Updated: Jun 5, 2021
The relationship of cats and humans
written by Emma Stacey
I had a cat in my family since the age of six and I always wished to be able to move like him. He has no problem balancing and his movements seem as if he knows exactly what he wants to do, where he wants to go. Even now with older age, when I open the door for him and he realises that he actually doesn´t want to go out anymore, his decisions are clear and he stands for them. Through this serving of every movement and every decision it almost sometimes feels like I am watching a performance:
The cat has black strips all over its brown body, green piercing eyes, which are half open. It is lying, forming a half circle with its body on a chair, the tail the only thing breaking this curve by swinging from right to left, in a particular ever same rhythm or even music that is only available to the ears or the green-eyed cat. The creature stretches it´s two front legs away from itself, slowly extending its claws to keep them out only for a short moment and quickly driving them in again. Just shortly showing of what kind of power lies in these fluffy paws. To have this seemingly control over one´s body and to pronounce every movement with articulation and delicacy is what most dancers dream of and to most cats it comes naturally.
In this paper I will not be able to connect all the points between the story of cats and humans, for it is strongly interlinked and has so many facets to it that I will not be able to portray every single connection. My main aim is to draw an idea of what a difficult relationship it is that humans have with those furry creatures, a relationship of power but also love and fascination. From the worshipping of cats in ancient Egypt, the animal supposedly being the main companion of witches, the black cat being a bad omen, the four-pawed creatures saving humans from staving by protecting the crop and humans filming the funniest cat moments and posting them on YouTube. Cats have always been fascinating to humans and been inspiration for art, culture, religion and mythology. This fascination is also strongly connected to the question: Why do cats want to live with us, humans?
In nature cats live alone and there are still cats which are not domesticated: Wild cats that live in the forests of Europe, the Asian steppe and the savanna of Africa. They hunt to survive and are fully independent from human beings. Extraordinary creatures, who´s body is perfectly adapted to wildlife with their natural flexibility. This movement range, the fact that they walk on their toes and retractable claws make it easy for cats to barely make any noise when walking or running, which makes them extremely good hunters. With their strong hinder legs cats are able to reach 50 km/h, jump up to 2 meters from standing and brilliant climbers. The tail balances their body out and makes it possible to walk on the thinnest trails. However, should they lose their balance and fall anyway their body instinctively twists to land on their feet. Of course, cats have their weaknesses too: They are only fit for very short sprints and tend to get tired quickly. Although they are great climbers, their physicality is a problem when climbing down. This is why so many cats have to get rescued from trees by the fire department. (1) The skeleton of the wild cat does not really differ from the domestic cat, as we know it, but the behaviour does: Attempts of taming wild cats from an early age have mostly been unsuccessful hence to their general shy and timidness. Wildcat “subspecies in Sudan however were able to be tamed during the 17th century and acted as a precaution against rats or mice. Reay Smithers kept wildcats from Zimbabwe as pets around a century later and described their behaviour as very demanding. They would need his full attention at least once a day. If not received they would crawl all over his papers and roll up so no work could be done anymore. (2)
This is something I actually recognize in the cat I grew up with, “Kleckser”. A brownish cat with back strips and green eyes (he is the main act in most of my observations). We, my family, got him from farmers in France, very close to the German border. The young farmer boy had found three striped kittens in a box next to a tree. He supposed they were left there to die. We took one of the three with us, I was five or six at the time and remember very well how the mother of the boy showed me how to hold a cat: You put one hand underneath and the other around the torso. This way the cat feels more or less safe and does not have to be afraid of falling. We took the cat home to Germany and called him “Kleckser” because the first few months he couldn´t drink without spilling the water and “Klecks” is the German word for spill or stain. We, the children, also found the name fitting because my older brother vomited all over the poor cat during the ride home, so that he was full of stains. But to come back to the description of Smithers, this is also something “Kleckser” would do: He´d climb over the piano, when my mother played it and sat on the keys she was about to play, sat on my homework or in fact walked over my computer keyboards while I wanted to write this essay. I don´t know what breeding he is from or what history he has, but these observations of domestic wild cats sound very familiar.
