Pet Connections

They Are All Simply Cats

This is the story of a cat named Gabby who was, all at the same time, an owned cat, an abandoned cat, a rescued cat, a feral cat, a stray cat, a homeless cat, and more—all dependent on his relationship to humans, but not on his own being. What kind of cat was Gabby, really?

As the decades of rescuing cats have flowed from future to past they’ve carried an idea into my mind. 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 all cats in our society.

Language is important. What we call things is a significant indicator of how we feel about those things, and influences 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. 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. 

But 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?” No, the cat is the same, only its relationship with a human has changed, yet our actions toward it as a society change dramatically. 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, yet how can you tell if that cat outdoors isn’t someone’s indoor-outdoor pet, or who escaped and is being actively sought?

June is Adopt-a-Cat Month. 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.

Gabby 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, a homeless cat, considered a feral cat, a rescued cat, a fostered cat, a shelter cat, a community cat, a neighborhood cat, an owned cat, an unowned cat, an outdoor cat 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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By Bernadette E. Kazmarski

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