Help Homeless Shelter Cats With Your Craft Skills

It was 1995 when Rae French, founder of the Snuggles Project, stepped foot in an animal shelter for the first time. A blackboard with statistics hung on the wall. The data showed some dismal odds: Only 24 percent of cats that enter an animal shelter are adopted, and 71 percent are euthanized.

French was there to hand over a local stray she sometimes fed that was about to give birth. It was a Siamese cat, so French figured the feline and its kittens would be adoptable.

After seeing the statistics, “I turned to my husband and said, ‘I can't. Let's just take her home,’” says French. But saving just a few of the millions of cats that enter shelters each year didn’t seem like enough. “That knowledge was just so overwhelming, and I had to do something about it,” she says.

The Snuggles Project
Seeing the kittens born reminded French of the time her first cat, Fuzzy, had babies. Fuzzy died shortly after childbirth, and French desperately wanted to save the babies.

“When Fuzzy died and left those kittens, I put them in a little box and wrapped them with scraps of things I was knitting to keep them warm,” says French.

Even though French couldn’t save the kittens, she noticed that the blankets seemed to comfort them. At the time, she was running an online crocheting group with 2,000 members worldwide, so she logged on and told her story. She asked if anyone would like to make and donate a security blanket (what she called a “snuggle”) for shelter animals. To her surprise, boxes started arriving from across the globe, and the Snuggles Project was born.

The project helps people create and donate snuggles to local animal shelters in their area. To date, more than 500,000 snuggles have been donated to animal shelters worldwide. The blankets offer cats something soft and warm to curl up on rather than bare steel, concrete or plastic. Beyond that, French believes snuggles provide much needed psychological comfort that can literally save cats’ lives.

“Often, when scared cats get a snuggle, they calm down, stabilize and the shelter people see that they can be adoptable,” she says.

How to Help Save Shelter Cats

  1. Make a snuggle. You can crochet, knit or sew the blanket, with as simple or ornate a pattern as you prefer. Pattern ideas are available on snugglesproject.org. Once it’s done, search the project’s worldwide animal shelter directory to find a participating animal shelter near you. Then, fill out an online donation form (to update the project’s records and get a tax-deductible receipt sent to you). Last, bring the snuggle to the animal shelter.
  2. Donate a store-bought blanket in the name of the Snuggles Project. You can donate your time and energy by promoting the project through grassroots or word-of-mouth marketing, or by encouraging non-participating animal shelters to sign on. If a local animal shelter won’t sign on because they can’t afford to regularly clean snuggles, you could offer to clean them yourself.

You might get involved with Hugs for Homeless Animals, the nonprofit that French started to run both the Snuggles Project and other initiatives that support shelters and find homes for animals. Barring all that, you could donate money.

“With the economic situation, it's getting worse,” says French. “Shelters don’t have the budgets, they cut back and crowding is a big problem because people lose their houses and abandon their animals. So money is always a big help.”

Single-cat to Multi-cat Without Problems

Some people feel lonely around the holidays, but for shelter cats, that feeling can persist long after you’ve put away the decorations. “A shelter environment is very stressful for cats, no matter how nice we make it,” says Jenn Smith, cat co-chair at Danbury Animal Welfare Society (DAWS), a Connecticut nonprofit dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of homeless cats. “It is especially hard on those who have lived in a home and lost the security of both their owners and their physical home,” adds Smith.

The winter holidays lead to a surge of gifted animals that are later taken to shelters by unprepared owners. You can help counter this trend by bringing home a new feline friend for you and your current kitty. Our five-step process will help you to introduce one or more new cats into your household without any hair-raising glitches.

Step 1: Consider the personality of your current cat
Your cat’s personality should play a big role in deciding what kind of additional feline to adopt. “If you have a cat with a dominant personality, you would not want to bring home another dominant, or ‘alpha,’ cat,” says Smith. A quieter cat without leadership ambitions would help alleviate feline politics in that situation. If your cat has lived with other felines before, try to remember how it interacts with others.

