Play With Shelter Cats. It’s Good For Them. (And Maybe You.)

Six to eight million cats and dogs enter shelters in the United States every year, and approximately half of them are euthanised. Many are not spayed or neutered, and some lack basic socialisation, which makes them even more unadoptable. Animals with unknown temperaments are harder to adopt out, as are those who are shy, hesitant, or unfamiliar with play. The kitten who happily chases a jingling ball is more appealing than the adult cat who watches warily from a shelf, and the adolescent who loves slithering around inside a cat tunnel is more enticing than the older cat who looks puzzled when you proffer a toy because she’s never seen one before.

Obviously, there are a lot of things we need to do to address the huge numbers of unwanted dogs and cats in the United States. While their numbers are going down, they’re still unacceptably high, and I want to live in a world where no healthy and happy animal needs to be euthanised simply for lack of a home. Shelter work is heartbreaking and for those who work in shelters that are forced to euthanise, it’s grueling and traumatising. The fact that many people work in shelters because they love animals and are forced to kill them as part of their work is appalling.

And one way we can reduce the number of deaths in shelters is to increase pet adoptions. Increase awareness that shelter pets are awesome, especially older pets who might not otherwise be chosen from the lineup; I adopted Leila earlier this year in part because she was an older cat, for example, and I knew that many people would pass over a seven year old cat in preference for a younger one. And make shelter animals more adoptable, which brings me to the fun and less depressing part of this post, because there’s something you can do to help here, and I promise you, it will be enjoyable.

Go play with shelter cats[1. Or dogs, if that’s your jam.]. Many shelter cats are starved for attention and need some settling down. They are in a strange, unfamiliar, smelly place filled with other animals and odd people. They watch other animals come and go, along with observing a parade of humans who poke, prod, and peer at them. They’re frightened, especially if they are older pets, particularly those surrendered by their owners; if you spent your whole life in one person’s company and suddenly that person gave you up due to age, illness, or other factors, a shelter would be a shock.

They need people around. People to anchor to, and people to play with, and people to remind them that the world is not a terrible place. And most shelters love having volunteers to come in and socialise the animals. Usually you have to fill out some paperwork and undergo a brief orientation and interview to get familiar with shelter policies and be discreetly screened in case you’re the sort of person who should not be around animals. Once that’s done, they turn you loose; some shelters may have assignments or recommendations for specific animals who need attention, while others trust volunteers to gravitate towards the animals who need it.

Some shelter cats might want to play with toys. Some might need a lap to sit on for a while, and a friendly hand to pet them. Others might need to be patiently and calmly socialised, starting with treats and slowly working up to handling them until they become familiar with people, and possibly even affectionate. Even supposedly feral cats can tame up considerably when they’re given dedicated attention from a volunteer, and that can save them from a death sentence in the shelter, turning them into adoptable cats instead of those slated for destruction on euthanasia day.

You can go as often or as little as you like, whether you want to drop in now and then for a cat fix, or make a regular date of it. Shelter volunteers are the backbone of a lot of organisations because they lack the staff necessary to do things like in-depth animal handling and socialisation. Much though it frustrates staffers, sometimes it is simply not possible to give animals individual attention, even when it’s sorely needed. Volunteers ready to step in and take up that slack are warmly welcomed, and while they don’t get paid, they do get the reward of seeing animals find great homes, and watching animals change under their hands.

For that matter, hanging out with animals, it turns out, is probably good for you. Several recent studies have indicated that pets offer mental health benefits, and interacting with animals, playing with them, and dedicating time to them can help you access some of those benefits. It can provide a time to calm down, to focus on another living thing for a little while, to be a part of a slightly different world than the one you’re in. It’s a great excuse to turn off your phone and tell the world not to bother you for a while, and to create a bond with another living thing.

And if you can’t have pets of your own, playing with shelter cats can provide a medium, allowing you chances for interaction without feeling time-limited, like you might at the houses of friends. Going home can be a bit sad, of course, as are the mixed feelings as you root for animals to be gone when you come back while perhaps secretly wishing they would stay a little longer because they’re so much fun to play with. But it’s worth it, I promise.

Interacting with shelter animals gives them a second lease on life, and it doesn’t cost a thing. That’s pretty great.