New Mexico's Pet Resource FALL 2006

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Goddess in a Paper Bag
by Nancy Marano

Elegant. Mysterious. Curious. Aloof. Whatever description pops into your mind when you hear the word CAT, there is no denying people have very definite opinions about this animal. Cats have been worshipped as gods and burned alive as demons. Although their treatment has taken some capricious turns, the domestic cat is still sharing its life with us and gaining in popularity. When trying to understand this fascination we have with cats, it is helpful to know how they came to share our lives in the first place.

Watching our beloved pet stalk a toy mouse with total concentration and stealth, we believe we are given a glimpse of the jungle in the domestic. Are we right? According to scientists, we are.

Five thousand years ago a small wildcat, know as Felis libyca, roamed the deserts of North Africa, while another, Felis silvestris, wandered the forests of northern Europe. Debate continues over whether Felis libyca is a subspecies of Felis silvestris and which is the true ancestor of Felis canus, the domestic cat, but most experts seem to believe the story happened like this.

Egyptians began storing their grain in silos about 1600 BC. Understandably, these silos attracted large numbers of rodents. Wildcats, which had always roamed the area, began prowling closer to the silos at night hunting an easy meal. This behavioral change put them in closer contact with man. The Egyptians, knowing a good thing when they saw it, appreciated the cat’s hunting skills and kept them as ratters. But, the reasons for the wildcat’s domestication went beyond simple economics. Dogs, camels, cattle and sheep were already domesticated and worth far more in economic terms. Cats were brought into Egyptian homes as mousers, but they remained as cherished companions.

Life in ancient Egypt was a high point in cat history. Cats were venerated and worshipped. The cat goddess, Bast, also known as Bastet or Pash, was depicted with a woman’s body and a cat’s head. Cats were allowed to live out their lives without threat from man. In fact, killing a cat was a crime punishable by death. When a cat died, the whole household went into mourning. Cats were mummified and placed in elaborate sarcophagi with mummified rats to serve as their food in the afterlife.

Cats accompanied man on explorations and along the trade routes, thus making cats citizens of the world. Phoenician traders used cats aboard their ships to control the rat population. The Romans admired cats but did not worship them. However, cats were the only animals allowed in Roman temples. When the Romans moved into northern Europe and the British Isles, cats were with them. The Chinese regarded cats as a symbol of family happiness by 1000 BC, while the Japanese treated cats as special, noble creatures.

Veneration continued in the non-Christian world, but the cat’s fate was drastically different in Christian countries. About 1200 AD cats began to pay the price for being the objects of worship. The Church used them to symbolize all things demonic and pagan. Eyes that glowed in the dark didn’t help either, since they were considered proof that cats were the familiars of witches and demons. Cats were actually brought to trial, condemned and burned alive. This wholesale slaughter of cats proved to be a mistake, though, since it allowed the European rodent population to increase, leading directly to the plague that killed large numbers of people. By the 19th century, science disproved the demonic myths, and the cat began to regain its honored position. In 1871, the first organized cat show was held in London’s Crystal Palace. By the 1890’s, the enthusiasm for cats had spread to the United States where cats were featured in many advertisements. The most recent figures reveal there are 57 million companion cats and only 52.5 million companion dogs*. These figures alone should tell us the cat is back.

Cats have several anatomical characteristics worth noting. They possess four fangs, or canine teeth, designed to stab and hold prey, while their rough tongue can clean off hair and meat. Cats’ claws retract into protective sheaths so they won’t be harmed or dulled. Front claws are kept sharp by working them on something tough like tree bark or a scratching post. Back claws are sharpened by biting. Retractable claws and spongy paw pads allow the cat to move silently, a great advantage to a hunter. Cats’ eyes are extremely sensitive to light. Pupils are round when fully open, but they become narrow slits in bright light. It is a myth that cats are able to see in total darkness, but, because of the pupil flexibility, they do well in very dim light. Whiskers are an important sense organ for the cat. They act as a warning system for the proximity of objects. Purring is a sound unique to cats. There is no definitive explanation of how the sound is made, but everyone who has experienced the pleasure of a purring cat in their lap will forgo explanations and simply enjoy the sensation.

To many people a cat is just a cat, but numerous variations exist among them. These differences decide a cat’s breed. The first difference one notices is whether the cat is a longhair or shorthair. The next division is body type: svelte, cobby or intermediate build. The svelte or Oriental type is fine boned, lithe and has a narrow, wedge-shaped head. A typical example would be the Siamese. The cobby build is powerful, deep chested and large boned, with short legs and a large, rounded head. Persians typify this build. Most breeds fall between these extremes and are classed as having an intermediate build. American Shorthairs would be in this group. The Cat Fanciers Association, largest of the organizations dedicated to the registration of cats and setting breed standards, currently recognizes forty-one breeds.

Before bringing a cat home it is important to know what qualities you are looking for in a companion animal. Whatever your requirements, there will be a cat to match them. Each cat’s personality is unique, but some general observations are possible. Longhair breeds tend to be gentle and calm but require daily grooming. These are good companions for people wanting to spend more time with their cat. Shorthairs are inquisitive, playful, athletic and vocal. They need little grooming and make good companions for the elderly, handicapped or people with little extra time.

No cat lover pictures a home without one or more felines sunning on the window sill or playing with a ball of string. Our imaginations and hearts have been captured with ease by these descendants of the wildcat and goddess. Prized for their beauty, intelligence and grace, cats lure us with possible entry into realms mysterious and untamed.

*The cat continues to increase in popularity. Statistics from the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association from 2005 show there are 90.5 million cats in American households compared to 73.9 million dogs.

[Originally published: Dec./Jan. 1995-96 in the Santa Fe Pet News, the precursor of PETroglyphs]

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