I have been an avowed cat lover since I was a child surrounded by an ever-changing variety of farm cats. When I attended graduate school, I acquired my first cat, a calico I named Athena, followed shortly by my tortoiseshell Calliope. Because Athena wanted my attention immediately after returning from the lab, Calliope was partially acquired to entertain Athena. Much of this “entertainment” consisted of Athena asserting her dominance over the interloper.
Based on conversations I had during graduate school, I learned that more of my fellow graduate students seemed to acquire cats than any other companion animal. At Promega Corporation, the expectation is each new hire writes a short biography and must name his or her pets. In my department of nine, six of us had cats during our university education and work as research scientists.
Why do biologists favor cats over dogs? I surmise that part of the allure is because cats are relatively independent, an important feature for scientists busy in the laboratory. Feline care is simple enough: keep the litter box clean, feed and water daily, offer a scratching item and a comfy spot, and cats are content to stay in your home. The available companionship is a nice bonus. Part of my desire to bring Athena into my home stemmed from her status as a pretty tricolor kitty (and the X-chromosome inactivation demonstrated on her calico-colored fur coat was cool too).
Maybe there is more to keeping cats than their easy care (e.g., no walks in the morning fighting sleet, snow and ice). Are scientists are aware of something inherent to hosting a cat (or two) in their homes? Cats in the household can benefit their human slaves…er caretakers in many ways. Studies indicate cats help prevent deaths from heart attacks (PDF), decrease recovery time from illness or injury and new pet owners experience health improvement (PDF). At the same time, studies about the effect of companion animals on overall health are conflicting. Some reports indicate being elderly and having a pet benefits physical health and enhances quality of life while others show pet owners have greater BMI and other negative effects on health. These latter conclusions run contrary to expectations.
My feelings about cats remain unchanged: I benefit from coming home to a soft, furry kitty that offers companionship and solace when needed. Furthermore, I have started more than a few conversations “My cat…”, sharing anecdotes with fellow cat lovers and the feline deprived alike. For me, I need more clear evidence that my feline companion is a detriment to my health before considering severing the relationship between us.
What are your thoughts on the cat-human health connection?