10 Aug 2022

OPINION - AN COLÚN: Cats are an antidote for human behaviour

Have you seen this cat missing from Killoe?

Cats have been a great source of comfort for their owners during the neverending Lockdown.

MARK TWAIN famously struck the nail on the head concerning the nastiness of people as opposed to the therapeutic effect of cats when he said, “If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.”
I have kept cats for the last thirty years and the feeling of comfort and affection they give is invaluable. People are fickle – nice one minute, moody and difficult the next, whereas cats are constant in their needs and their behaviour. They have been especially beneficial to us during Lockdown providing us with the sense of being in a protective nest when the outside world seems harsh and cruel.
Cats have become more and more popular in recent decades as the number of people who appreciate and value their worth has increased. There are some people who feel ill at ease talking about "comfort" and "affection" when it comes to cats and who like to focus on their practical use. They talk about the animal's mouse- and rat-catching role rather than focussing on emotions which they consider a bit effeminate and suspect.
Beyond keeping rodents out of your home there is nothing more in practical terms that cats can do for you. They can't be trained in the way dogs and horses can and therefore don't have the same wide variety of roles. They don't provide us with food in the way that cattle, pigs and chickens do. And yet, because of their rodent-repelling ability and the huge comfort, in emotional terms, that they give us they are just as highly valued as our other domesticated animals.
In antiquity there were five cultures which worshipped cat gods and goddesses as part of their religions. These included the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Vikings, the Polish and the Chinese. The Vikings believed that the Goddess Freyja rode in a chariot which was pulled by two spectacular grey cats. Norse farmers left food offerings for cats because they believed that this would bring about good harvests. The Polish god Ovinnik was a large black cat with blazing yellow eyes. In all of these cultures the cat gods and goddesses were often perceived as being benign deities who had the best interests of the people at heart. In ancient Egypt killing a cat was absolutely forbidden and when a household cat died, the whole family would mourn and shave their eyebrows. By contrast other cultures perceived cats in very negative ways. In the Middle Ages cats were associated with vanity and witchcraft and were sometimes burned as symbols of the devil. This barbaric behaviour was condoned by the Popes. In the 1230s Pope Gregory IX announced that there was a rise in devil worshipping and that cats were often part of satanic rituals.
Nowadays we thankfully have left the medieval church's attitude to cats far behind and they have never been so popular. They are the most popular pet in the world, outnumbering dogs by three to one. Being top predators and more independent they are easier to look after than dogs. In a society which can seem very pragmatic, business-like and cold, cats offer us a much-needed outlet for emotional expression. When we return home from our day in the world, with all its challenges and difficulties, as we close our front door we step over the threshold into our safe space. At home there is no need to meet the demands of society's diktats and fashions. We can be completely ourselves; and part of that expression of who we really are includes nesting behaviour with our pets.
I read somewhere that a petowner's children were behaving in a difficult manner because they were in their teens and were being very moody and treating their parents as being terminally uncool. The parent reminisced wistfully about the pre-teen years when the nurturing, protective environment of the home was less fraught. By contrast, her cat hadn't changed and was still responding to her desire to initiate affection. "In a world," pointed out Peter Neville in his book "Cat Behaviour Explained", "where security means a written contract and emotional expression is often seen as weakness, the friendly cat is one of our only real-life outlets for uninhibited expression. How reassuring that on our return home the cat will be pleased to see us, purr and rub round our legs in an unconditional, uninhibited display of affection. And how reassuring that we can feel free to respond to that display without our fellow man belittling us or perceiving our expression of emotion as an opportunity to take advantage while our defences are down. Being affectionate with your dog is socially acceptable. And nowadays people need that as they never have before." He also points out that because cats and dogs provide the type of emotional involvement that we seek they are more fulfilling pets than hamsters, rabbits or goldfish.
The most likely ancestor of our modern pet, Felis catus, is the reddish to grey-brown African Wild Cat, Felis lybica, which has longer legs, a leaner body and a long thin tail. This species tames readily and the earliest records of man's association with any cat date from 2600 BC in ancient Egypt which was part of the African wild cat's territory.
Neville's book is also interesting because it sheds some light on some of my cat's behaviours which have long baffled me; for example kneading our laps. Neville says when the cat is on our laps we are offering it the same attention, warmth, affection and security that she knew as a kitten when suckling or lying next to its mother. The cat responds to our warmth and attention by purring and affectionate rubbing; and by kneading our laps as it used to knead its mother's nipples to stimulate milk flow. We play the role of its mother throughout the cat's life, in the process feeling better ourselves.
And what about the biting and kicking behaviour when I stroke my cat's stomach? You can stroke a cat's head and back for ever but if you try and stroke its stomach it suddenly grasps one's hand and bites, while kicking with a repeated movement of the back feet. "It seems," says Neville, "that the threshold of the reaction is reached when the cat ceases to feel comforted by our mothering-style affection and suddenly feels trapped and vulnerable so close to us while in such a relaxed state....From having allowed himself to revert to his kittenhood he grows up in an instant and, as an adult solo predator, decides that he needs to repel what has become a mild threat and make a distance between us."

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