By Anastasia Miskaki,
June 8th marked the National Best Friends Day in the United States and pets are very often one of the first thoughts that pop into the minds of thousands of people when they think of friendship. With a population of a little over one hundred million in Europe and around 95 million in the United States, cats are undoubtedly one of the most popular pet choices. Their widespread popularity, however, has been tarnished by their highly questionable reputation as independent and arrogant -in short, selfish animals.
Certainly, cat(his)story goes way back to ancient times. In ancient Egypt, furry felines are known to have been held in great esteem for their efficiency in eliminating dangerous rodents and reptiles. Pharaohs considered cats sacred, and even set penalties for hurting a cat, and many gods were depicted as having cat-like features. It was probably then that the association of cats with mystical forces not only begun, but was also solidified. Although the Bible only mentions big cats (lions and leopards) and not domesticated ones, during the Middle Ages our feline companions re-entered the spotlight, this time mainly as “familiars”, the confidants and evil helpers of wicked witches. This role is what brought them a considerably bad reputation. Even worse, in the strict context of the medieval Christian world, felines were though to be the devil himself. Medieval writer Walter Map in 1180 speaks of how “the Devil descends as a black cat before his devotees. The worshippers put out the light and draw near to the place where they saw their master. They feel after him and when they have found him, they kiss him under the tail”. Evidently, cats represented all the sins and vices Christianity so strongly fought to vanish. Along with women and other “erratic figures”, cats were branded as the highly deviant and dangerous Other, at least in medieval Christian Europe (in contrast, medieval Muslims were quite nice to cats). In the 17th and 18th centuries the privileged and rich started to treat animals more humanely and by the 19th century felines had become a common pet amongst Victorian households and were admired as clean and rational beings. Despite this general change, the significantly inaccurate depiction of cats as arrogant and selfish has passed through the centuries, and to this day many people still brand felines as self-centred creatures.
The real question, though, is, are they? Can we really write off our furry buddies as egocentric? My answer would be a resounding no. If I were to explain the discontent, many experiences when, in their opinion, they have been snobbed by a cat, I would base my answer more on the vital behavioural differences between another popular pet; dogs. Most (surely not all) dogs are known for being friendly and loyal, man’s best companion since ancient times. Cats, as descendants of bigger felines, are more independent than dogs whose ancestors lived in strict packs. This is because, contrary to dogs, felines are less domesticated and, as a result, they are more in contact with the genes they share with their feral ancestors, roughly meaning they have a mind of their own. The problem is that a large number of people has a hard time respecting a cat’s will to live freely.
Whatever the reason why us humans consider cats snobbish, these creatures are certainly sociable. John Bradshaw, author of Cat Sense (2013), an anthrozoologist and cat behaviourist at the University of Bristol, studies the interaction between humans and felines, and, more specifically, cat behaviour. In an interview to National Geographic in 2014, Bradshaw reveals that cats do not perceive us the way dogs do. “We’ve yet to discover anything about cat behaviour that suggests they have a separate box they put us in when they’re socializing with us”, Bradshaw says. Cats are aware that we are bigger creatures, but socially we are just another type of cat for them: they rub on us and they groom us as they would do with another cat. This suggests some sort of equality between cat owners and their pets, since cats do not them neither superior nor inferior to them. In a sense, our felines think of us as giant cats, which also explains other forms of communication they use with humans, such as meowing, purring and kneading. As Bradshaw, elaborates, “the house-cat’s characteristic sound, the meow, is hardly ever heard in feral cat colonies. Cats that live with humans, however, learn that meowing is a good way of getting our attention”. As far as purring is concerned, “cats purr because they have something to say, which roughly translated is ‘please keep still and pay attention to me’”. Kittens purr to communicate with their mothers and while house cats purr when they are petted, while a sick cat may also purr to express need for help. A similar explanation is hidden behind the movement of the paws that reminds us of baking bread, that is kneading, something kittens perform on the belly of their mothers in order to release milk.
So much, then, for cats that supposedly do not care about humans. Bradshaw answers the million-dollar question of how someone can make a cat love them in a truly revealing manner: “Cats naturally feel affection for those who feed, look after and play with them, although they don’t always make that obvious”. It sounds reasonable to think that a kitty that lives with humans, is fed by humans and plays with humans to feel love for those humans. Sometimes we just have to work harder to earn their trust, depending on the cat’s personality. Other times (and this happens way too often, as most cat owners will agree) we cross the line, having missed the warning signs that our cat is simply bored or tired of being petted all the time, and there goes a small bite or scratch. What is for sure, though, is that we adore these adorable furry creatures, and this feeling is surely reciprocal.
- What Do Cats Think About Us? You May Be Surprised, National Geographic, Available here
- Why Cats Were Hated in Medieval Europe, Medievalists.net, Available here
- Cats in the 19th Century, The Great Cat,Available here
- The Inner Life of Cats, Scientific American, Available here