Raising a Cat in Korea

Written by on August 31, 2012 in Uncategorized

I’ve always been surprised that cats aren’t a more popular pet in Korea. They’re perfect for city life in a cramped apartment with no yard. They’re instinctively toilet-trained. They can be left alone for longer periods of time than dogs. They’re overall quieter, cleaner, and more independent than dogs.

In North America where I’m from, cats and dogs are roughly equal in popularity. There are more households that have dogs, but actually the population of domesticated cats is higher in both Canada and America (meaning more people owning multiple cats).

And cats are becoming much, much more popular in Korea, but the sad truth is that the majority of Korean people still see cats as garbage-eating vermin, closer to rats or dogs, or as feral beasts that will hurt you.

But in this case those are my legs, so no she won’t.

In all honesty, due to decades of lax animal control, and the Thomas theorem,  they’re usually right. I’ve found that most Korean people just haven’t been exposed to properly domesticated cats. But that’s changing in a big way, as people are exposed to cats at cat cafes and more are adopting cats of their own. Anyway, this is how I see cats:

That’s Buster on the left, and Millie on the right.

I’ve lived with animals most of my life, and after two years in Korea I adopted adopted Millie. Half a year later, I adopted Buster from the same mother. Now, six years later, they’re still with me.

Being a pet owner isn’t easy. They aren’t like some plant you have to water once a week (is it once a week? I’ve killed too many houseplants to know). Despite the stereotype that cats are lazy and arrogant (yes, some stereotypes are based on truths), they need love and a stable home. And providing all that can be that much more difficult in a foreign environment like Korea. So, I’ll attempt to put my six years with Millie and Buster to use to answer any questions you may have.

Where can I get a cat?

There are pet markets all over. I’ve seen cats up for adoption in Dongdaemoon and Chungmuro, and there are also pet stores and even larger department stores with pet sections where you can adopt cats. In all honesty, I discourage everyone from adopting from those places. Some of the markets have very poor conditions, and while you might feel the urge to rescue kittens from these places, you’re really only supporting the market to continue offering them.

Kittens for sale in Dongdaemoon, alongside birds and rabbits

While the newer department stores tend to have much better conditions, I still encourage everyone to look elsewhere.

Consider an animal shelter, foster program, or rescue organisation. Animal Rescue Korea, who says “Adopt, not shop,” offers a list of animal shelters across Korea. You will not only get an animal companion, but save a life.

Another good way to get a cat is through adoption from someone whose own cat had kittens. If you have a friend who needs to adopt out a litter of kittens, why not?

Millie at two weeks old (left); Buster at ten days old (right).

It’s worth noting that in Korea, the phrase “Free to a good home” is never used. Rather, for most adoptions it is expected that you pay some amount of money, even if it’s incredibly small.  There are cultural reasons for this and it’s not worth arguing over.

I adopted both of my cats at three months old, ensuring they had the proper amount of time living with their mother. I’ve heard two months is also considered okay, but one extra month at home can’t be a bad thing.

What about strays?

I’ve known many strays who were picked up off the street at a very young age, and went on to become great pets. But you have to get them when they’re young, or they won’t be able to adapt well.

When I first met this guy, whose name is either Cookie Monster or Murphy, depending on who you ask, he was a couple months old, but still about the same size as the newborns pictured above.

You also need to be careful with strays, especially if you already have cats at home. They could carry diseases like pan leukopenia, which has a very low survival rate. It’s sad, but you have to put your own cats first. I’ve heard about entire shelters having to be put down because one stray with pan leukopenia was brought in.

How long do I keep a cat?

I was surprised to discover that most Korean people don’t know how long a cat lives. While the average stray’s lifespan may be barely over one year, a healthy cat can live to as old as 20.  Domesticated cats have even longer lifespans than dogs.

Oh, and if you don’t intend to keep a cat you adopt for the rest of its life, don’t adopt. Some people adopt cats when they’re kittens, then lose interest when they grow up and abandon them.  Congratulations, you robbed a cat of its youth, the best time of its life to find a permanent home and bond with a lifelong companion.

Yes, they grow up. And get fat. But so do you.

How do I bring a cat to Korea?

Before you do, you should ask yourself if it’s really a good idea. Are you planning to spend just a year here? Then maybe moving in and out in such a short time would be unneeded stress for your cat, and you’d be better off having a year of separation from each other.

