Calming confidantes. Frisky playmates. Therapeutic lap-sitters.
With all they have to offer, its no wonder cats have become
the most popular pet in the United States. Yet, until recently,
the dog was considered man's best friend.
Cats outnumber dogs 59 million to 52.9 million
in U.S. households, and nearly 60 percent of U.S. households
include one or more cats. A recent American Veterinary Medical
Association report shows this percentage is on the rise.
We love and adore our cats: We carry their photos with
us, sputter with enthusiasm when describing their latest
antics and feel content when they purr full-throttle on
our laps. And, finally, researchers are devoting studies
to understanding the bond we share with our feline friends.
The gap between cats and dogs is expected to widen as more
people live in urban settings, travel frequently and work
longer hours yet yearn for the companionship of a
trusted animal friend. We asked leading animal-companionship
experts to help us understand the unconditional love between
cats and people.
"It's an honor to be chosen by a cat as your friend,"
says Dr. Alan Beck, director of Purdue University's Center
for the Human-Animal Bond in West Lafayette, Ind. His cat,
Visage, chooses to be friendly only to him and his wife,
Gail. "A dog looks at you and says, "You take
care of me. You must be a god.' A cat looks at you and says,
'You give me food and shelter. I must be a god.'"
Few cats will ever mimic the beloved traits common in dogs:
fetching slippers, sitting on command or sharing a sidewalk
stroll on a leash. But these traits are not what make a
cat, well, a cat.
"Fortunately, more owners are starting to see the
real value cats give and are not constantly comparing them
to dogs," says Leslie Sinclair, DVM, director of Shelter
Veterinary Services in Montgomery Village, Md. She shares
her home with four cats and one dog.
"My dog, Moses, depends on me for amusement and attention.
But if I'm sad or upset, I find my cats more comforting,"
Dr. Sinclair says. "My cat Cry Baby has such a soothing
purr. She seems to turn it on when I need comfort the most."
Our bond with cats continues to strengthen as more people
realize the many emotional and physical benefits they offer.
John C. Wright, Ph.D., a certified applied animal behaviorist
and author of Is Your Cat Crazy? (1998, MacMillian), explains
that as more pet owners recognize cats' roles as companions
and emotional healers, they are helping to shed cats' misidentified
"As more of us begin to include cats in our daily
routines and interact with them, we truly notice their full
range of personalities and behaviors, and how much they
give back to us," says Dr. Wright, who is also a psychology
professor at Mercer University in Macon, Ga.
Dr. Wright looks forward to seeing his black-and-white
cat, Domino, playfully attack the bathroom mat each morning.
Or watching her snare a tennis ball and hold it captive
next to her belly with all four paws. And don't forget that
"A cat's mew seems more attractive than a dog's bark,"
Dr. Wright says. "When dogs looks at us and yip, we
say, 'hush.' But when a cat mews or even gives a silent
mew by opening its mouth and
nothing comes out, what do people do? Pay more attention
to the cat. When my cat does this to me, I almost feel honored
that she has chosen to communicate with me."
Has your blood pressure dropped to within normal range?
Are you feeling less stressed? Have you conquered your loneliness?
Have you regained your self-confidence? To some extent,
you can thank your cat, some behavior experts say.
"In our fast-paced lives, cats offer us an animal
friend, a companion that offers great psycho-social benefits
of love and companionship without too many demands,"
says Allen Schoen, DVM, M.S., director of the Veterinary
Institute for Therapeutic Alternative in Sherman, Conn.
Schoen has devoted his career to studying how animals, including
cats, can transform and improve our lives, and he has received
several grants to study the human-animal bond.
"A cat's purr stimulates our auditory sense and provides
us with a peaceful respite from the mechanical noises that
are constantly bombarding our senses," he adds.
Researchers have only recently begun to recognize cats'
roles in improving our physical and emotional well-being.
Dogs have dominated human-animal bond research throughout
the years because they have traditionally been considered
closer companions to us than cats. Cats, when included,
were always part of broader studies on the roles of companion
animals. These broader studies included cats, dogs and rabbits.
Results of these studies show how cats help lower a person's
blood pressure, improve heart conditions and melt away stress.
Cats are being discussed at national conferences such as
Kinship with All Life, presented by the San Francisco Society
for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, held in mid-August
2000, and the Tufts Animal Expo 2000, presented with the
Delta Society, which will take place Oct. 10-13, 2000, in
Boston. University-based research centers such as Purdue's
Center for the Human-Animal Bond and Tufts University's
Center for Animals and Public Policy in North Grafton, Mass.,
are also looking into the valuable roles cats play in our
Cats are finding their niche as therapy animals, especially
at centers for elderly or terminally ill patients, says
Linda Hines, president of The Delta Society, an organization
based in Renton, Wash., that promotes animals helping people
improve their health, independence and quality of life.
"We've seen a very definite increase in the number
of cats registered in our national pet-partnership program,"
says Hines, whose home includes a pair of cats named Phoenix
and Pandora. "At nursing homes, therapy cats help people
practice their fine motor skills by buckling a cat's collar
or grooming a cat. In most cases, cats are less intrusive
than dogs and are willing to sit in a lap and be gently
Hector Castaner, a social worker in Miami, credits his
cats Buster, Flashback, Flame and his most recent
adoptee Stormy for restoring his zest for life after
a divorce and a diabetes diagnoses. "I give them trust
and they give me friendship," Castaner says. He trained
them to be therapy cats who provide their services at hospitals,
nursing homes and schools in South Florida.
"My cats teach me to be calm, to be relaxed. If I
feel desperate or nervous, I will just sit with my cats,
petting them and talking to them and they calm me,"
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