does not reflect the philosophy or beliefs of any cat rescue group that I am affiliated with in Pittsburgh or beyond. I wrote the blog post I wish I had read two years ago.

If you are interested in working with cat rescue groups in your community, get on Facebook and look for them. In Pittsburgh and Southwestern PA, I recommend connecting with these folx:

Pittsburgh Northside Cat Ladies and Friends

Pittsburgh C.A.T.

Pittsburgh Feral Cat Movement


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