Human-Feline Relationships: Cats as Objects

The Get-It-and-Forget-It-Cat

When asked why they like cats, many owners mention the animals’ independence. The idea that these animals (theoretically!)come to us pre-housetrained by their mother, are inherently healthy, and can amuse themselves strikes many as the perfect qualities for those who desire a pet but have unpredictable of  hectic lifestyles.  But this only holds true if such beliefs arise from knowledge of our specific cats and not wishful thinking on our part.

Let’s summon Hairy, the Persian, and his owner, Mary, again. In our last discussion, we saw the kinds of problems that may arise when Mary takes an anthropomorphic view of her pet and treats him like a fur-covered, somewhat mentally impaired baby. Now let’s have her take a chattel view of him and treat him like a fur-covered cinder block and see what happens.

“Oh, I could never abuse Hairy!” Mary protests vigorously.

People like Mary who share a very emotional relationship with their pets often envision those who treat their cats like objects as abusive. But such isn’t necessarily the case. In many ways, people who abuse animals have much in common with those who treat animals like fur-covered babies. Both kinds of people see the animal as a symbol of something else, be it a human(oid) baby or a reminder of the abuser’s own inadequacies. Compare that to a chattel orientation that is primarily characterized by little or no emotion.

“Well, I couldn’t do that, either!” huffs Mary.

Granted we all say that, but only because we don’t think about how we relate to our pets at specific times. While Mary’s usual, highly anthropomorphic ritual for feeding Hairy borders on a religious experience, when her mother falls seriously ill it’s all Mary can do to dump some food in Hairy’s bowl when she gets home from work. Or maybe Mary needs to put together a very important presentation for work that will determine her employment future.

“Get out of here, Hairy!” She picks up the cat gleefully rolling in her carefully arranged papers and tosses him out the door. “Go amuse yourself.”

Not surprisingly, how well the chattel approach works depends on our knowledge of ourselves, our cats, the nature and quality of the bond, and our specific environment. Obviously if Hairy’s first introduction to the great outdoors occurs when Mary unceremoniously dumps him outside to get rid of him, we could hardly call this a caring response. Similarly if Mary selects Hairy’s food strictly based on price or because the product’s name or packaging appeals to her and with no regard to her cat’s nutritional needs, few would call this a caring response either.

On the other hand, suppose Hairy succumbs to a very serious illness and Mary deliberately puts all of her emotions on hold so she can objectively select the best treatment to meet Hairy’s as well as her own needs. Compare this approach to Mary sobbing and wringing her hands, so caught up in her feelings about her “little boy” she dumbly agrees to everything the veterinarian suggests–whether she can accomplish it or not.

If Mary can, no problems arise. But suppose she can’t afford to take Hairy to a specialist 150 miles away, or her work schedule and invalid mother leave her with no time to properly care for an animal whose condition requires constant monitoring. If such problems arise, her emotion-based decision will come back to haunt her  time and time again.

When it comes to being “get ’em and forget ’em pets,” cats once again present us with one of those paradoxes most of us would prefer not to face. On the one hand we see certain breeds and individuals who strike us as so fragile that a home next to a veterinary clinic (preferably with a connecting tunnel so the cat needn’t risk exposure to the evils outdoors) would seem a legitimate prerequisite to owning one. On the other, we have all those free-roaming owned and feral cats who make it perfectly clear that a significant number of cats can make it on their own quite capably.

Now, before you start sending me red-hot emails or texts about letting cats run loose versus keeping them strictly indoors, let me note that we’ll tackle this extremely complex issue in more detail in the future because it lies at the heart of many of the most troublesome feline and human-feline problems. Suffice it to say that right now the positive and negative effects of the two approaches appear about equal: For every deliriously happy indoor cat who would die in an instant outdoors, we can find one deliriously happy outdoor or in-and-outdoor cat who would die—or be euthanized for chronic behavioral and/or medical problems—if confined indoors.

To say, “All cats must be kept indoors or all cats must have free access to the outdoors” proves nothing more than a lack of knowledge regarding feline behavior and the human-feline bond. The critical issue is to recognize your specific cat’s needs and then strive to meet them in your environment.

Think about how you interact with your cat during a typical week. Which of your cat-related activities cause you to react emotionally? Which ones could you care less about? Mary notes that she daily cleans Hairy’s litter box, washes his food and water bowls, and combs him without giving it nary a thought.

“Sometimes I don’t even realize I’ve done it!” she laughs.

Another cat owner doesn’t give it a thought either. Mary’s brother can completely ignore his cat’s dirty box or feeding dishes for weeks at a time and laughs when the subject of grooming his cat comes up. Still another owner hates the thought of cleaning the litter box or grooming the cat and doesn’t do it, either. However, she feels guilty about not doing it and expects a medal when she does.

In these situations we can see how we combine views when we interact with our pets. Although Mary more commonly thinks of Hairy as her baby, she doesn’t apply any emotional charge to his need for clean quarters and regular grooming, any more than she does to washing her own dishes or combing her hair.

Meanwhile her brother dismisses both the activities and the feline needs that make them important. Consequently his cat will pay the price for his disinterest. If the cat succumbs to a medical problem because of the lack of cleanliness, this owner suddenly will find himself investing far more emotion, time, and money in his pet than if he’d unemotionally considered his pet’s needs on a regular basis.

The third owner gets the job done, but makes such a big deal about doing it this  also can undermine the cat’s health as well as the quality of their bond.

“Look at this mess you made!” she screams at her cowering pet as she attacks the litter box.

In this situation the effect of the owner’s negative emotions on the cat cancel out whatever benefits her pet may have derived from the clean box. While her response appears extremely emotional, like Mary’s brother she treats her pet much more like an object than a unique living creature with his own special needs.

Think about how you and your cat interact, this time looking at those aspects of your relationship which you prefer to ignore. Once again note whether you do this based on solid knowledge of your cat and his or her needs, or for some other reason. Remember that there are no right or wrong answers. The goal is to determine where you and your particular cat(s) are coming from. Then you can use that information to determine whether this will take you where you want to go in terms of your pet’s health, behavior, and the kind of bond you want to share with each other.