If you’re still bringing your cat, the absolute first thing you need to do is make sure that the apartment where you’ll be living allows cats, as many of them will not.

Before you leave your home country, go to your vet and make sure your cat’s immunisation is up to date. Ask your vet about the proper paperwork, and make sure everything is good to go.

Contact the airline and see if they have any restrictions. Cats are usually fine to bring, and you’ll even be able to keep your cat with you inside the plane. You can easily get them tranquilised prior to the flight.

When your cat goes through immigration, you need to take it to the NVRQS(National Veterinary Research & Quarantine Service) office. There’s a chance it will be quarantined, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of this happening.  This page should be some help.

How do I take my cat when I leave Korea?

I don’t really have an answer for this because I’ve never really had to do it. It’s probably like the process above, except in reverse.

Baekdu, who belonged to my Australian friend, had to stay behind in Korea for six months after my friend left because he hadn’t gotten a rabies shot. Now Baekdu is happily living in Australia, but it was a stressful situation.

Baekdu was my cats’ only other cat friend.

Should my cat be an indoor cat or an outdoor cat?

There are two kinds of cats in Korea: indoor cats and strays. While it is common in countries with lower population densities for domestic cats to be let outside during the day, here it’s a bad idea. More roads, more traffic, dangerous strays with deadly diseases, and so on. If you let your cat out, it probably won’t make it back to you.

And if you do take the risk of letting your cat out, make sure it has a collar. Better yet, an RFID chip. Those aren’t mandatory in Korea yet, but I hear they’re becoming very common overseas.

I only let my cats outside long enough for them to decide they don’t like it.

Is my apartment good for a cat?

Not all apartments in Korea allow pets, so you need to ask the landlord first. I’ve missed out on some very nice apartments because of my cats.

I wouldn’t worry too much about the size of the apartment, because cats don’t really need a lot of room. My own cats spend a lot of time under the bed and up inside the guts of the couch, so I hardly think they’re claustrophobic. You might want to have an apartment large enough where the litter box isn’t right next to the bed though.

Also, windows are important. Cats love to sit at the window and watch. It’s like TV for them. The more windows you have, and the better the view, the happier your cats will be. Especially if they can see birds.

Birdwatching is certainly more interesting than most of what’s on TV.


How do I keep my cat from getting lonely when I’m out?

After I first adopted Millie, she would cry at the door whenever I left. I could hear her meowing all the way down the stairs of my apartment building. Although cats seem solitary, they crave companionship.

The solution to Millie’s problem was not something she would have personally approved of. We got her a companion. And they fought.

…And fought…

And they still do fight, but so do most siblings. And I know that they’re both better off because they have each other.

Nap time

How do I toilet-train my cats?

Don’t worry, unless they grew up as strays, chances are they’ll be the ones toilet-training you. Cats evolved in the desert, where they adapted to evade larger predators by burying their waste in the sand. All you need to do is put down a special plastic box filled with litter, which is similar to sand but with all sorts of additives to deodorise, and your cats will know what to do.

Buster does the tidying up.

And if you’re not doing it right, they’ll let you know, and they won’t be very nice about it.

Where do I go for supplies (litter, cat food, etc)?

Most Korean cat owners get their food, litter, and whatever else they need from online stores. In all honesty I’m unable to use them, partly because as a foreigner I can’t register and partly because I wouldn’t be home when they deliver.

I get everything I need through a pet store near my home. Not the best solution, but they have everything I need and they frequently give me discounts.

Korean cat food is actually pretty decent. It’s made with an interesting variety of ingredients, and sometimes looks edible to humans. I know a Korean cat owner who once went to the fridge for a tin of tuna, and grabbed the wrong one. Her cats started driving her crazy, and she was halfway done until she realised she’d been eating cat food.

Yes, there’s even collagen cat food.

How do I keep my cat entertained?

It’s important to play with your cat, to keep it both entertained and fit. There are a variety of toys on a string or stick that do the job well. If you’re a bit lazier, you can have them running up the walls with a laser pointer, but it’s important to make sure you don’t get it in the cat’s eyes. I don’t really recommend anything more expensive, because cats have a way of turning the simplest household objects into fascinating toys.

That is to say, they love boxes.