Step 2: Talk to shelter staff
A quick Internet search will help you locate local shelters. As you visit the cats at the shelters, “don’t be afraid to ask the staff or volunteers specific questions about each cat,” offers Smith. Tell the staff that you have another pet. They will help you determine which cats will best suit your needs. “Doing this upfront can prevent a lot of problems later down the line,” says Smith.

Step 3: Check up on your prospective new cat’s health
Before adopting, get the specifics on your new cat’s health requirements. “All our cats and dogs are spayed or neutered and receive age-appropriate shots and vaccines prior to adoption,” says DAWS President Christine Benezra. The adoption fee usually covers those costs, but new cats entering a home with a resident cat should also first visit a veterinarian to be tested for feline AIDS and leukemia.

Step 4: Redecorate with “multi-cat” in mind
Cats are territorial, so offer your new cat its own room. This will prevent your resident pet from feeling intruded upon and will help the new cat acclimate to the home and to the new owner. Choose a small room with few hiding spots and place a litter box in one corner. Water and food bowls should go in another corner. Don’t forget to include a few toys and a scratching post. Once the new cat arrives, visit with it often so it learns to trust you before meeting the resident cat.

Step 5: Introduce the cats slowly
A gradual introduction, full of pleasant experiences involving treats, attention and play, is vital to securing a happy, long-term relationship between your new cats. Here’s how to do it smoothly:

  • Day 1 When you bring the new cat home, sneak it into its new room right away. Let it explore its surroundings for a few hours. In the meantime, play with your resident cat, which will smell the new cat on you.
  • Day 2-3 Continue to play with the cats separately but exchange the cats’ bedding so they get further acquainted with each other’s smell before meeting.
  • Day 4-7 Rotate the cats between the closed-off room and the rest of the house on a daily basis. This way, they’ll rub their own scent all over. Feed the cats and play with them in each area, twice daily (without bringing them in contact with each other yet). This will help to alleviate feline anxiety as they begin to anticipate the routine.
  • Week 2 If the cats seem relaxed with each other’s smell, bring out the new cat in a carrier to meet the resident feline. Do this for a few short sessions each day until the cats become relaxed in each other’s presence.
Although the process could take weeks or even months, Smith believes that it is possible for most cats to learn to get along with others, as long as you’re prepared to put in the time, energy and money that come along with being a responsible pet owner.

Give Second-home Cats a Second Chance

Ten thousand humans are born each day, and for every human birth, 45 cats are brought into the world, according to the Animal Rescue League of El Paso. The result? Three to four million cats and dogs euthanized each year due to overpopulation.

“The last thing we want to do is to put the animals down,” says Richard P. Gentles of New York City’s Animal Care & Control (AC&C). Opening your home to just one shelter cat can help wipe out the discouraging statistics.

To Adopt or Not to Adopt
When you decide to share your home with a shelter cat, you not only save a feline life and free up shelter space; you also gain a loving companion. “Adopting from a shelter was a no-brainer,” says Cara Anselmo, a nutritionist who brought home her own cat from the AC&C in 2002. “I wanted to adopt an animal that might not have otherwise had a chance at a life,” she says.

After a few visits, Anselmo noticed that only kittens were getting adopted; that’s when she spotted the perfect older cat, Maggie.

Could a match with a cat like Maggie work for you? Consider the following pros of adopting an adult cat. Older cats:

  • Require less supervision Older cats are less destructive than energetic kittens. They are litter box-trained and don’t do a lot of scratching. “Staff and volunteers socialize the cats before they get adopted,” says Gentles, so a cat that has been at the shelter for a while will already have basic social skills.
  • Make great companions If you spend a lot of time at home, an adult cat is more likely than a playful kitten to sit on your lap while you watch TV. If you are usually away, consider adopting two cats: They will entertain each other without requiring your full attention when you return.
  • Have a fixed personality Adult cats have already grown into their personality, so no new traits will surprise you along the way. A kitten, on the other hand, may evolve into a very different creature than the one you originally fell in love with.
  • Are safer for children An adult cat is more likely than a kitten to have been exposed to children and other pets, and therefore may adapt more easily around them. A kitten that hasn’t learned to be around people yet may get frightened easily and scratch your over-eager child.
  • Save you money Aside from needing initial vaccinations and spaying or neutering, kittens have weaker immune systems, which may raise your veterinary bills. Adult shelter cats, however, are usually up to date with their shots and are already spayed or neutered. Some organizations, like the AC&C, even waive fees for adult cats. “It doesn’t devalue the animal’s life in any way; it’s just a creative way to get them adopted,” says Gentles.

