Every dog has its day, but every day is a cat day

Brett Debritz writes in praise of the humble feline.

The sand cat, pictured here in captivity, has been spotted in the wild.  Tibor Jager / Safari Ark Zoo / EPA
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Last week was punctuated, for me at least, by a series of news stories about cats – mostly happy, but one profoundly sad and disturbing.

In the former category comes the first sighting of an Arabian sand cat in the wild for 10 years. The fact that these animals are still thriving in their natural habitat is cause for celebration.

The middle of the week saw International Cat Day, mostly observed on the internet (where, of course, every day is cat day), and there was a cat adoption drive this past weekend which, hopefully, will mean fewer strays in the streets and more in homes with adoring owners.

At the other end of the emotional scale came the story of a six-week-old kitten, Little Junior, who was brutally abused by somebody who slit the animal’s throat and then tried to carve a number into its lifeless body.

Even if you’re not a cat lover, it should worry you that there is a person in the community who is capable of committing such a despicable act. Psychologists warn that people who harm animals are more likely to harm other people. Today’s pet killer could become tomorrow’s domestic abuser – or worse.

I don’t, however, want to dwell on that. I want to celebrate the role cats play in societies across the world.

First a bit of history. Scientists believe that cats first started living with or near humans about 9,000 years ago. They seem to have “self-domesticated”, in that they recognised the advantages of hanging around with people, so they invited themselves into our homes.

The theory kind of explains why it is that some cats, unlike dogs, remain stand-offish in our company. At heart they are creatures of the wild who live by their own rules, but their heads tell them that they can exist in comfort – by being fed, sheltered and showered with affection – if they court human attentions. Cunning, eh?

It’s known from tomb paintings that the ancient Egyptians had pet cats that were sometimes mummified along with their owners. They also worshipped a cat goddess variously known as Bastet, Bast or Ubasti.

Our fondness for the animals has persisted through the ages – apart from a brief period where they were wrongly blamed for spreading the plague (when, in fact, as killers of rats, they actually helped control its spread).

So, what’s not to love about cats? Apart from the obvious fact that they are adorable – and scientists can even tell us why (something to do with their eyes relative to the size of their heads) – they also appear to be smart.

How so? Because, unlike a well-trained dog that will do whatever it is told, cats think for themselves. Now that can be frustrating for an owner who is standing at the door wanting to know whether Tiddles wants to come in or go out. But to me, that’s part of their charm.

There are also practical reasons to have cats around. They help control household pests and, once they learn to use a litter tray, they don’t pose a lot of trouble in the sanitation department.

While it's true that many people are allergic to cats, according to a report in the September 2001 edition of Scholastic Choices journal, exposure to cats at a young age may actually help prevent other allergies.

It's also true that a pet cat is less likely to discharge a weapon and kill you than a dog. According to The Washington Post, at least 10 Americans have been shot by a dog since 2004. There is no similar data indicating that cats have taken up arms against their masters.

Cats can also sense illnesses in humans and display empathy for people suffering bereavement.

Given all this – and my own positive experience of cat ownership – I was not surprised to hear that a couple of my acquaintances were instantly smitten when they recently babysat a neighbour’s bundle of fur.

Within days, the cat was sleeping on their bed, they were posting pictures of her on social media and telling funny stories about her antics.

They were so thrilled by the experience that they are now thinking of buying a dog. Go figure.

bdebritz@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @debritz