An idea has been building in my mind for the past few years. It concerns what we call cats. Not breeds or coat colors or anything to do with physical or emotional characteristics, not a biological or scientific designation. It’s about whether or not they have a home with a human, and this dichotomy at what we call those who do have one, and what we call the ones who don’t, and what that means for the cat in our society.
And over the years as society’s views and my own views have changed, any terminology has slipped away. I used to meaningfully use terms like “stray” or “feral” to describe cats living outside of a home or totally outside of human contact as if they were somehow different, yet my actions toward them told me that no matter their current condition I actually saw them all the same. What I call them all now is “cats”.
Naming and categorizing things is essential to the human mind as it takes in data and perceptions from the world about us and organizes knowledge to form beliefs and morals. What we call things is an important indicator of how we feel about those things, and therefore how we act toward them.
We may call cats many things: stray cats, feral cats, homeless cats, rescued cats, fostered cats, shelter cats, community cats, neighborhood cats, owned cats, unowned cats, outdoor cats, indoor cats—the one constant about these names is the word “cat”. Those other designations tell us about a human relationship with the cat but do not describe the cat itself. You can’t definitively predict anything about them by their current living situation because you might find a cat living under a car to be wildly affectionate and playful and a spoiled indoor cat to be unpleasantly aggressive. Cats may act with caution or fear or joy but all of these cats exhibit their own unique personality, and while some may be frightened and distrustful of people through negative experience or inexperience and we are unaccustomed to a cat acting this way, they are not “reverted to a wild state” because wild cats are different species altogether. Regardless of how they act, their species is always the domestic cat, just as we are always humans regardless of our own living situation or actions.
And what makes this an important thing to consider goes back to our habit of naming and categorizing things and how that process for us also changes our perceptions of the named thing and the category in which we place it and how we act toward it. When we think of cats who live outside of a human relationship our society perceives them as needing or deserving less care and less attention, as being expendable, worthless, when if that same cat has a relationship with a human we feel it deserves more.
Even the lines on that relationship are blurred, since humans neglect and abandon cats at an alarming rate every day, so having a relationship with a human does not necessarily guarantee respect and care, and cats living outside of a physical home may have a compassionate caretaker and receive the same love and affection we typically think of as given to a cat in a traditional pet and owner relationship. Does the cat change the moment a human takes the cat that is kept as a pet and puts it outdoors to “fend for itself” and leaves it? No, the cat is the same, only its relationship with a human has changed, yet our actions toward it as a society change dramatically. From another perspective, cats kept by humans are seen as pets while cats living outdoors generally are not, and are often seen as vermin and can be killed as such. The only difference is the cat’s relationship with a human, and even here how can you tell if that cat outdoors isn’t someone’s pet who they let outdoors, or who escaped and is being actively sought?
If our intent is to give compassionate care to cats, to increase adoption and retention, to promote more and better health care given to them by their human caretakers and to develop more healthcare options for them in veterinary care, we have to stop thinking of some cats as deserving of this care and some not depending on their relationship with a human. Research into feline health and health care decisions for cats, diets, indoor environments and even responsibility toward cats who are pets, all of this is affected by society’s perception of that population of cats who don’t have humans—if those cats don’t need this care and compassion, then any cat can really live without it, including things like basic vaccinations and spay and neuter surgery, and the choice is based on human preference and not on the needs of the cat. I feel holding on to this dichotomy in the perception of cats based on their relationship with humans holds back both respect for cats in our society and the care all cats receive when a segment of their population is considered undeserving yet the whole population is the same.
I sense this same change in perception from the rescuers I know and read about who are working with cats, and when a cat is “rescued”—taken under care by a human—the fact that it falls into a category otherwise known as “homeless” has no bearing on the care decisions for that cat. Rescued cats with grievous injuries or critical illnesses or genetic or birth issues like twisted legs or blindness who formerly would have been euthanized because there was no one designated human to care for that cat, or the preponderance of cats in need made it seem ridiculous to expend thousands of dollars of care on a cat that didn’t have a human, are treated as equals to all other cats and given as much care is its rescuer can obtain and afford.
The cat at the top of this article had been adopted by people who repeatedly neglected and abandoned him, and a compassionate friend who lived near repeatedly took him in for care when he needed it, had him neutered and even tried to adopt him but his “owners” made promises and took him back. In the end they moved away and left him and she found him wandering once again, ill and suffering from cancer, and assisted him through his last few months.
What was Gabby’s status? When he was in an adoptive relationship with a human he was neglected and abandoned, yet when he was a homeless cat he was given compassionate care by a human who was technically not responsible for him. In his life he was, by turns, a stray cat, considered a feral cat, a homeless cat, a rescued cat, a fostered cat, a shelter cat, a community cat, a neighborhood cat, an owned cat, an unowned cat, an outdoor cats and an indoor cat, all based on his relationship with humans. But Gabby was really only one thing all that time. Gabby was simply a cat.
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NOTE: I had the orange cat’s name incorrect when I first published, and corrected about an hour later. Sorry, Gabby!
Browse some rescued cats and kittens!
Read more about the Petties in this post.
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