Sunday, 7 February 2016

Victorian Animal Welfare: Don't Leave Your Cats to Starve

In this 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
Victorian (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 were less…well…cat-like.

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 practice.
“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 food)

The 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 behavior.

Stray cats 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.

Next week: 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. 


  1. No cat, dog or any other household pet should be made to survive on their own. They should be given the proper respect and care expected of their master/mistress.

    1. Here! Here!
      It's great that we have animal welfare legislation enshrined in law, but shameful that we should need it.


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