There’s also catnip, which basically works like a drug for the cats. Some get hyper, and others become lazy. They’ll sniff it, chew on it, roll in it, and even defend it. Basically, everything but get the munchies.

Buster does not let others bogart his catnip.

How do I find a good vet?

There are animal hospitals (동물병원) all across Korea.  Some are better than others, and some specialise in cats while others don’t really know how to deal with a cat. When shopping around for a vet the first time, I found one that was offering cat haircuts. Why in the world would a cat ever need a haircut? I found a different vet who was very good to both Millie and Buster.

Unfortunately, clinics open and close all the time, so I can’t really recommend one to everyone. Also, travelling with a cat is tough (see next question), so I would highly recommend finding a clinic near your home rather than travelling halfway across the city for one that’s been recommended.

If you’re near Daelim Station, I could recommend Sarang Animal Clinic, but it’s been years since I went there.

There are many reasons to take your cat to the vet, and all of them are unpleasant for the cat. They need to get shots to protect them from diseases such as rabies. If your cat has not received a rabies shot, it will probably not be allowed to move to a new country.

It’s very important that you take your cat in to be spayed or neutered. Spaying is the removal of the uterus, while neutering is the removal of the testicles. Understandably, spaying is a much more invasive procedure, but if you’re raising your cat to be a housepet, it is the best solution to give the cat a comfortable life. Unspayed or unneutered cats tend to go into heat, which makes them much louder and gives them the urge to run away to find a mate.

Whether to spay/neuter your cat is no longer controversial, but the best age is heavily debated. Many believe in waiting until the cat is six months old, but it’s becoming more and more popular to do it at an earlier age. It is now common to spay a female cat as early as four months old, when she is better able to recover, and this will reduce behavioural problems later in life and also prevent mammary tumours. Male cats may be neutered as early as six to eight weeks, once they’ve reached at least two pounds in weight.

There are also many emergency situations in which you might need to get your cat to a vet: intestinal blockages, urinary crystals, hair loss.

And if you’re near Hongdae Station, I can enthusiastically recommend Well Care Veterinary Clinic.

I’ve had decent enough luck finding English-speaking vets. Like doctors, they seem to pick up English along the way in their education.

What about allergies?

Hopefully you know if you and/or anyone you live with has allergies to cats before you bring one into your home. In all honesty I have slight allergies myself, and if I get too affectionate with my cats my eyes can feel a bit agitated.

You still should be concerned about people you see every day. Once I worked with a guy who couldn’t get near me or he’d just sneeze and sneeze and sneeze until we moved away from each other. There are special types of tape that can remove the cat hair from your clothes.

To the right people, my cat is a biological weapon, and this is her weapons lab.

How do I move with a cat?

Moving can be stressful for you, but to a cat it’s the equivalent of jumping in a space ship and heading into outer space. They really don’t have a sense of where you’re going or how long it’ll take.

A couple years ago I moved from Suwon to Seoul, a trip that took about an hour and a half in the moving truck. Millie spent most of the time on the dashboard, and Buster stayed in his carrier which was on my friend’s lap, opened up so he was facing my lap.

About an hour in, Millie decided that the ride would never end, so she squatted off the dashboard and relieved herself, which grazed my leg as it fell to the floor of the truck. I quickly covered it with tissues but the odour was pretty obvious. Then Buster smelled it, and immediately barfed. Directly onto my lap. So I had to sit in the truck the rest of the way with cat feces by my feet and cat barf on my lap.

It’s probably telling that both of my cats were even more disgusted by this than I was.

Okay, I admit, this was mostly a chance for me to show off my cat pictures.

But I hope anyone who is thinking about having a cat in Korea makes an informed choice.  Owning a pet isn’t for everyone. I’ve probably talked more of my friends out of adopting cats than I have into adopting cats. I intend to be the owner of my cats for the rest of their lives, and I hope all other cat owners can say the same.

The Ottawa Humane Shelter has what I consider a pretty good checklist of what makes a responsible pet owner.

I won’t stop you from posting your own pictures of your cats in the comments section below.

About the Author

Jon Dunbar

Jon Dunbar is a former editor and staff writer for Korea.net. His first visit to Korea was in summer 1996 when he was a teenager, and he returned permanently in December 2003. He is involved in the Korean underground music scene and has supported local musicians through writing, photography, and occasionally planning events. He has been blogging for more than a decade, mainly on music, urban exploration, and his cats