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Who's Who? Establishing an Identification System: Planning for the Future of Your Cats


Death. Not something that most people care to discuss, or even think about. Most of us have, hopefully, prepared a will so that the relatives we leave behind know of our wishes and can distribute our estate as we wanted. But what about our pets? Have we made arrangements for them?

We all love our cats, and know them well. Sometimes they have registered names; sometimes each one has a special call name besides the registered name; and sometimes each cat just has its own special name. Each of them has their own coloring, traits and habits. Does anyone know them as well as you? What happens if all your cats are the same color? Does anyone else know them well enough to identify each of them if you are not there?

Several instances of the sudden death of cat owners in the past few years have given us an insight into what is required so that each and every one of your cats is taken care of until such time as each is identified and placed in a new home. While many of these tips are for breeders, they can easily be adapted for the average cat owner. Here's what we suggest:

  • besides making a traditional will naming an executor and outlining what you want done with your estate, consider preparing a separate cat will, designating what is to be done with each of your cats. Be sure to leave this cat will with your lawyer, and let your friends know that it is there.
  • designate a friend who is willing to handle this task, and let your family know your wishes. If you fail to do this, the family may insist on their legal right to make all the decisions, even though they know nothing about the cats. How does someone who isn't familiar with your cats tell two cats apart that are the same color and sex?
  • do not expect anyone to be able to identify your cats as easily as you can - not your spouse, not your family, not even your partner. Do not rely on your partner, spouse or family to be there to identify the cats. We cannot stress enough the importance of having an identification system in place. Many years of hard work can go down the drain if cats cannot be identified. Worse still, they wind up in the wrong place, with the wrong person, and there is nothing anyone can do.
  • organize your cat paperwork and keep it current. Keep a list with your vet's phone number handy as well as any partners or breeders you are working with. Let friends and family know where the list is kept, e.g. have it in a visible place such as the fridge door. Update it often.
  • establish an identification system for your cats. It's not important which system you use, only that it is in place and is current enough to be used by someone who does not know your cats. It can be a set of cards filed in a box. If you use this method, label and staple any photos to the card so they do not get lost. You can also use a folder system in a file cabinet. Again, identify and secure any photos to the folder so they won't get lost. The binder method using plastic page sleeves for each cat that contain pedigrees, photos and other information on individual cats is also useful.
  • not everyone is computer literate, so if all your records are on the computer, keep an up-to-date hard copy and backup disk. Keep the records using a computer program that is easily identified and used. Pedigree programs are a useful tool to a breeder, the programs often require expertise to use, and the majority of people will feel more comfortable with a program like Word Perfect. Use the computer files only as a backup to your main ID system.
  • explain what you are doing to those involved. They may have suggestions to make your system better. Don't forget to tell them where you keep your records. Another idea is to keep a second copy of your book or files with your cat executor. Remember to keep it current as well.
  • in each cat's file, card or page include the obvious items such as name, color, sex, age and weight, as well as ways to separate each from your other similarly colored cats: this one has the bluer eyes or smaller ears or longer body or darker color, etc. Does the cat come when he is called or is he shy with strangers? Does he have a particular mannerism that distinguishes him from other similar cats? Are there any identifying scars? Is the cat spayed or neutered? Are there any teeth missing?
  • take at least one photo of each cat. If it is a show cat, remember to take photos when it is not in show condition, as a cat can look very different, especially to someone who does not know your cats. If you shave your cats down and then let the coat grow out, take photos of them in full coat and clipped.
  • if you take a photos of your cat, identify the cat on the back of each photo. Name and date are a must, but it is better to include as much information on the back of the photo in your file as you can, in case it gets separated from the file. Boxes of photos are wonderful to leave behind, but useless if the people or cats in the photo cannot be identified.
  • although labelled photos are the best way to identify the cats, videos with a running commentary from you can be very useful. They demonstrate how you interacted with the cat, the tone and words you used, and how the cat responded.
  • don't put off making an ID system with the excuse that you don't have a camera. You can have a working system in place without photos by making your written description comparative and detailed.
  • another useful means of identification is the microchip or a tattoo (if a breeder, see CFA specifications in the Show Rules). Keep a record of the numbers in your file and safety deposit box. Be sure to let family and friends know where the safety deposit box is located, and where to find the key. Also notify your vet.
  • if some of your cats are in cages, label each cage with the cat's registered name and its call name. If most of your cats are loose, indicate why any are caged - pregnancy, behavior, illness, etc.
  • keep an up-to-date desk calendar, appointment book or time manager book. Be sure to make notations for names and dates of vaccinations, breedings, births, etc. This is an invaluable tool to ensure that your cats are properly cared for.
  • keep all original registrations in one place. While it may seem easier to keep them in the cat files, it is much safer to have them all in one place, preferably out of the house in a safety deposit box. This way they can be found easily, yet not wind up in the wrong hands. The other advantage of doing this is to have them protected in case of fire or theft.
  • write the nickname of the cat on the registration slip, if you have one, and indicate whether a cat is deceased or has been petted out. It is very confusing to have more registrations than cats! Make a copy of the registration slip with this information on it to keep in the cat's file.
  • if you are a breeder, keep original contracts in a safety deposit box (for the same reasons as above) and make copies of them for your file. This way they can't "disappear" allowing someone to change the arrangement. Remember you don't know who will have access to your files when you are gone.
  • be sure to include special information in each cat's file, e.g. a medical history, allergies, and any special food requirements. Use your desk calendar to keep a log of medications, vaccinations including type of vaccine, and vet visits, etc. Get copies of medical records from your vet and keep them in the cat's file. If your cat has any allergies, be sure to red flag them in some way so they will be seen first.  
  • if you are a breeder, make sure your breeding records are clear and up-to-date. One way is the breedings in the front of a book (with due dates marked) and the delivery dates (with gestation time, parents, times, kitten weight, sex and quality marked) in the back of the book. Your date book can also be used as a backup to this system. Again, it doesn't matter which method you use, just as long as you use it and someone else can understand it.