Cats with humans, humans with cat
Cats have shaped humans and humans have shaped cats. Cats use humans for comfort, food and an easy life and humans use cats against mice, interlink them with mythology and religion and find comfort in their wise eyes and fluffy fur. It is known that cats approached humans less than 10 000 years ago.(3) The earliest domestication of cats, which we have the most records of, happened in Egypt. In ancient Egypt cats played an important role: The goddess of love, beauty and self-indulgence, Bastet, took the shape of a cat who had the behaviour and movement of the animal. A cult of offering mummified animals to the gods was established during around 664 BC and latest till around AD 361.(4) The animals were associated with gods, such as cats with Bastet or canines with Anubis, the god of death. These creatures were mostly killed deliberately for the request was extremely high especially during festivals of gods. Although no exact number is known of the mummified cats, due to the number of mummies found, it must range in the millions. Especially because the ancient Egyptians had a breeding system for cats, where they would take away the newly born kittens to make the mother available for another mating and the kittens for being mummified. (5)
Stories of the cat being a creature of night and of the devil, being the companion of witches, witches transforming into cats collide with ideas of the cat bringing good luck and happiness to a household. A black cat crossing your way is supposed to bring harm and bad luck to your life, because people used to believe witches would transform into black cats and by crossing your path, they could curse you.(6) Whereas in Russia people used to believe that keeping a black dog, black rooster or black cat in your house, would protect you from thunderstorms and thieves.(7) This means cats serve as a protector not only from evil but also from mice or rats and, are a companion to the human. They even can take a role as a status symbol. In any way a cat is a mysterious creature to humans because it does not obey like, for example, dogs do . It would be able to survive on its own and is just in this relationship for the company and comfort.
I am stroking my cat, Kleckser. He likes it most to be stroked at his head, chin, throat and back. Especially while I am stroking his throat, he stretches his neck to give me better access. Kleckser has a very silent purr but every time I stroke him here, I can feel the vibration of his purring in his throat. His fur is the fluffiest at his stomach and on his feet, unfortunately for me he hates being stroked there. His eyes seem nearly or even completely closed while stroking his forehead for example, when even only touching the area of his stomach his eyes shoot open, form big green circles. I continue, provoking him, however he does not let it get much further. I manage to slide my fingers over the fur before he snatches with his claws for them. I draw back and he immediately relaxes. He knows, he has the sharp teeth and the claws, he knows what he likes and what not and knows how to show it.
Cats get their elegance and respect from this notion I believe: The knowing, the deciding and acting out. This creature rarely compromises and through that their movements are precise and strait forward. However, every cat is different and only observing one cat interacting with humans would only look at cats from one angle:
A nine-year-old girl with a green shirt is standing in the living room of her home, to her feet a pure British shorthair cat with big blue eyes, a nose that seems as if pressed into her face. The name of the cat is Pearly, because of her shiny fur, the girl explains. She picks up Pearly, nestles her like a baby in her arms and rocks the cat from side to side. Pearly´s face has not changed much; her eyes widened a bit while being lifted of the floor but otherwise she seems relaxed with everything the little girl is doing. The girl now whispers something into the cat´s ear and switches the position of the grey creature: Now Pearly is held around her torso, the upper legs over the girls arms so that the cat´s shoulders lift towards the ears and shortens her neck. The girl giggles and starts swinging Pearly from side to side. Pearly´s face expression is unreadable: Is this a game that she enjoys too and feels relaxed with it that is why she is not complaining, or does she have a problem with it, is the girl even hurting her, and just does not know how to make herself heard or has just given up?
Of course, I, growing up with a cat, have a very subjective idea of how to treat cats, also what I respect and find fascinating about them. I have realised if a cat is too obedient to humans my fascination drops a little bit. They are demystified and become similar to dogs, creatures who in the meantime through breeding and domestication need the human to survive.Naturally, every cat has its own character but also the race of the cat provides an idea how the character will develop. Now there are around 70 breeding which is very little in comparison to the dogs over 500. Still today most domestic cats have no particular breed. Breeding was established to control the outcome of certain characteristics like fur (colour, patterns or length), the skeleton (legs, tail, head, body, the sense organs and the behaviour.(8) For example, the Ragdoll, a blue-eyed cat with a silky coat, is known for being relaxed and loving. One of the first breeds was established in the late 19th century, the Persian cat, with round eyes, long hair and a short face. Many breeds like the British Shorthair (the same breed as Pearly) or Scottish Fold share the genetic background with the Persian. Due to that these breeds do not only share similar external but also behavioural traits. (9) For example, the British Shorthair is known to be very calm, non-aggressive and family-friendly (10), which explains that the behaviour of Pearly is so different to Kleckser´s.
