But this bargain has a price after all, because although cats are Canada's most common pet, they're still less likely than dogs to get fixed, vaccinated or receive medical attention. Care for Cats, a Hamilton-based non-profit organization for which Dr. O'Brien is a spokesperson, named 2011 the Year of the Cat, but it wasn't to celebrate the cat's sudden rise in status. The group wanted to draw attention to the fact that they're the most likely pet to be the victim of animal cruelty.
It's a paradox since humans have historically assigned cats great dignity. Long after homo sapien and felis silvestris evolved from the same predator 200 million years ago, the sapien returned to the felis in worship. The Egyptian goddess Bastet had the body of a woman and the head of a cat, and was believed to have had two natures: one gentle, one vicious. Pets were often mummified, and sculptures and painted images adorned tombs.
How things changed. Before the “Hang in there, baby” poster was everywhere in sight in the 1980s, there were the Brighton Cats, the collection of 19th century photographer Harry Pointer of cats in such poses as enjoying high tea or riding miniature penny-farthings.
Decades later he was outdone by Harry Whittier Frees, who dressed up his animal subjects and is believed to have created the first lolcat in the early 1900s: a kitten in an puffy-sleeved dress sitting demandingly in a high chair. The caption: “What's delaying my dinner?”
The “I Can Has Cheezburger?” cat, a chubby British shorthair who's since spawned books, shirts and rumours of a reality show based on the Cheezburger offices, was not the original lolcat. He was but one of the innumerable born from subculture that has its roots in “teh” website 4chan's infamous “random” forum. In 2006, an anonymous user fixed a kitty with a silly caption and posted it amongst the gore and porn that spontaneously populates the forum. It caught on, with claws so deep that users made a civic holiday out of it called “Caturdays.”
Today, on YouTube, all you need to guarantee an audience is a camera, a cat and a Roomba. Sometimes not even that.
There's the cat who begged “no no no,” the cat who soothed a crying baby, the cat who was very angry, the cat who responded to tickling with childlike glee, and the cat named Sparta who got his own rap video. Between them, over 200 million views.
In “Catvertising,” a viral video satirizing viral videos, a fictitious adman projects that, by 2015, “cat videos are going to represent 90 per cent of the content on the world wide web.” His colleague adds, “You think sometimes you're going to run out of material with cats, but you never do.”
There's certainly some truth to that.
There are sites for cats that look like today's TV personalities like Parks and Recreation's Ron Swanson, or that have no likeness at all, such as Chase No Face, a rescue cat with no face and 18,000 Facebook fans.
And, if a cat isn't cute enough on its own, you can “bread” it in four easy steps: take a piece of bread, cut a whole an inch thicker than the cat's head, gently place it on the head, and take a photo. Almost 1,400 people have, and posted it to breadedcats.com.
Cats even have a set of iPad games. There have been 300,000 downloads of products developed by Hiccup, a California start-up specializing in apps for cats. For a buck, Paint for Cats lets owners create sharable abstract art by tricking their pets into swatting at a digital mouse that leaves colourful splats and smears behind. It has a near-perfect rating on iTunes, although another product received complaints from owners whose cats nearly purchased a $1 upgrade by randomly pawing the screen.
But the current outbreak of ailurophilia, an unusual fondness of cats, isn't restricted to new media. The big screen is also starting to embrace these antiheroes.