Once we were told that cats were extremely bad for our environment and particularly bad for those suffering from asthma. It appears now as if the domestic moggy may be undergoing a degree of rehabilitation.
But first, how many cats inhabit the leafy climes of Oz? Well, if official figures are any guide then roughly about one-quarter of all Australian households support one or more of these small furry creatures whereas about 40 percent have a dog - which gives you some idea of the relative priorities of pet owners. Overall there are probably about two million cats and three million dogs in Australia and probably a great many more if you count those that have gone feral.
As far as the pet care industry is concerned, cats are a critical component of their industry - one of Australia’s largest enterprises - employing more than 37,000 people and contributing over $3.3 billion annually to the economy. Of this about $1.7 billion is spent on pet food (there goes another Latin American forest or valley - sacrificed to the US pet food companies) and a little over $1.1 billion on veterinary and other care and health services.
To put this in perspective, sales of bread in Australia probably amount to about $1.4 billion a year and sales of meat products to about $3.2 billion. Much has been made of the environmental impact and the killing of native wildlife in Australia. The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service estimates on average a domestic cat can kill about 30 native animals a year.
In contrast Animals Australia argues that there is no real evidence that cats threaten the delicate balance of Australia’s ecosystem. A feral cat’s preferred diet consists mainly of rats, mice and rabbits and they rarely prey on native species, particularly birds.
We are also warned that cats can be a danger to our health, not only to pregnant women but also to anyone who suffers from asthma. Paradoxically, there is some evidence to suggest that children raised in households containing two or more dogs or cats, in their first year of life, may have fewer allergies to dogs and cats and also less sensitivity to allergens generally.
And what about when we lose our cool and scream at the kids or our partner and the moggy jumps into our lap and starts purring? Well, a study in Melbourne suggested that pet owners have lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels than non pet owners: They went to see their GP less often and appeared to be in better general health than non pet owners. This survey also suggested that owning a cat might be more beneficial to our health than owning a dog - but the jury is still out on that one.
Certainly, faced by increasing obesity, the morning or evening trip around the block with the dog may be more beneficial for our health than trying to leash the cat and teach it to trot in front of us. But what of the intangible delights of companionship we get from cats and the lessening of our loneliness and isolation?
And there are other benefits as well. Let a woman who responded to a survey of domestic pets some years ago have the final word on that: “Dogs and cats are far better company than husbands and they don’t talk back … or if they do, you can simply lock them downstairs or outside.”
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