Here an Audio description of three small clips from the video “The Best Cute and Funny Cat Videos This Week!” by the user “Rufus” can be found to get a general idea of the structure of these videos (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lq8bpo9KWa8. Accessed by 28.3.21):
Text to Audio description:
The Video “The Best Cute and Funny Cat Videos This Week!” by the user “Rufus” was posted on April 24th in 2020 and has by now (March 28th 2021) 2 098 484 views on YouTube:
An electronically produced artificial music, which has cheerful and relaxing vibes starts to play and will continue playing in the background of the whole video. We can see a blue tunnel made out of firm plastic lying on a floor of brown tiles. This tunnel has animals printed onto it: One can recognize a parrot and a monkey in vibrant colours. The perspective moves from the overall tunnel to the entrance of the sloop. Out of nowhere a grey cat with white patches around its nose, neck and paws jumps out, looks into the camera and starts to crawl back into the tunnel again. – Cut - A ginger tabby cat is lying huddled up on a black leather coach, a fare skinned baby with blue eyes is standing next to the coach and looking at the ginger creature. The toddler stretches out its arm to touch the cat, but the cat hits the arm away before it could come too close. The little human laughs out with joy and approaches the cat again, it hits again, the child laughs again. Then pauses, the cat looks at the human with waving tail and the little one turns around to an older human behind him of which we can only see their legs and white socks. The toddler giggles and reaches for the cat again, now the cat hits the arm twice in a row. - Cut – A cat with brown fur and black strips is lying on top of grey sofa pillows. Its eyes are relaxed and its ears are bend forward, resting the head between its paws. A young, fair skinned girl with brown eyes and dark brown long hair is sitting opposite to the cat. She has an elf- like appearance and is aligning her nose with the one of the cats to nearly touch it. The girl blinks and a woman´s voice can be heard saying: “It´s a stare down!” The child looks into the cat’s eyes, blinks again and playfully tighten its eyebrows to look stern and earnest. “Who´s gonna win?”, the voice askes, the girl breaks its stare and starts to chuckle. The cat reaches out its paw for the girl and the child retrieves back.
Cats have been companions of humans for centuries. They have an easier life through getting food and water from humans and we use them as rat traps, gods, lucky charm, excuse for bad luck or companion. They can do many things that we are not able to do and their body is built to be elegant and active. Although cats are loners in nature, they chose to accompany us in our daily life. These furry creatures have many characteristics and traits why humans find them so fascinating. However, I believe that they combine many traits that we as humans wished we had. For one the body control, certainty and seemingly simple decisiveness. Cats can be calm and relaxed in one moment and are able to switch to aggressive and wild in the next. I, at least, do not allow myself enough to like something in the one moment and express when I do not like it in the next. Cats allow themselves to be worshipped. Kleckser, for example only drinks out of the tap and stands by it. Nevertheless, humans also enjoy having power over these creatures and I do not exclude myself here. I remember how excited I always was as a child, when Kleckser had to be brought to the vet. We would lure him into a cage and I always was mesmerised by this strong and independent animal being dependent of us. Dependent to be brought to the vet, dependent to get healthy and last but not least dependent to have freedom again. As a human, I cannot lie, that the whole story of domestication of animals whispers about the fascination, which human beings have when being able to prove and feel their own power. After all, to tame an animal and make it dependent of oneself is a strong and very clear prove of power. This is proven even more when animals are transformed through breeding and are no longer able to survive on their own due to short legs, too long fur or faded sense organs. However, it is not just a story about power but also love, thus the connection between cats and humans was able to bloom in the first place. Of course, love lets you do terrible things and there are a lot of black episodes in this story, like the killing and mummifying of cats in Ancient Egypt or portraying the creatures as bad omens. Anyhow, there are as many bright episodes to tell, like cats being able to save farmers from starving by killing mice and rats and thus protecting their crop, cats being kept like kings or queens to protect the house from bad luck and cats being the stars of many and many more videos, that make people laugh all over the world.
(1) Tesolin, Laura: Cats, a survey of their relationship to humans from the first encounter to the present day, Università Ca' Foscari Venezia 2016, p. 4-15.
(2) C. Turner, Dennis; Bateson, Patrick: The domestic cat: The Biology of its behaviour, Cambridge University Press 2014, p.84-100.
(3) Ikram, Salima: Speculations on the Role of the Animal cult in the economy of Egypt, American University Cairo, p. 1-9.
(4) MALEK, J.: The Cat in Ancient Egypt, London 1993.
(5) Oliver, Harry: Black Cats& April Fools-Origins of Old Wives Tales and Superstitions in our daily lives, Metro Publishing 2006.
(6) Korovina, Svetlana: Image of cats in Russian and Chinese Omens: Comparative Analysis, Russian Linguistic Bulletin, p.88-93.
(7) Steiger, Andreas: The welfare of Cats, Springer 2007, p. 259-276.
(8) Salonen, Milla; Vapalahti, Katariina; Tiira, Katriina; Mäki-Tanila, Asko; Lohi, Hannes: Breed differences and behavioural traits in cats, Creative Commons 2019.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tpiyEe_CqB4 , 20.3.21.