Animal Minds

When we gaze into the eyes of another animal, can we know what they might be thinking? 

What's With the Cat?

A pet is not compensation for not having a spouse.

One time, a publication that interviewed me about Singled Outsent someone to take a picture of me at home. The photographer asked what my book was about, then stopped for a moment to think about how to set up the shot. Looking like he had just been struck by a bolt of inspiration, he asked, "Where's your cat?"

Well, I don't have a cat. I have nothing against cats - or any other pets for that matter - I just don't happen to have any.

Recently, I heard from a student planning to do some research on singles and their pets, and that got me thinking about the stereotypes. I wonder why it is that single people - women especially - are so often cast as cat-crazy. Is it a way of attributing a cat-like caricature to singles - say, aloof and unsociable? Or maybe even a more flattering portrait of cool and unruffled independence?

I don't know if single people really are any more likely than married people to have cats or any other pets. As far as I know, there is no research on the matter. That means we are reduced to anecdotes. The only real-life cat lady I ever knew was married to the dean of a major university. I think her cat count always exceeded 30. Her husband was rumored to enjoy his time away from home.

Is the cat-stereotype an American thing? I don't know that either. I do remember, though, that one of the most infamous quotes from one of the most famous British singletons was about a dog. According to Bridget Jones (okay, so she's not real), all of her single friends were convinced that they would "end up dying alone and found three weeks later half-eaten by an Alsatian."

By itself, the perception of singles as cat-people (or pet-people) doesn't bother me. What does rub me the wrong way is the interpretation that is sometimes offered for the supposed link between being single and having a pet - that singles have pets as "compensation" for not having a spouse.

Now maybe that interpretation actually is true of some single people, just as some married people have a pet as practice for having a kid. (This is not hypothetical. I knew a couple who admitted to this. The two of them also liked to quip that they hoped the kid they planned to have would like the dog they already did have, because it would be a shame to have to get rid of the kid. I'm pretty sure they meant that as a joke.)

But why do I so rarely hear an entirely different and (I think) more plausible explanation - that single people who have cats have them because they like them? Because they are caring people who love animals and would want to have pets in their lives regardless of their marital status?

The compensation interpretation is not limited to pets. Single people's close relationships with siblings, parents, and friends have also been described as compensation for not having a spouse, sometimes even by academics.

That, to me, is a way of saying that unless you have a spouse, none of your other adult relationships count as genuine or as valuable in and of themselves. A similarly dismissive explanation dogs (sorry) single people who are devoted to their jobs or to some cause or interest that they pursue passionately - they are just compensating for not having a spouse.

The most fundamental problem, I think, is that too many Americans simply cannot believe that any adult would actually like being single and choose to stay that way. Until that nut is cracked, deluded amateur and professional psychologists will continue to see compensation under every single person's cat dish.

Animal Minds