After the recent Farm and Ranch Life edition on farm dogs, several readers let me know they felt their favorite animals, cats, were neglected.  Does this mean cat aficionados want equal time with dog aficionados?

I hope discussion of farm pets isn’t becoming political, for I like cats and dogs, and I’m not declaring a preference!

Cats were the second animals, after dogs, to become domesticated, according to scientists in the disciplines that study these things. 

Smaller members of the cat genus who are ancestors to today’s tame cats and weren’t a threat to humans were allowed to hang around hunter-gatherer habitations to collect scraps of food.  They gathered in greater numbers when farmers began to deliberately raise grains, legumes and other edible foods some 13 -15,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent of Southwest Asia. 

Cats preyed on the rodents that invaded granaries.  Some cats were bold enough to accept the food humans left for them, like some people provide to feral cats today.  Eventually cats accepted what humans offered them directly.

Who tamed whom?  Cats probably chose to become affiliated with humans, rather than the other way around.

Still today, some kitties won’t accept human touches but will eat the food offered to them.  Other felines take great pleasure when purring and curling around our legs or being held and stroked.

Generally, cats choose which humans to adopt as reliable caretakers, whereas humans choose the dogs they can trust as affiliates.  One of our favorite adopted feline pets, Smitty, rode at the front of our bobsled whenever my family sledded down our farm’s snow-covered hillsides, followed by the kids, Marilyn, our dog and finally me, on the sled.  We trudged up the hill in reverse order for the next run.

All available cats on our farm today accompany Marilyn and me on walks, farm chores and as we work in our gardens.  I can understand why many farm people feel “cats belong up there with dogs” in our animal affiliation hierarchy.

Two kittens we adopted four years ago, Dusty and Poof, showed up meowing outside a window of our farmhouse as I was reading magazines and watching a televised football game one fall evening.  Probably abandoned, they had bellies swollen from worms; we figured they had survival skills, for they found their way to our farmhouse as youngsters.

I wormed them the next day and had them spayed later.  They now “guard” our house and act like they are “the cats’ meow.” 

How many cats and dogs are there in the US?  The Humane Society of the US estimated that 83.3 million dogs were claimed as pets by people in 2012, the latest year for which statistics are available, while 95.6 cats were claimed as pets.

There are lots of feral cats in the US–currently about 58 million, according to the Wildlife Removal Professionals Association–and far fewer feral dogs, but reliable statistics are difficult to obtain.

I’ve observed feral cats on all the continents to which I’ve traveled, usually hanging around parks and streets where they can feed on overly abundant birds, rodents, picnic leftovers or road kill.  These adaptations can be beneficial for humans as well as cats. 

Can cat diseases harm humans?  Like other zoonotic illnesses (any illness that can be passed between animals and humans), cats can transmit bacterial, parasitic, fungal, and viral infections to humans, but these illness vectors are infrequent.

Humans with compromised immune systems are most vulnerable to cat pathogens, as well as to most other sources of infections.  Cat bacteria, fleas, digestive tract worms, ringworm, viruses and some types of cancer can be contracted from petting cats, or from their scratches, bites or ingestion of their feces (such as toddlers consuming cat excretions), but they are fairly rare, according to veterinary and zoonotic research reports. 

Illnesses, like influenza, are more commonly shared among swine, birds and humans than feline diseases, possibly because cats kept their distance from humans over previous eras.  For centuries, Southeast Asian farmers in particular, kept and often still maintain pigs, chickens, ducks and geese in portions of their domiciles. 

So, we shouldn’t blame cats if they are disdainful of humans.  Cats provide much more benefit than harm to people, especially farmers, partly because of their irresistible determination to capture small rodents and their companionship.

Cats can teach us.  When I was hunting rabbits around our farmstead and on nearby rental property a few years ago, Smitty gave me a lesson.

I failed to find any rabbits, but when I parked my jeep in our driveway after hunting the entire afternoon, Smitty greeted me.  He clutched a large cottontail that he willingly offered to share.  I was humbled.

Yup, Smitty got all the parts of the rabbit my family didn’t consume for dinner.  I learned cats can be devoted to our welfare in unexpected ways.  You may have stories to tell as well.


Michael Rosmann is a Harlan, Iowa clinical psychologist who lives on the farm he shares with his wife.  Share your thoughts with Dr. Rosmann at: www.agbehavioralhealth.com.