Kittieconomics: there’s no such thing as a free cat

I’ll be writing a few posts about the expenses associated with cat ownership, and they will all be filed under the terribly punny tag ‘kittieconomics’. I’m doing this to give prospective cat parents some idea of what expected (and less expected) costs can occur when you take on the responsibility for a cat and to share some of the ways I’ve found to keep large expenses (like vet bills!) under control.

This first post in the kittieconomics series is about the startup costs associated with obtaining a “free” kitten/cat (alternative post title: why I think adoption fees at shelters are usually an awesome deal!). It comes in the form of an origin story for one of my previous (and sadly long since departed) cats, Kepler, who I mentioned in Tycho’s adoption story. (If you want to skip Kepler’s story, there’s a TL;DR about cat startup costs at the end of the post!)


Kepler (a tabby cat) posing on a bench in front of the barn

In the fall of 2004, I was a junior at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. Being a junior meant I was finally allowed to live in a house instead of in the dorms (though the house was still on campus), and that I was free from mandatory dining hall meal plans.  This freedom of course meant that my friends and I went out to eat off campus quite frequently. On one of those off campus excursions, we walked out of a restaurant and toward my car, only to be confronted by an adorable but sad looking tabby kitten. (I was not on top of the tech curve, so I didn’t have a camera phone and you will just have to take my word for it that he was adorable and a little pathetic looking at the time.)

The restaurant was located in a commercial area just off a very busy road, so I strongly suspect he was dumped there and did not simply wander away from home. We knew we couldn’t leave him, so I scooped him up and we drove to a pet store to pick up a carrier, a disposable litter pan, and some food. We chatted with the employees at the store and decided the kitten was probably about 6 or 7 months old. They also gave us the contact information for a few local shelters that might be able to take the kitten.

The next day I called the local shelters, but none of the no-kill shelters had any room for an additional cat. I couldn’t keep him myself because campus housing didn’t allow pets and because two of my housemates were allergic to cats (the latter being much more of a problem! even just having the cat in my room for a week or so while I sorted things out caused some red eyes and sniffling!). That’s when I called my parents and asked them if I could bring the cat home to be a barn cat on our 17 acre farm in Michigan. I’ll add here that our barn cats at the farm weren’t typical barn cats. They were taken in for regular vet checkups, had heated beds and heated water dishes in the winter, and got lots of attention because we (well, I say we, but given that I didn’t live there anymore, I really mean mostly my mom…) were frequently out in the barn to take care of the horses and occasional miniature donkey.

a miniature donkey checking out a skeptical Kepler
Kepler with one of my mom’s miniature donkeys (I still hold a grudge against those stupid donkeys, but that’s another story)

My parents said that I could bring the cat home to live on the farm, but only after I’d had the cat fixed and it got all the recommended vaccines; they’d been the recipient of several “free” cats and kittens over the years, and thus knew better than to accept another one unconditionally. I agreed, made a vet appointment, and took the cat in.

Aside: This is the part of the story where Tycho and Kepler have a lot in common. The vet thought Kepler (still unnamed at that point) was a girl. This belief persisted right up until said vet did the incision to spay the cat, only to find that there weren’t girl-cat parts in there. So they had to stitch him up and then neuter him instead (and I had to deal with the post-op care for the extra incision). I apparently didn’t do a good job picking a particularly competent vet…

Anyway, the initial vet visit cost something like $50 to do a physical exam and another $50 to do the blood work to make sure the cat was healthy enough to be fixed. Then I had to bring him back for the surgery (probably $150), and pay for all the vaccines kittens need (another $50 or so), because we had no idea if he’d ever had any. I don’t remember the exact details of the cost breakdown, but I do remember that I spent over $300 in total on the vet bills and the bare bones supplies to keep him for a week. I’d spend it all again in a heartbeat (though I would find a better vet…), but that’s so much more than the $20 (heavily discounted) adoption fee I paid to take a neutered and fully vaccinated Tycho home, or the $100 fee for Gus! Shelter cats are a really good deal! Now, I probably could have found somewhere willing to neuter Kepler for less money if I’d had more time to shop around (many clinics or shelters will offer discounted spay/neuter services, and the internet makes it easier to find them, like through this Human Society website!), but you probably won’t ever do better than those adoption fees.

