HISTORY, ROMANCE AND...CATS!
Grace Elliot leads a double life as a vet by day and author of intelligent historical fiction by night. Grace is an avid reader and believes that smart people need to read romance - as an antidote to the modern world!
Grace is also obsessed by all things feline.
Victorian Animal Welfare: Don't Leave Your Cats to Starve
series of blog posts about attitudes to cats in the 19th century,
this week we look at cat welfare...but all is not as it seems .
The ideal pet cat was passive and well-behaved,
just like their female owner
(male-dominated) society regarded cats as the embodiment of femininity – and
this wasn’t meant as a compliment. Cats were seen as promiscuous, innately
sexual, and too independent for their own good and only made good pets if they
In the 19th
century men expected their wives to be obedient, chaste, and biddable. The
message was clear: women needed firmly keeping in line, or much like any untrustworthy creature their
morals might degenerate to those of an alley cat.
By the end of
the 19th century it was estimated most households owned at least one
cat, but these were working animals. They lived outdoors, and allowed in during
the day to catch mice and keep vermin down. However, there were a significant
number of middle class women who kept a pet cat. This was acceptable if the pet
was well behaved, because it exemplified the triumph of civilization over baser
nature; woman over cat, man over woman.
The problem then
arose as to what happened to that pet cat when the household went on holiday.
Frequently the answer was to turn the cat out onto the street for the duration
of the time the owner was away. However, by the 1880s there was a ground swell
of opinion, given voice by the newspapers and pet-keeping manuals, against this
“Don’t leave your cats to starve while
you go for an enjoyable holiday.”
On the face
of it, this would seem to be the birth pangs of animal welfare concerns for our
feline friends. But when you delve deeper it seems the appeal was not made for
the reason you might suppose (i.e. the poor animal suffering through lack of
motivation behind this appeal was that a cat forced onto the streets, without the civilizing influence of man, would
revert to their bestial habits. This
wasn’t a case of chastising owners for abandoning their pets, but shining a
light on the weak moral nature of cats, as proven when they reverted to natural
were regarded as the equivalent of prostitutes, while a pet cat was equivalent
to a good housewife. To turn one (the wife) into the other (a prostitute) was
what the protests objected to – not because they were worried about cat
welfare, but because of the example it to women.
Female cat owners were often stereotyped
A cat left to
fend for themselves, was “corrupted by their
own impulses” (presumably to eat and reproduce) and the degraded animal was
no longer a suitable companion for a gentlewoman.
So there we
have it: “Don’t leave your cat to starve”…but
because 19th century men feared it might corrupt their wives.
The Suffragettes and Cats. As a taster, what do you make of the imagery in the postcard show below? Do share your thoughts and leave a comment.