The Matchmaking Process
Are you ready to take the leap and welcome an adult shelter cat into your home? Here is a suggested five-step process:

  1. Explore your resources Locate shelters and rescue groups near you through the Petfinder Web site. For a larger selection of pets, visit various shelters and rescue groups.
  1. Consider your needs Since adopting a cat will affect everyone in your household, “do your research and understand your lifestyle and the needs and interests of any family members,” advises Gentles. Consider personality type and such preferences as gender, color, breed and hair length.
  1. Get to know kitty Before you adopt, spend some time with your potential pet. Ask the shelter staff if you can visit with the cat in a more private area, and bring your family to make sure they get along with the cat.
  1. Be patient The approval process may be lengthy at times and may include an application, interview, references and fees. “Don’t get discouraged; it’s worth it,” advises Anselmo.
  1. Know your cat’s health Ask if the cat you want to adopt has a medical condition. If the condition is long-term, be sure you’re ready to attend to special needs. Also, get a copy of the cat’s health records. A few days after adoption, introduce your new pet to the veterinarian, who will ensure its health and administer necessary shots. 
By advocating adoption, Gentles hopes that one day, euthanasia will come to an end. “It’s going to take a lot of work and community involvement,” he says. As for Anselmo, she and Maggie are still a happy pair. Says Anselmo: “Maggie is brave, affectionate and intuitive. She is my all-around best little friend.”

Are Two or More Cats Better Than One?

When advertising copywriter Angie Dunne brought her two kittens home from the shelter last year, she already knew they got along. “The people at the animal shelter told me they really gravitated toward each other, that they played together all the time,” says Dunne. “I’d actually planned on adopting only one cat, but I was convinced that they shouldn’t be separated. Now I couldn’t imagine one without the other.”

Adopting two cats, or bringing a second kitty into a one-feline home, isn’t always easy. Los Angeles-based cat behaviorist Marva Marrow says, “Knowing how to choose a ‘pet’ for your cat will give the best odds for avoiding personality conflicts, which often show up as behavior problems, like litter box avoidance, spraying or marking, aggression and other unwanted behaviors.” Below, Marrow advises how to make a good cat match -- and when not to try.

Why Two?
Simple, says Marrow. “When they’re well-matched, it’s good for cats to have companionship.” Two cats can play together, satisfying their need for physical and emotional interaction. According to the Humane Society, multi-cat household felines tend to be happier and less likely to get in trouble. They can also groom each other, keeping clean the places one cat can’t reach alone.

Which Two?
  • Choose cats or kittens with physiques and body types that mirror that of the feline already sharing your home. “Cats with similar body types have comparable activity levels, and so they complement each other,” says Marrow. For example, a good partner for a Siamese would be another “slinky” cat.
  • Don’t adopt two female cats. If you already have one girl at home, don’t get a second. “I hate to say it, but females are usually the ones who have problems with each other,” admits Marrow. “Two males get along fine, as do males and females.”
  • Make a list of your cat’s personality traits. Is your furry friend shy or social? Clingy or aloof? “Like people, cats get along better with other cats whose temperaments match their own,” says Marrow. She suggests taking your list to the shelter, and asking the employees to find the best match for your kitty.

When Two Cats Begin Sharing Your Home
When cats first cohabitate, they need to be introduced gradually and under strict supervision. The cats cannot have any access to each other when you’re not home. Marrow suggests longer and longer supervised periods of exposure filled with toys and treats to keep everybody happy. The timeline for this supervised interaction is around one month, though it may vary with different cat pairs. “You need to help them adjust slowly, so no one gets stressed,” says Marrow.