After Kepler was deemed healthy and unable to reproduce, I took him home to the farm. He was slowly introduced to the barn, and took to barn cat life very well. He loved climbing trees (luckily none of the trees were so tall that he couldn’t get down) and hunting birds. He was super sweet, and enjoyed greeting you when you went out to the barn.

Kepler sitting in a tree in front of our dog Maggie
Kepler in a tree taunting our dog Maggie (who sometimes got overexcited about seeing the cats)

Tragically, Kepler didn’t live much past 3 or 4 years old. Despite the barn being very far back from a not super frequently traveled road, he was hit by a car. He’s the only barn cat we ever lost that way (all the others lived very long lives, including one that I think was 17 when she died this past year!), but that’s sadly a risk with outdoor cats. I take comfort knowing he at least got a few really good years, because he so easily could have been hit on that busy road by the restaurant where I found him. But I still miss him because he was such a sweetie.

kepler sprawled out on the ground outside the barn

Sometimes life dumps “free” cats in your lap, and I’m really glad I was in a position to find my free cat a good (albeit tragically short lived) home. But I highly recommend adopting from your local shelter if you’re looking to keep kitty startup costs low!


I once found a “free” kitten in a parking lot. It cost me more than $300 to get him neutered and fully vaccinated. Compare this to the typical $80-100 adoption fee to adopt a ready-to-go fixed and vaccinated cat or kitten from a shelter and you will see why I tell people that shelters are the most economical way to get a cat! And you might even get a “discount” cat like Tycho, whose adoption fee was a measly $20!

If you have a “free” cat story, please share in the comments!

origin stories: Gus and Tycho

I am currently lucky enough to live with two very cute and cuddly boys, Gus and Tycho (who tweet at @katskitties for the vanishingly small number of people who might find this blog from somewhere besides their twitter feed).

Gus and Tycho standing on a bench with their paws up on the windowsill, looking outside

Tycho is a 16 year old, longhaired orange tabby. He is definitely an old man in that he sleeps a lot, but he’s still plenty feisty when he is awake!  He loves to “sing” and is a fan of wrestling with Gus. I adopted Tycho a bit more than 11 years ago. I adopted Gus just a year and a half ago. He’s a 4 year old, shorthaired grey tabby.  Like Tycho, Gus loves sleeping, but he has more energy to burn due to his youth! His hobbies include chasing his tail, lobbying for wet food, and sitting on the dining room table when I’m not home to scold him for it. Both of their adoption stories are below!


Close-up of Tycho's face

I met Tycho in the fall of 2006, shortly after I moved to Tucson for graduate school. As soon as I was settled into my new apartment (and had sorted out getting paid by my new department!), I went to the Humane Society of Southern Arizona to find myself a feline companion. I had decided ahead of time not to adopt a kitten because adult cats are too often overlooked at shelters, and kittens are trouble! When I got to the shelter, I went straight to the wall of adult cats and noticed a very sad and timid looking orange floof ball. The card on the cage said that this poor dear was a 5 year old female (we’ll come back to that…) named “Chesty” (11 years later I still can’t get over that awful name…).

Before the shelter, Chesty had apparently lived with an older woman who then passed away. The woman’s neighbors took the cat in for a little while after that happened, but they had small children and the cat was not a good fit for their household, so they brought him to the shelter. Chesty had been at the shelter for several months already, and was labeled as a “discount” cat (meaning they would not charge the full adoption fee). They let me hold the cat on my lap, and even though it was pretty difficult to judge much about personality, etc, I decided that I had to give this unhappy kitty a new home. So I filled out all the adoption paperwork, and paid the adoption fee (only $20!). They said I could come back for the cat in a few days after they spayed her (this was before the HSSAZ was no-kill, so they didn’t spay/neuter cats until there was an adopter lined up).

Well, about two days later I got a call from the shelter’s vet clinic. They had prepped Chesty for spaying, at which point they discovered Chesty was actually a boy who required neutering. (At least they discovered this prior to making any incisions, which is more than can be said for my previous cat, Kepler. I’ll get to his story in another post, but I clearly have a knack for picking up cats whose sex has been incorrectly identified…) They asked me if I still wanted the cat, and I said that of course I did! So they proceeded with neutering. The poor kitty had a blood vessel burst while they did the procedure, which I was later told is a risk associated with being neutered at an older age, so he still ended up with an extra incision and stitches so they could stop the bleeding. That meant he had to stay at the vet clinic for an extra day or two, but I finally got to take him home about a week after I first met him.

