My moggy Larry is the very best of cats. Affectionate, loyal, endlessly patient – even when my baby son whacks him with a hairbrush, or yanks his tail, he never swipes. Sometimes, when my son is crying in his cot, Larry reaches a paw through the bars, to comfort him. Beautiful, of course. Clever green eyes, and a pink button nose. I think of him as a sort of honoured house guest. He really is the very best of cats.
The two kings of the pet world, dogs and cats, inspire desperate tribalism from their respective camps. In the cat arbour: Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln and Florence Nightingale. But what is it about cats that makes someone a cat person? And what can our love for these animals teach us about ourselves?
The social psychologist Samuel D Gosling of the University of Texas has studied the personality traits of self-identified “dog people” and “cat people”. He found that cat lovers score higher on neuroticism and openness to experiences, whereas dog people are more extroverted, agreeable and conscientious. “I wasn’t surprised by the findings,” he says. “If you think about the role that dogs and cats play, they afford different types of interaction. If you like to go walking and get out and about, a dog is a more obvious choice. But if you are more introverted and like to sit in a chair and spend time at home, cats demand less social interaction.”
But this is not to say that cat owners aren’t interested in the world around them. Far from it. Rather, they contemplate nature’s ineffable mysteries not on a muddy trudge through the park, but from the comfort of their own homes. “Openness,” says Gosling, “is about ideas and intellect. People who are high on openness tend to be more abstract thinkers, and more creative and imaginative and philosophical.” Not for nothing is the philosopher with a cat on their lap a beloved internet meme.
The Turkish-American film-maker Ceyda Torun documented the rambunctious street cats of Istanbul in her award-winning 2017 documentary Kedi (“cat” in Turkish). Among the local people who loved and cared for these cats, one quality stood out: “Their capacity for philosophical thought and introspection,” she says. “It didn’t matter where they were from, or what level of education they had. You could see it in their eyes. They had that flicker of light. The light was on.”
It is the wildness of a cat – how distinctly non-human they are – that draws us in. Unlike humans, who are social creatures who live communally, and dogs, which likewise live in packs, cats “are solitary hunters”, says the philosopher John Gray, author of Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life. “Female cats are deeply attached to their kittens. But that’s about the limit of cat attachment. Cats can grow fond of the company of particular humans. But they don’t need them.”
Gray believes that “if you are the kind of person who wants to see the loyal, loving, trustworthy part of yourself in an animal, you will look to dogs. If you want to see out of the human world, into another world, where a different animal lives without these defining human needs, you will love cats.” In other words, loving a dog is like gazing into a particularly flattering mirror. Cat people look outwards, through a window into nature.
What cat lovers derive from their interaction with cats is “a lesson in the relationship you can have that is non-human”, Torun says. “We feel these non-human relationships in bits and pieces when we go out to a forest, and sit under a tree. But they’re often harder to describe or hold on to, because it’s not an actual animal that can sit on your lap. It feels one-sided. But with a cat, it’s that nature experience that keeps getting validated.”
While cats recline at the apex of the animal kingdom – not for nothing were they worshipped by the ancient Egyptians – their owners are perhaps the most despised of all pet owners. We all know the stereotype of the crazy cat lady who lives alone in a home that smells of stale litter. But how unjust is it really? If anyone is likely to know, it’s James Buzzel, publisher and editor-in-chief of Your Cat magazine, the nation’s only specialist cat magazine.
“They do exist,” Buzzel says gravely. “There are a number of people with multiple cats [in their] households who tend to live alone. They adore the magazine and write to us frequently.” His readership, he acknowledges, skews female. But, he caveats, “anyone can be a cat person … men appreciate cats too. Maybe they won’t admit it as much. They won’t have the jumpers, or the matching umbrella. But they do.” What unites the cat people who subscribe to Your Cat, or Cat, as Buzzel abbreviates the magazine, is “a deep admiration of their independence and arrogance and aloofness. They know who is boss.”
If you seek a toadying proxy-human (a dog), a cat is not the pet for you. A cat does what it wants. It cannot be trained to catch, or carry, or sit, or fetch. “When a cat is tired of a human being,” says Gray, “they don’t recriminate. They don’t try to change the human being. They just leave.” A cat’s affections must be earned. “They aren’t desperate to please you,” says Buzzel. “So when they do come and sit on your lap, it’s an absolute honour.”
Cat people choose a life of service. We are willing handmaidens to our luscious-furred friends, and in return are rewarded handsomely, with nibbles, purrs and licks. If either of Buzzel’s two cats, a ragdoll called Binx and a Russian blue called Uma, deign to sleep on his lap, he’ll remain still until their nap is complete. “You’d never move or disturb a cat,” he says, appalled.
In this, Buzzel evokes the Islamic legend that tells the story of how the prophet Muhammad cut off part of his robe, so as not to disturb a sleeping cat. Cats are particularly beloved across the Muslim world, in part because they are considered ritually clean, and can roam as they please. “I think the fact that cats are indigenous to this region is a big factor,” says Torun. (Cats are believed to have been domesticated in the Fertile Crescent about 10,000 years ago, in what is modern-day Syria, Iraq and Egypt.) “Coupled with the Muslim element, that means that cats are allowed greater access into the family home, more so than any other animal.” As a half-Turkish Cypriot person, I agree: I have never met another Turkish person who wasn’t devoted to cats, and if I did have the misfortune to meet one, I wouldn’t trust them. (Turkey is even renowned for its cat houses, where strays can shelter during the winter months.)
