Why Cats Are Such Great Pets...

“How cats, the most popular pet in the United States, climbed to the top”

by Arden Moore

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 aloof stereotype.

"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 tender mew.

"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 lives.

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 petted."

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," Castaner says.

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