Is it Usual for Straight Men to Own Cats?

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The relationship between humans and animals go back to primitive times when both needed to hunt for food but eventually found that they could live in a mutually beneficial relationship as well. Now pets have increasingly come to complement interpersonal human relationships and sometimes they form the primary object of love and affection as well. But even then, some stereotypes about humans and pets remain and one of these is that it is weird for straight men to own cats.

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Gay men and cats

Almost everyone has heard of the old saying, ‘Dogs are a man’s best friend’ – the operative word in this context is ‘Man’ which implies that dogs are the perfect companion for men who are macho, masculine and testosterone-driven – in other words, the meat-and-potatoes kind. According to conventional imagery, there is something so manly about a guy running with a Labrador or German Shepherd in the park, so much so that it is enough to set women quivering at the knees – thus guys with dogs are the unfailingly straight - indeed, immensely attractive to women.

The association between dogs and masculinity could have an evolutionary origin. The earliest ancestor of today’s pet Fido could well have been the wolf or wild dog of primitive times that was domesticated by humans to help with the hunt or protect from other wild animals. This link may be responsible for the macho image that the male masters of dog pets continue to have even today – indeed in many parts of the world, dogs are still kept for guarding purposes.

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Cats on the other hand have always been viewed as the pet for females – whether the batty old cat lady surrounded by seven felines or the young Missy who is presented with a kitten on her fourteenth birthday. In keeping with their own feline nature, cats are seen as perfect companion for women. And in the world of rigid gender constructions, it was only a matter of time before the feminine was extended to mean the effeminate and thus easily applied to men who do not wear their masculinity on their sleeve. In this way men keeping cats came to be associated with being effeminate, a pansy and thus gay, as opposed to the more macho owner of dogs.

However in recent times, with more fluid gender constructions, even this stereotype of cats and their gay masters seems to have undergone a change. More and more men – and unambiguously straight ones – are increasingly discovering both the emotional pleasures and practical benefits of keeping cats as pets. A 2005 article from New York Times has an interesting insight into the trend which marks that cats are the natural choice as pets for men who are single and living a busy life. Cats are far more self-sufficient as compared to dogs. The felines will eat at a normal pace, they go out and relieve themselves without their owner having to be there and they clean themselves. They are one of the easiest pets to take care of—which is perfect for men who are marrying later than ever and thus without spouses to take care of pets. Also most of these men have busy professional lives, even spending days on end on out-of-town tours. Under such circumstances, having a cat as a pet is the only thing to do. A pet dog on the other hand would entail the services of a sitter or in case of extended absence of the master, an expensive stay at the kennel probably.

The New York Times article, mentioned above, is also clear that men who are keeping cats as pets are firmly heterosexual. And though actual numbers are hard to come by, the article mentions Carole Wilbourn, a cat therapist in Manhattan, claiming that the number of her single, straight male clients has risen about 25 percent over the last five years.

The trend of straight men owning cats as pets seems be welcome to women as well. Increasingly women feel that boyfriends who own cats are actually secure and stable than macho dog owners. They don’t need to be running around the park and proving their masculinity like the dog guys and they are OK with staying at home and watching a DVD instead of goofing around with beer buddies at the local bar.

However there are limits to all good things and the same is true in this case as well. While owning Fluffy may make a man seem comfortable with his own manhood, owning multiple cats would be a definite no-no when it comes to attracting single women. Having multiple cats is bound to make a guy look weird and send ambiguous signals about his sexuality. Likewise a guy would do well to hold off talking about his cat until he has been out at least a few times with a particular woman.  Although it may be increasingly acceptable for straight men to own a cat, a date may still think it’s strange when he busts out pictures of Kitty on his cell phone on the first date.  

Finally notions of what is and is not usual are always changing. At one time it was inconceivable that men should cook in their own kitchens or that they needed to use a moisturizer – it is no longer so. Similarly long-established notions about what kind of men keep what kind of pets are also bound to give way to considerations of practicality and more fluid gender constructs and yet like all organic changes, these are slow processes.

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