Choosing a shelter cat to adopt can be easy or difficult, depending on how you look at it.
On the plus side, there are plenty of cats to choose from — beautiful felines of all colors, coat lengths, ages and personalities.
On the other hand, how does a potential adopter make a choice from all the cute, cuddly kitties that need homes?
A program at the Kansas Humane Society aims to make that decision easier, with the goal of ultimately increasing adoptions and decreasing the number of cats that are returned to the shelter.
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Feline-ality is a research-based program that fits adult cats into nine personality groups within three colors and tries to match them with potential adopters' desires and expectations for a pet.
Some people want a cat that's "outgoing, with a lot of bravado and personality," said Jennifer Campbell, director of communications for the Humane Society. Others prefer a kitty that's quiet and independent, "that just likes to hang out and be its own cat."
Feline-ality, she said, helps predict a cat's behavior in the first two months in a home, increasing the chance that the cat will remain in that home.
"Instead of people adopting a cat because it's beautiful, and then bringing it back because it hides under the bed all the time —'That's not what I wanted; I wanted a cat that's out and about,' " with Feline-ality, adopters are more likely to get the cat they want, Campbell said.
Animal behaviorist Emily Weiss, of Benton, created Canine-ality — a similar program for dogs — in 2002 while working with the Kansas Humane Society. The program was later adopted by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for use in shelters across the United States.
Weiss went to work for the ASPCA in 2005 as senior director of shelter behavior programs, and working with a team there, created Feline-ality.
How does Feline-ality work?
Cats are observed in eight scenarios that measure how bold or shy they are when reacting to new stimuli — the "valiance scale" — and how open they are to social interaction.
A cat that scores "purple" on the valiance scale may be fearful, the type that "when the doorbell rings, may run away and hide under the bed," Weiss said.
A cat with a "green" score, she said, is probably "right up there checking out who's at the door."
An "orange" score places a cat somewhere in the middle.
Feline-ality assessment begins from the time a cat enters the Humane Society. For the first two days, information is recorded on a data card — what was the cat's body posture when approached in its cage, what condition was the cage in, did it eat?
Then the cat is taken into a quiet room with an evaluator, who observes how it behaves in several scenarios and records the information on a checklist.
Stacy Cleaves, an assessment supervisor at the Humane Society, demonstrated the process recently with a 1 1/2-year-old female cat named Sweet Cheeks. (See the video at Kansas.com.)
Based on Sweet Cheeks' reactions to stimuli that included being stroked, being hugged and having the base of her tail pulled, Cleaves determined that she was a "personal assistant" in the orange category — a gregarious cat that will help its owner with chores, and "help you relax when we're done."
"She's pretty social," Cleaves said. She's not going to run and hide, but "she's not all up on you."
Cat adopter survey
People who come to the Humane Society to adopt a cat are asked to fill out a one-page survey to determine how much activity and interaction they expect from a cat and what kind of cat will fit best with their lifestyle.
Do they want a cat that's talkative and likes to play games? One that likes to be in their lap?
Do they consider their home more of a "library" or a "carnival"? Will the cat be living with children or other pets?
Each adopter is then assigned a color — purple, orange or green — and can narrow the choices by searching for cats assigned the same color.
People do not have to adopt their color match, Campbell said, but the Feline-ality information can help them know what to expect from the cat they do adopt. If a cat is shy, for example, it "may just take a longer time to adjust," she said.
Weiss said data shows that Feline-ality is making a difference at shelters across the country. It has increased cat adoptions by 60 percent or more, cut euthanasias by more than half and decreased cats' stays in shelters by more than 20 days, she said.
Campbell believes Feline-ality is helping save the lives of cats at the Kansas Humane Society.
The program gives cats "time to adjust to being in a shelter" and "gives staff and volunteers new information that they can share" about the animals available for adoption, she said.
"Cats have a really difficult time at shelters," she said. "We want to see their adoption numbers go up."