Target is sitting next to me, purring up a storm, green eyes slanted with pleasure as I run my fingers through his fur. As he sighs with satisfaction and rolls over to show me his tummy, I can feel my own tension evaporate.
We’ve always been close but in the last 18 months, our roles have switched a bit. He used to rely on me; these days I find myself leaning on him.
The joys and benefits of pet companionship aren’t new. In ancient China, the goddess Li Shou appeared in cat form, and legend has it that she was given the job of looking after the planet. When she said she didn’t want the job, humanity was put in charge instead.
In the West, a 9,500-year-old grave in Cyprus contains a man buried together with his cat, both of them surrounded by flint tools, axes, and polished seashells.
And of course, there are the ancient Egyptians. They were so fond of cats, that they made hurting and killing a cat a sin as well as a crime. So when crafty Cambyses II of Persia issued his soldiers with shields decorated with cats and had them carry their furry friends into battle, the Egyptians were afraid to fight properly, in case they hurt the animals.
While love for cats predates history, historians and archeologists tend to focus on pets being taken in because they are useful. While cats are excellent for driving away mice, rats and other creatures that steal and spoil food, there is so much more to animal companionship that plain old utility.
In fact, it’s morally challenging to judge by usefulness. I know I’m not particularly useful at the best of times, and I balk at the idea of assessing a species based on whether they’re making a contribution to my life or not.
Although some may take in a farm cat to help keep down the mice and rats, there’s much more to animal companionship.
One explanation may be our love of beauty.
Even though our ideas about what is beautiful differs from person to person, and changes according to time and place, we share that same reaction to gorgeousness. It doesn’t matter if it’s a painting, a building or a person – we get a boost from just looking at it.
In an effort to figure out what is going on, an international team of researchers from China, Scotland and Germany analysed 49 international studies involving 982 participants in order to “seek the 'beauty centre' in the brain".
While they found that looking at pretty human faces activates one area of the brain, and looking at other pretty things activates another, there was so much going on that they couldn’t pinpoint common brain regions for the beauty of visual art and faces.
While beauty is a clearly complex subject, many studies show we have a deep natural attraction for facial features such as big heads and eyes with small chins and noses. When it comes to bodies, we perceive plump body shapes as cute and cuddly. In voices, we gravitate towards liking high-pitched voices.
Scientists think this is part of our survival mechanism; babies have these features so that we feel impelled to care for them.
Does this formula work outside of our own species? In art, baby traits are what makes manga characters so appealing. Just think of Kyouko Hori and Roxy Migurdia with their huge eyes, teeny noses and pointy little chins. Cartoons like Mickey Mouse are based on that combination too, as are popular dolls like Barbie. And soft toys are typically chunky and sport unrealistically large eyes.
Cats are naturally endowed with large eyes, button noses and squeaky meows that tug at the heartstrings. Our pretty little Tic Tac just has to beam with her huge baby blue eyes and meow once to reduce everyone around her to complete squees.
Furthermore, while pedigree cats are bred for very specific looks, it’s less well known that pet cats are also much more likely to retain kitten habits in adult life.
In the wild, kittens meow, but adult cats are mostly silent communicators – which is why their hurling abuse at intruders is so shocking. In a feral cat colony, the adults purr, headbutt, lick but they don’t tend to talk.
Animal behaviourists are torn between theories. It is possible that we have selected our pets for their behaviour, so it’s becoming inbred. If we breed four or give generations of chatty cats together, maybe the kitten today is genetically disposed to be talkative.
Or perhaps it is simply because we reinforce baby behaviour with our pets by rewarding them for it. So if our kitten gets cuddles and love for chatting, it just learns that this communication style works well.
Whatever it is, Target meows to let me know when he wants cuddles, food, clean litter, and a game. And if he falls asleep and I leave the room, he will call when he wakens to ask where I am so he doesn’t have to tramp all over the house looking for me.
Tic Tac is rather quiet but she announces her comings and goings from the roof. As for Inkie, he never ever shuts up. That boy is a living twitter feed.
Me, I love it. Talking to friends on the phone is OK but it’s not the same as meeting them. And I miss the noise and bustle of going to the pub or sitting in a coffee shop. So when the cats gather round and meow, it helps.
Even better, talking things through with the furry ones is helpful because they don't gossip and they let me ramble on. As I talk things through, letting off steam and sometimes unpicking what I’m feeling and what it might mean, they let me pet them.
For me, that is one of the most obvious pleasures. Target and Inkie have medium length fur, soft and silky, while Tic Tac has a super short coat that’s like raw silk. Stroking them makes me happy, it’s relaxing and at the same time, luxurious.
It’s long been known that petting is fun, but it’s surprising how such a simple thing as running your hand through a cat’s fur produces a hugely complex brain reaction.
A 2018 summary paper from Sher-e-Kashmir University, India, notes that stroking pets leads to dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, endorphin, cortisol and adrenaline production, all of the so-called happy hormones. Apart from this helping to decrease stress, depression and anxiety, there is even some evidence that having pet cats may significantly reduce the risk of heart disease.
The ancient cats of legend may have turned down the job of guarding the planet, but while we hunker down and wait out this pandemic, Target, Tic Tac and Inkie are on duty, providing unconditional love and a safe space to vent, complete with purrs.
We’re grateful for the pawsome support.
When thinking of pets, we tend to focus on ancient hunting dogs. But history shows that cats have been with us since ancient times.
The Egyptian cat goddess Bastet is well known, thanks to the numerous statues and pyramids that were created in her name.
Bastet was the daughter of Re, the sun god. The goddess had the body of a woman but the head of a cat. She carried a sistrum, a kind of drum, as well as an aegis, a breastplate, decorated with the head of a lioness. Bastet’s emblem was the cat, and all cats were considered her holy representatives.
Bastet was hugely popular, deemed to protect people, their homes and guarding us even in the afterlife. She was worshipped in Egypt, Rome and their empires in the Middle East and Europe from 3000BCE onwards.
As a result, we have thousands of statues, amulets, and other items decorated with her likeness, and there are large cemeteries of mummified cats in Memphis, Egypt, as well as other parts of the region.
In China, the goddess Li Shou was related to protection and fertility. People made sacrifices to her to foster safe harvests, for the right amount of rain at the right time, and also to keep away bad luck. Lanterns in the shape of cats with hollow eyes were set out at night to frighten away mice and ghosts.
In many ancient Chinese legends, cats are clever but lazy. But archeology suggests a different story. A dig in Quanhucun, China revealed that 5,300 years ago, cats were living side by side with humans.
Analysis showed that the humans, the cats and the mice had all eaten millet. While that suggested the cats hunted the mice, one cat was old and it had eaten more millet than the others. Therefore, the scientists concluded that the humans had fed the elderly cat their food or that it had scavenged leftovers.
Either way, the evidence shows that in ancient times, in the Middle East and in Asia, cats were part of our story.