Why We Keep Cats (And They Keep Us)

old picture cat and man
John b Moisant and her cat. Cats and men have been living together for long time.
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The man has had companion cats for at least 3,000 years, this relationship being well documented by archeological findings, writers, poets and others. Historically, it was thought that the way man felt about himself and his place in the universe was reflected in the way he treated his animals. What has nurtured this affinity and how has it survived through the ages? In order to ponder this question, one must look at the animal, namely the cat, and his influence on human behaviour from the very young to the very old.

Starting young

Many children are given the opportunity to share in that special relationship — the human/animal bonding experience. It is usually during childhood that pets have their strongest impact on us.

[adsense]Felines can provide us with a model for learning about interdependence (i.e.- a furry feline may alert its owners of any unusual night noises by scurrying toward that noise or meowing, but it is the responsibility of the owner to protect the pet from road traffic). Some psychological reports indicate that the rearing of one’s cat can influence one’s own thoughts and behaviours when raising children in later years — both need love, nourishment and warmth. The mere ownership of a cat may, indeed, aid in the development of certain adaptive personality traits.

A sense of ownership

Cats, for the most part, are very accepting, having no ego ideal for a child to meet. These quadrupeds claim human ownership by head butting and rubbing their personal scent on you. They give their love freely, with no strings attached, providing a child with a sense of lovability which he or she may not necessarily be receiving elsewhere in the external environment. Cats can also provide a child with a sense of accomplishment and competence, especially when the animal responds to his name being called, or performs small tricks. These interactions and accomplishments can, in turn, invest a child with positive self esteem, and even bring the child a certain amount of attention and prestige in the form of an attentive, interested group of playmates.

Setting a good example

A cat’s innate curiosity and explorative nature can help decrease feelings of fear and isolation in a shy or withdrawn child. It has been observed that such children tend to latch onto cats in a buddy-type fashion, both exploring the universe together. Learning the body language of cats can enhance the child’s ability later in life to understand non-verbal communication between adults. Facial expressions, body stance and muscle rigidity are just some of the cues a child may learn by observing cats.

Family dynamics

Families, in themselves, are complex units with each addition to the family increasing the complexity of interactions between family members. Having a cat encourages each member of the family unit to interact with the pet as well as each other.

Decisions as to who feeds the pet, who scoops the litter and who takes the cat to the vet necessitate a flow of family communication.

This type of interaction, for the most part, can be perceived as positive. On the other hand, the presence of the family cat may give rise to a family member’s feelings of possession, jealousy or even rivalry. This is especially true when a cat is first introduced into the family home. No sooner has the poor cat had a chance to sniff out his surroundings than sibling arguments emerge about whose turn it is to attend to the new pet.

Children may consider themselves ‘parents’ to their cats, lovingly dressing them up in doll clothes or taking them for a wagon ride to the park. Although overtly amusing, these important interactions can set the stage for the child’s emerging feelings of love, concern and responsibility.

Cats as therapists

Emotionally troubled and cognitively-impaired children, teens, adults and seniors benefit greatly from Pet Facilitative Therapy (PFT). Both cats and dogs have been widely used by professionals in a wide variety of settings to facilitate communication. PFT is based on the premise that troubled individuals may accept and interact with an animal before they will interact with people. Cats are accepting of us and are non-judgmental. They give freely of their love and attention and ask no questions — a security you can find nowhere else. They are simply there, being cats, allowing us the opportunity to express ourselves to them and the world in our own unique way.

In our modern world, cats are no longer considered part of the natural habitat, as we have been domesticating them for centuries. They are, in fact, dependent on us for their very lives and, sometimes, a merciful or humane end to life. From birth to death, they give us the opportunity to grow.

Thanks to T. Colonnese

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