Should Your College Roommate Be a Cat?

Probing Questions to Answer Before Adopting a Cat at College

Young woman with kitten
Betsie Van Der Meer / Getty Images

It is entirely normal that a college student, away from home for the first time, might want some companionship, and equally normal that someone might choose a cat, because as we all know, "cats are pretty low-maintenance pets." I'd like to dispel the latter assumption first, then offer some pointed questions to answer before making an impetuous decision, in order to save yourself future problems.

Cats are Low-Maintenance Pets

The reality is that while cats are free-spirited creatures, they have been domesticated for long enough (over 2400 years) to rely on humans for their daily needs.

Food and water are not enough; indeed, the "cheap" food found in pet aisles of supermarkets may keep a cat alive, but it is rarely of the quality to allow a cat to thrive. Here's a list of the very basic needs of a cat:

These basic needs are only the monetary ones. The real nitty-gritty comes to questions about your relationship with your cat, and where he or she will fit into the "grand scheme" of your life at college and afterward. If you planned on just having a cat for a pet at school, and then finding a new home for him when you graduate, better think again.

A cat - every cat - deserves to be considered family, rather than replaceable property, and if that concept eludes you, a cat is probably not for you. Here are the questions you should ask yourself before making what should be a lifelong commitment as a cat parent, rather than just a roommate (for that distinction is what separates the men from the boys, and the women from the girls.)

Will my dorm, fraternity/sorority/apartment manager allow cats?

This is the most important question. Don't even think about trying to "sneak" a cat into your new domicile. I guarantee that you'll be caught, and the results will spell heartbreak for you, and disaster for the cat. If having a cat is not allowed, then read no further, because the other questions are moot. (On second thought, skip to the final paragraph, because there is another option if you truly love cats.)

Am I prepared to keep my cat indoor-only?

An indoor cat is a safe cat, and this axiom is no truer than in a college campus atmosphere, with traffic, constant coming-and-going, stray dogs, and even a few cat-haters or pranksters who love nothing more than to catch cats to tease them, or worse. Your cat will be perfectly happy indoors, with or without a window perch to look outside, if you give him otherwise responsible care.

Will I be financially able to take care of a cat's basic needs?

Do you have enough money saved, or will you work part-time, or will you have to depend on parents to cover these extra costs? If the latter is the case, will your parents commit to footing these needs for four years or more?

Will I have the spare time to devote to a feline roommate?

If this is your first year at college, you may not fully anticipate the time commitments in store for you: classes, studying, part-time job (if applicable), and recreation time with friends.

Although cats will sleep a large portion of the day, and spend some time playing alone with toys, they have a real need for companionship with their humans. Daily petting, interactive play, grooming, and cuddling are a must for a happy cat, as well as regular scooping and cleaning of the litter box. An ignored cat will become bored, depressed, and behavioral problems may result.

Am I equipped to cope with behavioral problems?

It is well-acknowledged that most feline behavioral problems result from "user error," i.e. the cat's caregiver has failed to meet the cat's needs. Litter box avoidance starts when the owner fails to keep the box pristinely clean; destructive clawing results from failure to clip claws or provide suitable scratching posts; and whiny, bratty behavior is inevitably the sign of a ignored and bored cat or kitten.

Correcting behavioral problems almost always involve detective work to try to eliminate the potential causes. Are you prepared to take the time to take these steps, or would you be more inclined to "give the cat up?"

What will I do with my cat on holidays and vacations?

For more than an overnight trip, a cat should not be left home alone, to fend for himself. You need to be prepared to either bring your cat with you when you return home for vacations, find a reputable boarding kennel, or hire a pet sitter (more expenses.) Again, you'll need your parents' full cooperation in most cases.

I would hope that after four years or more of being part of a family with a cat, you'd choose to continue that relationship. If you have any thoughts about leaving the cat behind on the campus, in hopes that he/she would find a new home, consider these facts:

The TNR (Trap-Neuter-Return) movement in the United States found its early beginnings on college campuses. School authorities were plagued by colonies of feral cats, the result of "roommate cats" that had been left behind when their owners went home on vacation, or left the school permanently. For the most part unneutered, these throwaway cats bred freely and their numbers created real problems for the administration. In some universities, the solution was to "trap and kill" the ferals. In other colleges, students, faculty, and administration reacted in a positive way, by the formation of TNR programs. Texas Aggie is one of the more successful programs, and its population of homeless cats has been reduced substantially since the inauguration of its TNR program in 1988. The sad fact remains that these cats still remain homeless. Once they have reverted to feral behavior, their chances for successful adoption are remote, at best. Would you choose to allow a cat you'd roomed with for several years to end up with that fate? I think not.

Time for Accountability

Take a good, honest look at your answers to the questions I've posed. Are you satisfied that you could be a responsible parent to a cat, on campus and off?

If so, I congratulate you, and I wish you many, many happy future years with your cat.

If, however, you have concluded that a cat roommate is not in your near future, there are other worthwhile options to both get your regular "cat fix," and to make a huge difference to homeless cats.

  • Join a Campus TNR team, or start one yourself, if the need is there. On large campuses, this is almost always the case. Read the pages linked in the sidebar to find out more information on handling feral cats and how campus TNR groups are organized.
  • Volunteer at a Shelter. Although volunteer work can be heartbreaking at times, it can also be immensely rewarding, to give love and attention to needy cats. Even cleaning cages and litter boxes are valuable work, and you'll have time to interact with their occupants at the same time. Should your volunteer work eventually evolve to becoming an adoption counselor, you can put these questions you've learned to good use, to ensure that the cats you adopt out will all enjoy homes with responsible, caring caregivers.