From the archive: are we a nation of cat people?

Pet ownership has taken off during lockdown and there was a similar boom in the 1980s. For the Observer Magazine of 20 June 1982, Eva Kendall found out why cats in particular were on the verge of becoming Britain’s most popular pets (‘The Cult of the Cat’).In 1981, the number of cats had surged by 300,000 to reach an estimated 5,200,000 – only half a million behind dogs. ‘The long-haired cat or Persian is the most popular breed today, having just overtaken the Siamese,’ wrote Kendall. Could such interest be because of ‘women’s lib’? ‘Cats are symbolically identified with the female principle and their ascendancy coincides with a psychological shift from the macho attitudes represented by dogs.’

Kendall thought a more likely reason was that cats fit in better with the demands of ‘working owners, of weekending city dwellers and of holidaymakers’, also that ‘they are more self-contained, get less upset when their owners are away, and do their own physical jerks’. And such discerning palates: ‘Their pernickety taste buds keep manufacturers on a treadmill pursuit of variety, grinding up chickens’ necks, knacker’s yard offal and fish waste in search for new flavours.’

Dr Roger Tabor, an urban ecologist, spent 12 months watching London’s feral cats in their colonies on ‘building sites, in alleys around hotels, even on Soho roof-tops’. The cat-about-town, he found, did indeed resemble TS Eliot’s ‘Brummell among cats’.

INTERESTING FACT ABOUT YOUR PET: Your dog can help get you a date! One study showed that a man’s chances of getting a girl’s phone number went from 10% to 33%, just by having a dog with them. In the study, a staggering 66% of men and women would not date someone who didn’t like pets.

Cats have been at the mercy of man’s whims, ‘worshipped during one era, burnt as devils the next’ and ‘no matter how much we try to pin it down’ concluded Kendall, ‘Shakespeare’s “harmless, necessary cat” retains its enigmatic hold over the human imagination.’

‘Their stillness has a spiritual quality,’ one cat breeder told Kendall. ‘Cats fulfil the soul. They are tranquillisers with fur and four legs.’