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Cats in America

By Jerilyn Watson

An old expression says, "Man's best friend is his dog." Today, however, it seems that cats have replaced dogs as the most popular pets in American homes. I'm Shirley Griffith. And I'm Steve Ember.

Today we report on Americans and their cats on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.

Americans have more than sixty-two million pet dogs. But even more cats -- more than sixty-four million -- live in American homes.

These pet cats may have long hair or short hair. They are different colors and sizes. Some are costly animals that take part in competitions. Many more are common American mixtures of several kinds of cats.

Most house cats live a good life. They are not expected to work for their food. Instead, they rule their homes like furry kings and queens. They wait for their owners to serve them.

Americans are increasingly serious about their cats. These concerns have made the care of cats into big business.

Each year, cat-owners buy tons of food especially prepared for cats. They buy toys and other equipment. They buy jewelry and clothes for themselves with images of cats on them. Some owners even bury their dead pets in special burial grounds.

Humans have loved and respected cats for centuries. Scientists have evidence that cats and people lived together as long as eight-thousand years ago. The small house cat was once a highly honored animal. In ancient Egypt, for example, people who killed a cat could be punished by death.

Early in American history cats were not treated as gods, however. They probably arrived in the United States with settlers and traders from Europe. These cats worked. They killed rats and mice.

Sometimes, Americans mistreated their cats. During the early days of the nation, religious extremists believed that some cats were working for the devil. Black cats were especially suspected of being evil.

Later, American families who had enough food began taking cats into their homes. People cared for the cats because the animals gave them pleasure. The cats thanked people for feeding them by making a purring sound. This pleasant noise usually means a cat is happy.

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Animal experts offer several reasons why cats have become so popular as house pets. They say cats need less care than dogs. And cats do not seem to suffer as much as dogs from being alone if the owners are away.

Still, millions of other people do not like cats at all. They say dogs are better and more loving pets. They say cats do not have much feeling. They believe cats stay with people only to be fed.

Cat owners defend their pets against such criticism. They say cats are just much more independent than dogs.

A student of animal medicine explains the situation this way: Dogs follow you around. They want you to talk to them and play with them a lot of the time. Cats like more space and more privacy. This does not mean they do not love their owners.

Cat owners often like to read about cats. Many books about cats are in American libraries and bookstores. Cats also appear as the heroes of newspaper comics, television programs and movies. Among the most famous is Garfield. He is an orange, striped tiger cat.

Garfield eats too much. His owner, Jon, is always trying to get the cat to lose weight. However, Garfield usually eats what he wants. He often shows more intelligence than his owner.

Some cat lovers raise and show costly, pure-bred cats at special competitions. The United States has a number of organizations that investigate cats before declaring them pure-bred. A pure-bred cat has ancestors who were only a single kind of unusual cat like the Siamese or the Manx.

One such organization is the Cat Fanciers Association, incorporated, in the eastern city of Manasquan (Man' ah skwahn), New Jersey. The Cat Fanciers organization recognizes more than thirty-five kinds of pure-bred cats. It says Persians and Maine coons are some of the most popular cats in America today.

A Persian looks something like a ball covered by fur. A Maine coon has large bones and a wide nose. Some people think the Maine coon looks like a small mountain lion.

Thomas Dent is the head of the Cat Fanciers Association. Mr. Dent and his wife raise Silver Persian cats in their home. He says the two humans share one room while the cats rule the rest of the house. He says he does not count the number of cats he owns.

Caring for these cats costs a lot of money. The Dents buy them food and pay for their health care. They also pay for travel and other costs involved in showing the cats at competitions.

Cat shows are held throughout the United States. They also are held in many other countries. Pure-bred cats are judged on their appearance and size. They also are judged on how they act.

A truly fine show animal may earn its owners a large amount of money. Mr. Dent says someone once paid about twenty-five-thousand dollars for a cat to be shown in competitions. Surprisingly, this was not an unusual animal like an Abyssinian or an Angora. It was an American short-hair. The seller said the price represented the money spent on preparing the cat for its show appearances.

Most cats of mixed breed are not worth much money. Still, their owners think of them as family members. Such cats are probably among the most-loved animals in America.

An animal doctor in the city of Rockville, Maryland, examines and treats pets in their owners' homes. She takes care of all kinds of animals with all kinds of problems.

She also owns a cat. The cat is eighteen years old and has a heart condition. The doctor says she often has her cat treated by other animal doctors with special training in heart disease. She says she would like her cat to live forever.

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Not all cats are cared for or loved. Some experts estimate that America has about sixty-million cats that have no owners. That would mean almost as many cats have no homes as cats that have homes.

A cat without a home faces many more difficulties than a show cat or house cat. For this reason, animal doctors urge cat owners to have their pets neutered.

This operation removes the reproductive organs. It prevents the birth of more cats who may not get homes. Many cities and organizations offer free operations to pets of families who cannot pay for private doctors.

Tom Ramirez is an animal doctor near Washington, D. C. He says many homeless cats in the United States live only about three or four years. These cats often starve or freeze to death in severe weather.

Animal officials kill many cats because homes cannot be found for them. Millions die this way each year. The Humane Society of America says this is more merciful than letting them starve or freeze to death. The society says it is better to kill homeless cats than to let them suffer injuries and sicknesses without help.

But this is not the only way to control the unowned cat population. Another method is to reduce the number of cats being born.

This is done by trapping cats who do not have homes and giving them medicine to prevent diseases including rabies. Rabies kills humans as well as animals. These unowned cats are fixed so they cannot produce babies. Then they are released. Cat-lovers who offer their time then feed these animals. Also, they often try to find homes for them.

A group called Alley Cat Allies supports this method of controlling the unowned cat population. It says the method has been used successfully in several part of the United States. The method also has worked well in several other countries.

Alley Cat Allies also suggests that people take homeless baby cats into their homes. It says these kittens can make pleasant house pets if an owner is willing to wait for the animal to become friendly.

Donna Anderson of Chesterton, Indiana, has brought a number of unowned cats into her home over the years. She says each one of these animals has been different and special.

Probably lovers of all kinds of cats would agree with the French writer, Colette. She once said there is no such thing as a common cat.

This program was written by Jerilyn Watson. I'm Shirley Griffith.

And I'm Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another report about life in the United States on our VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.


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