PULLMAN, Wash. – The Chinese Year of the Snake ended in 2013, but judging by all the tail swishing it shaped up to be the Year of the Cat.
Consider what took place:
• Internet celebrity Grumpy Cat set out on a multi-city publicity tour aboard a bus.
• The Internet Cat Video Festival played to sellout crowds in cities across the nation, sometimes drawing 10,000 spectators who gathered, concert-style, before giant projection screens to watch cats do what cats do.
• Ratings reached an all-time high for Animal Planet during its fourth-season reality show, “My Cat from Hell.”
• In the classic Monopoly board game, Hasbro replaced the long-used iron token with a shiny metallic cat.
• The book, “I Could Pee on This: And other Poems by Cats” perched high on National Public Radio’s bestseller list for eight months.
No surprise, then, that the number of domestic cats in the U.S. continues to soar. The most recent figures by the Humane Society of the United States show 95.6 million felines residing in American homes, compared to 74 million in 2012.
But wait! Cats don’t pull sleds, fetch newspapers, hunt with us in the woods or guard our homes. So why are these creatures – whose eyes glow in the dark as they prod us to get up and feed them RIGHT NOW – so popular?
Exterminator to companion
As the cat’s role shifts farther away from that of resident rodent exterminator, “increasingly, we humans are appreciating the characteristics we see in these animals,” said Washington State University veterinarian Raelynn Farnsworth, herself the owner of three furry felines. “Generally speaking, they’re quiet, low-maintenance and affectionate. And they purr when we pet them – humans consider that a real plus.”
And what a plus it is. Purring has been linked to lowering human stress and strengthening hearts, according to “The Healing Power of Cat Purrs,” by the data-visualization website Daily Infographic (http://dailyinfographic.com/the-healing-power-of-cat-purrs-infographic).
In the 20 years that Farnsworth has been treating small animals, she has witnessed an evolution: More pet owners are living with more than one cat; and more men are cat owners.
“It used to be that only women brought their cats in for examinations. These days, I see a lot of men as well,” she said. “It’s more OK than it used to be for men to admit that they’re fans of cats.”
Judging from all the photographs, tweets and videos posted on the Internet, it’s more than OK. In “The Top Four Reasons Girls Love Guys with Cats,” published online on petMD, the author writes: “And boy, do women love a man who can handle a creature with personality issues. It says to us you can handle challenges; it says to us you’re mature and flexible.” (http://www.petmd.com/cat/pet_lover/MM_guyswithcats#.UtgdOG1uiZg)
Bryan Slinker, dean of WSU’s veterinary college, has no problem admitting that he and his wife, Kathy, own four cats – or explaining their virtues.
“Cats aren’t as needy as dogs,” he said, stressing that he has nothing against dogs but from a practical standpoint cats are easier. Obsidian, Zoey, Tory and Bailey “are very uncomplicated to hang out with as long as it’s on their terms.”
Ah, yes, cat terms – space when they want it, love when they ask for it and food when they crave it. Self-centered, you say?
“I prefer the word ‘independent,’” said Farnsworth who, besides being an animal clinician and multiple cat owner, also teaches veterinary classes at WSU. “Unlike dogs, they weren’t domesticated to obey orders.”
When cats were relegated to the outdoors for rodent control it was easy to think of them as self-centered and aloof, she said. “Then they started entering our homes and we discovered how communicative and amusing they can be.”
New generation of cat ladies
Adrienne Berthot is a cat lady of the Y generation. In her second year of veterinary studies, the 24-year-old is a member of WSU’s student chapter of the American Association of Feline Practitioners. She is also the owner of two cats.
“She’s definitely one of the most, how should I say – enthusiastic – students that I’ve had in my classes when it comes to cats,” said veterinary professor Steve Hines.
“Absolutely. I adore cats!” said Berthot, whose apartment caters to their comfort, complete with scratching posts, perches and fluff balls on strings.
Unlike the crazy cat lady stereotype of a frumpy matron shuffling about in a bathrobe caked in cat hair, Berthot moves between Lola and Leila like a dancer clad in jeans and a sweatshirt.
“It’s so nice to come home from a full day of classes to these small furry creatures that have so much personality and I think really care about me,” she said.
“And talk about smart! I’m trying to find one of those bumper stickers that says, ‘My cat is smarter than your honor student.’ If you see one, would you let me know?”
Raelynn Farnsworth, WSU veterinarian, firstname.lastname@example.org
Linda Weiford, WSU News, 509-335-7209, email@example.com