When One Is Enough
Cats need space to hide when they desire alone time, so if you don’t have much, one feline may be all you can handle. Your home should allow for the newly introduced cats to be separated -- at least for the first month -- when you are not home to supervise. Finally, your home should have room for a minimum of one litter box for each cat (ideally, one for each cat plus one extra).

Two final considerations are the age and health of the resident cat. The stress of bringing another pet into the home could potentially shorten the life of an elderly cat or a cat with serious health issues.

With the right pairing and introduction, two cats living together may ultimately lead more satisfying, enjoyable lives than do “single” felines. But remember, stresses Marrow, “Not all cats like all cats. You can’t just slap two together and expect them to get along.” But with the above criteria, “you and your cats can have the best chance for success.”

Cats Go to College

When I was a college student, my peers and I longed for kitty “coeds” that could provide welcome companionship and a warm reminder of home life. Pets were not permitted on campus then, but new research supports what we suspected all along: Ownership of pets -- especially cats -- can benefit college students. Sara Staats, a professor of psychology at The Ohio State University at Newark, and colleagues Heidi Wallace and Tara Anderson determined that pets are an important source of social support to college-age students. They asked both faculty members and university students to fill out a survey on this matter and were often pleasantly surprised by the results.

Why College Cats Help
The most common reason given for pet ownership by students was, “I would be lonely without my pet.” Says Dr. Staats: “You would think that hectic social schedules would provide students with more than enough companionship, but pets appear to offer a different, perhaps more nonjudgmental, form of support.” Both students and faculty also reported that their pet keeps them active and helps during the more difficult times.

Based on their responses, freshmen seemed to value the benefits of pet ownership the most. “One may speculate that university freshmen have acquired fewer coping resources than adults, being in a transition period where they are somewhat separated from family and high school friends and have not yet formed a social support network in their college lives,” the researchers theorize.

But even faculty members and adult locals who also took the survey provided similar responses. “I was surprised that some cat owners said their pet helped to keep them active,” Dr. Staats says. “We expected this would hold true for dog owners, but cats? And you wouldn’t think students would be concerned about staying active, due to their busy lives.”

Cats Often OK, Dogs Not
Although I fondly remember a Latin professor’s dog that often sat through long lectures, campuses that do allow pets in dorm rooms usually only approve of cats, fish and sometimes other small, caged animals. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, allows just cats in four specified dorms. Their pet policy explains that “we want to limit the number of people with allergies that will be affected by the presence of the pets. Also, it will be very easy to tell if a cat is being cared for properly, whereas it is more difficult to see if a hamster or iguana is.”

Karen Nilsson, MIT’s senior associate dean of residential life, suggests that having the cat policy has helped keep things under control, since housing officials there previously found dogs, frogs, snakes, turtles, rats, rabbits and even weasels stashed away in dorms. Officials at other colleges were horrified to find hedgehogs and even scorpions in student rooms.

Additional universities that have, at least in the past, officially allowed certain pets on campus include the California Institute of Technology, the State University of New York at Canton, and Shimer College, in Waukegan, Ill. Shimer was one of the first in the nation to establish a pet policy, giving the all clear to certain cats.

The Dos and Don’ts of Cats in College
Dr. Staats and other experts advise the following:

Do check with the university or college to see what, if any, rules are in place concerning pets on campus.

Don’t offer a pet as a gift to a dorm-residing student. “Not all people want and can care for pets,” Dr. Staats explains. “Pet ownership is a big responsibility that requires careful consideration and planning.”

Do obtain the consent of all roommates, and even floor mates, before bringing a cat into a feline-friendly college. Many universities require written consent from such individuals.

Don’t bring a pet to college -- even if it’s legal -- if you won’t have sufficient time to interact with the cat. Even if you can provide the basics, such as food and health care, felines get lonely, too.

Do explore other ways of obtaining the benefits of time spent with cats, if pets are not allowed in your dorm room, apartment or other living situation. “Sometimes volunteering at a no-kill animal shelter can be just as rewarding,” Dr. Staats says.