I decided to name him Tycho because my previous cat was the aforementioned Kepler, and I was starting a PhD program in planetary science with a focus on orbital dynamics. So the name worked well (for the non-astronomy fans, Tycho Brahe was the astronomer whose very careful observations of the planets’ positions in the sky allowed Johannes Kepler to derive his laws of planetary motion around the sun). Tycho was very timid at first, just like at the shelter. He wasn’t into exploring. If I left him sitting on my bed when I went to campus, he’d be exactly where I left him when I got home hours later. But eventually he got more and more comfortable in the apartment, and started taking advantage of things like the nice kitty bed I bought him and placed near a nice sunny window.

tycho stretching and lounging in a cat bed on a sunny windowsill

While he was almost instantly very trusting of me, it took him many, many years to start to appreciate other people. But he’s now a very sociable kitty who will purr and accept scritches from almost anyone!


close-up of Gus hugging a pillow with his eyes half closed

In the spring of 2016, Tycho was in need of another cat to keep him company, so I starting looking around town for a suitable companion. Finding Gus took more time than finding Tycho because I had more requirements this time around. I wanted to find an adult cat who was reasonably mellow and did not outweigh Tycho. I also wanted a shorthaired cat because dealing with the grooming requirements of one longhaired cat seemed like enough (I’m sure I’ll post about Tycho’s more intensive grooming requirements sometime!).

I went to the HSSAZ, but they didn’t actually have very many cats up for adoption, and none of the ones they had were quite right for being Tycho’s friend. (I was actually quite pleased that they had fewer cats, because that means they’ve been doing a good job adopting them out!). So I decided to check out the Hermitage Cat Shelter in Tucson. The Hermitage is set up differently than many shelters because they have series of rooms where the cats roam free together. They have separate areas for older cats, kittens, cats with special medical needs, etc, but most are in what they call a “general population” section of the shelter. So when you go looking for a cat, you can just wander around interacting with the cats, or just sit and observe.

I wandered around for a while, and I saw a lot of cats who were larger or fluffier or more energetic than I was looking for. But then I spotted a small tabby lurking in a corner, looking unsure about things. When I sat down and called him to me, he leapt right up into my lap and leaned against me. I was pretty much instantly smitten. His collar said his name was Gus Gus, and that he was about two and a half years old. I chatted with the volunteers there, and it turned out that it was Gus Gus’s first day in the general population room, and the Hermitage had just collected him from animal control a few days previously (no info on who dumped him there). He was a little younger than I was looking for, but he was so sweet (and timid!) that I figured his youth wouldn’t be too much of a problem for Tycho.

So I filled out the paperwork to do a foster-to-adopt for Gus Gus. I had to wait a few days while the shelter ran a background check, etc, but I soon got to pick him up to take him home. He cried in his carrier the entire 40 minute drive home, but once we got there he was so happy to explore his new room and get lots of attention!

happy Gus on the floor of his new home

He spent his first evening and night in the spare bedroom so he and Tycho could hear and smell, but not see each other. The second day, Gus Gus and Tycho got to touch noses through the cracked door for a while, and then have some supervised time together. Gus Gus then got to explore the rest of the apartment for a bit with Tycho confined to the spare room. By the third day I stopped worrying about confining either of them and they did fine. There was some hissing (there’s always some hissing when you introduce new cats), but they were very civilized together. The Hermitage did the initial transfer of Gus Gus to me as a foster, just to make sure the two cats were compatible, but I went back just 5 or 6 days later to do the official adoption paperwork. I decided to keep his name because it suits him (he shares some personality traits with the mouse from Cinderella!). I did officially shorten it to just Gus, but his nickname is GG, and I still sometimes call him Gus Gus.

It took several months for all the relationship details to get worked out between Gus and Tycho, but they are a good pair. They’re not snuggly together (though they will sometimes simultaneously snuggle in my lap), but they keep each other entertained, and they love to get into a good, friendly wrestling match!

Tycho and Gus perched on a windowsill looking out