Is the cat lady stereotype dead?

28 July 2017

Ahead of International Cat Day on 8 August we delved deep into some feline facts to reveal the prevalence of cats, the characteristics of their owners and some important welfare tips. 

Australians love animals, no surprises there. All you need to do is go for a walk on Saturday morning to see plenty of furry friends either on lead or slinking about the neighbourhood in search of a sunny patch of pavement. In fact, our love is so strong we actually rank above the global average for pets. 62% of Australian households own a pet compared with 57% worldwide according to a 2016 report by Animal Medicines Australia; that equates to approximately 24 million animals.  

Family member or feline? 

Many of those 24 million pets are referred to as 'fur babies'. More people than ever before are accepting animals into their home making them fully bonafide members of the family.

Across the board we’re seeing animals treated more like children than pets. For example, gourmet food options are becoming even more popular with the average cat owner spending just over $1000 a year on their feline (equating to $4 billion annually across all households) and more than half of cat owners share a bed with their pet.

Feline expert Vanessa Barrs from the Sydney School of Veterinary Science, agrees with this fur baby sentiment. "At the Valentine Charlton Cat Centre here at the University of Sydney the majority of our clients regard their pet cats and dogs as family members and seek to provide them with happy, healthy and enriched lives."

"Over the years there has been an increased focus on enrichment, and we’ve seen the development of hugely popular apps like the cat fishing app where cats tap on an ipad screen with their foot to catch a fish, as well as other cat toys. These can range from 'no bowl' – a mouse-like toy that can be filled with cat biscuits that come out of a tiny hole only after a considerable amount of skilled batting, to the ever popular fishing toys or 'da birds' and laser toys. These all come with added health benefits of increased exercise, reduced obesity and reduced risk of diabetes, which is common in some breeds of cats like Burmese."

"There has also been a dramatic increase in the availability and uptake of pet insurance which has made affordable health care more widely available for pets," Barrs says. 

You may even be surprised to know that the ever popular term ‘fur baby’ has made it into the dictionary – in 2015 both the Oxford and Macquarie dictionaries cemented our love of pets into the English language.

The pick of the litter...

But which pet is most popular by household in NSW and Australia? The answer is dogs, but only just. For every 100 people in Australia there are 19 dogs and 15 cats. 

If we look at the figures by state, they too tend to follow a national trend that approximately 2 in 5 people own a dog while 1 in 3 own a cat, except in NSW where cat ownership actually hovers at 25%. Interestingly, Darwin and South Australia are the states with the most cats at 45% and 38% respectively.

So what’s the story worldwide? Turns out there are countries with distinct preferences for certain animals. The United States, Russia, New Zealand and most parts of Western Europe prefer cats, with the highest prevalence of felines in Russia (57%).

Preference for one animal or another and pet ownership in general comes down to several factors/barriers – the major ones being geography and housing. If you consider America for example, cats are more populous in large cities characterised by apartments and governed by a body corporate, whereas dogs are most prevalent in the south where suburban homes are the norm. 

Cat welfare

Did you know 25% of cats owned in Australia are adopted from shelters? It sounds like a large percentage but there's still an overwhelming amount of animals who get left behind.

"Unfortunately over 100,000 cats are euthanased each year in cat shelters," says Barrs, "it's better to buy a 'moggie' and save it from death row than to buy a purebred cat."

Like dogs, purebred cats also suffer many health issues too. "You'd be familiar with the breathing problems of Pugs and Boston Terriers – we see the same issue in Persian cats that have been bred with almost purely flat faces so their nostrils are tiny and they can have significant trouble breathing. Similarly, Scottish Fold cats with the cute folded over ears usually develop serious arthritis due to a genetic problem with cartilage," Barrs states, while confirming more research in this area is being done at the Vet School to address such problems. 

Barrs and Julia Beatty, a Professor in feline medicine at the University, are working to promote early-age cat desexing to help stop 'feline teenage pregnancy'. This type of population control needs to be implemented to prevent native wildlife predation as well as this high prevalance of cat enthanasia. According to Beatty, "the complex issue of unowned domestic cats negatively impacts animal welfare and costs Australia more than $250 million annually." 

"Surgical desexing of pet cats before puberty is a powerful population management tool, preventing unwanted kittens. Research from the University has contributed to a strong evidence-base supporting that desexing cats at 8-12 weeks of age is not only safe, but offers advantages over the conventional age of 6 months," she says.

Sticking it to the stereotype

On a more trivial note, women seem to get a bad rap for owning a cat, they’re judged as being ‘crazy cat ladies’ with the defining characteristics being that these ladies are single and crazy.

Given the amount of flak women cop in pop culture you’d think there’d be a huge number of single, female cat owners – but Roy Morgan research suggests this isn’t the case. In 2015 it was reported that approximately 1.3 million cats were owned by women (with no other pet) and 1 million were owned by men – a fairly even split.   

Dispelling the myth even more so, it turns out almost half of female cat owners are also in relationships (49%) across all ages, demonstrating that there’s no hard skew toward older, single ladies. 

In fact, there actually seems to be an upward trend in male ownership. Roy Morgan completed studies comparing the average Australian man with those who owned cats and the results were intriguing. Generally speaking men who own cats are more likely to have senior positions at their place of employment and are also more likely to earn a higher income. They’re a whopping 61% more likely to earn $250,000 or more to be precise. Unfortunately there were no clear-cut salary gaps for female owners. 

Other personality breakdowns of both men and women showed that those who own cats tend to self-identify as being intellectual, are slightly shyer and prefer time at home to read non-fiction and play board games. If we cross-reference this with research completed by Facebook in the U.S, the facts seems to lineup.

Owners of cats tend to have 26 less friends on social media platforms (but remember its quality not quantity) and according to their interests and page likes (does anyone use these functions anymore?), cat owners prefer indoor activities and more refined movies.

Of course Barrs does note, "there is a very small part of society that do have a problem with cat and dog hoarding and this is a well characterised mental health issue that occurs in both men and women." So even in a more extreme sense it's still not clear why women seem to attract a negative label as this problem is evident in both genders. 

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