Once you have your identification system, test to see if it really works. Can a person who does not know your cats identify them using only the information in your files? Use the worst case scenario and choose a tester who has no knowledge of cats or genetics. Once they start, don't give them hints. Remember, you won't be there, so leave the room and return only when they say they are finished. Make no comment when they tell you how they identified the cats. If they make any mistakes, or have any difficulty whatsoever, wait until they are finished before you help them. This is the only way you will really know if you must find additional ways of describing the cats or photos. If your ID system fails this test, don't be satisfied until it passes. Revise or add to it, then put it to the test again with another non-cat fancy person. Your cat's future welfare depends on your system working when you're not there.

Once you have the cats identified and you know your system, the next job is to decide what you want done with your cats. Do you want them petted out? Should they go to a particular person or be offered to someone first? Is there anyone you specifically do not want to have a cat? Should they be sold or given away? Sometimes people, including those who have worked with you, expect to get cats for nothing, forgetting that cats have monetary value to the estate. If it is your wish that they be given one of your cats, then specify it. If a cat is sold, do you want the money to go to your estate or a charity such as The Winn Feline Foundation? Are there any restrictions you want to impose on the new owner, e.g., "not to be resold" or "no outside stud service?" Who do you want to make decisions for you? Name a backup cat executor, just in case your first choice pre-deceases you.

Put It in Writing

Now that you have made your basic decisions, it's time to set everything up legally. The best way to do this is in the form of a codicil to your main will. Wait a minute, you don't have a will? Well, without one you're going to die intestate, which means the government will most likely step in and make the decisions. Your cats may wind up in the pound or even worse, be put down. Is that what you want?

Circumstances, partnerships, and friendships can change and you may want to designate a different cat executor or change the arrangements for your cats. The best way to allow for these changes is to put the details in a codicil to your main will. Do both with a lawyer or a notary so they are legally correct. A codicil allows you to make changes quickly and inexpensively. Your lawyer will advise you how to set this up so that the details of your cat plans are spelled out in this way. Usually an amount of money is set aside in the main will to assist in the care of your cats until they go to their new homes. Then, in the codicil, you name the person assigned to this job, along with your wishes. Again, don't forget to have a second choice in case your cat executor predeceases or dies with you.

If you have a collection of cat paintings, books, or sculptures, you may want to consider specifying that they be donated to the CFA Foundation, which will preserve your history as a cat lover. Often relatives do not realize the value of the collection of "cat books" that you have carefully assembled and enjoyed during your life. To the family they may just be books; to the CFA Foundation they are a part of the history of cats.

Remember, your files can also be destroyed along with you in the event of a tragic fire. Having everything done legally with all your registrations, contracts, and a copy of your ID system in the safety deposit box eliminates any problems should your cats be in another area and survive the blaze. Don't forget - letting family and close friends know where to find that safety deposit box and the key is important.

Establish a Living Will

While we're on the subject of wills, what happens if you have an accident or heart attack, but don't die? What happens to the cats then? A living will designates who will take care of them and makes sure they are cared for if you are not in a position to do it. Consult your lawyer regarding a living will when you make your main will and codicil. You can also contact Alpha Affiliates Inc., 103 Washington St. Suite 362, Morristown, NJ 07960-6813 or call (201) 539-2770 for the Durable Power of Attorney for Pet Care.

Just Do It!

Death is an enemy we all have in common and we hide from it by not planning for it. Yes, we know what we should do, but we put it off until tomorrow. Always tomorrow ... tomorrow... Well, tomorrow you may be dead!

Identifying your cats in a detailed and systematic manner as well as outlining your wishes for their future will ensure the health and welfare of your beloved feline family when you are gone. You also help those left behind avoid the confusion, pain and burden of trying to sort the cats out and second guess what you wanted.

Remember, if you do not have a plan in place, your cats can wind up in the clutches of anyone, including your worst enemy, backyard breeders, the local kitten mill, or in a shelter where they could be put down. Look at your own situation. Will your cats be so fortunate?

Plan ahead. If you really care about your cats, JUST DO IT RIGHT NOW!!

Adapted from an article by Kerrie Meek
Cat Fanciers' Almanac, March 1996