When she was growing up in Istanbul in the 1980s, says Torun, “cats were my best friends”. There was one cat in particular: a grey-and-white tabby with green eyes. Her name was Boncuk. “I was around six when she appeared,” says Torun. “I fed her and she stuck around. Even if I petted her too aggressively, she was never harsh with me. She adopted me and I was her human servant, fetching salami and bowls of milk.”
What this relationship taught her, says Torun, is that “it is possible to love something, but not want to possess it”. Boncuk was her own creature, utterly free – requesting Torun’s assistance, yes, but never expecting it. They had a relationship that existed outside the servile ties that bind dog to master. “It’s about having that relationship with an animal,” explains Buzzel, “that chooses independence, but at the same time, chooses you.”
Cats’ baby-like features at a subconscious level tap into our emotions and make us want to care
Daniel Mills, vet
Torun believes that the charm of a cat is even coded into their genetics. “We’ve messed with dogs too much,” she says. “We’ve bred them too much. They no longer resemble their authentic selves. That’s why people are so attracted to dogs that look like wolves. Because it’s that wild beauty that you don’t see in a chihuahua.” (Torun hastens to add that she has no particular animus towards chihuahuas. “Bless them,” she says.)
Cat faces are so attractive, says Prof Daniel Mills, an expert in veterinary behavioural medicine at the University of Lincoln, and co-author of Being Your Cat: What’s Really Going On in Your Feline’s Mind, because they resemble human babies. “The high forehead, big eyes and small nose,” he says. “These baby-like features at a subconscious level tap into our emotions and make us want to care. They have simple features that we find naturally attractive.”
You have to squint hard to find the beauty in an XL bully, or a Chinese crested. But I’ve never met an ugly cat. We can talk about their grace. About the high arch of their torso, like a ballerina’s foot. The fluid swish of their tails. How they stretch so prettily after a nap. The noiseless way they enter a room, like a debutante descending ballroom stairs.
Cat lovers, Torun argues, are beauty-seekers. “There is something very aesthetically pleasing about a cat,” she says. “That’s why most artists are drawn to cats. Painters and poets tend to have relationships with cats, rather than dogs. Any feline of any size has this graceful athleticism, this prowess, this physical superiority that you can sense.”
And the contented purrs of a prone lapcat are a form of natural ASMR. “Probably the best sound in the world is the purr in your ear of a cat,” says Buzzel. “I don’t think any sound works better than that. There’s a natural therapy about it.” Mills explains that purring “is a care-soliciting behaviour. Cats show it when they are very happy, but also when they are seeking help and assistance, which is probably why cats do it when they die.”
There is one less appealing characteristic of cat people: the infection toxoplasmosis. It’s believed that 0.6% of the UK population is affected with toxoplasmosis each year – about 350,000 new cases. “Cats can be carriers of toxoplasmosis,” says Mills, “and they may show no signs of it. It’s of particular concern to pregnant women, because it can cause [miscarriage].” If you have an outdoor-roaming cat, it’s possible you already have toxoplasmosis without knowing it. But if you want to avoid contracting the parasite that causes it, it’s best to change cat litter regularly, and wear gloves while doing so.
A small price to pay, for all the joy that cats bring their owners. “It’s pure love really,” says Buzzel, of the cat people he’s met over his 20-year career on Your Cat. “They live for their cats. They lead a cat-centric life. It doesn’t mean they fit into the crazy cat lady stereotype, although some are proud to say they do. They’re always thinking of the cat. They buy the cat food and pay their vet bills before they buy their own food.” Cat people also have a sense of humour. Your Cat runs a regular column written by the cat sitter Chris Pascoe, in which he recounts his clients’ antics. “That goes down really well,” Buzzel says.
But even a vibrant and engaged cat community cannot protect Your Cat from economic reality. The December print issue of Your Cat will be its last. Falling circulation figures and decreased advertising spend have proved fatal. (The magazine will continue to exist online.) “We’re feeling a bit emotional about it,” says Buzzel. When we speak he’s planning their final issue. “I’m half thinking of a grumpy Sphinx with an Xmas hat on,” he says.
Buzzel has a unique insight into the dog and cat owning communities respectively – as well as working at Your Cat, he’s also the publisher of its sister magazine, Your Dog. “The sense of community is stronger in the cat world than the dog world,” he says. “The dog people are busy out with their dog. They like the fact that the magazine is more practical and about how-tos and travel inspiration. Your Cat readers love reading about cats. That’s the difference. If you have a dog, you love your dog. If you have a cat, you love all cats. You’re fascinated by everyone’s story about their cats.”
But in truth, the distinction between dog lover and cat person is somewhat artificial. We all drink from the same bowl. “Something cat people have in common with dog people,” says Gray, “is that they see something in the cat that they would like to have more of in themselves. Maybe they want to be more independent. More self-steering. Less needy of other human beings, and less dependent on their praise. So there is that in common.”
Torun identifies herself as a lover of all animals. “I wonder how much people make themselves believe they are a cat person or a dog person,” she says. “And part of that way of thinking is just a way to belong to a group. It’s tribalistic. It’s kind of unfair to cut yourself off from any possible relationship you can have with a dog or a cat by saying you’re a dog person, or a cat person. That’s limiting to me.”
She never knew what became of her beloved Boncuk. Torun thinks she crept off, when the time was right, and found a quiet space to die. She lived on her own terms, and died on them too.
“She taught me smaller lessons about boundaries,” says Torun, “attachment, letting go. But the bigger lesson was of knowing that I am not alone in this great big world. If you restrict yourself too much to human relationships, it’s very easy to feel alone.”