Wednesday, June 16, 2010
Carnivorous By Nature
Felis Cattus, is your taxonomic nomenclature,
an endothermic quadruped carnivorous by nature?
Your visual, olfactory and auditory senses
contribute to your hunting skills, and natural defenses.
I find myself intrigued by your subvocal oscillations,
a singular development of cat communications
that obviates your basic hedonistic predilection
for a rhythmic stroking of your fur, to demonstrate affection.
- From "Ode to Spot", a poem read by the android Data in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, 'Schisms'
A few years ago, while visiting Matt's parents (Matt being my Significant Other; his parents live locally to us) I witnessed a scene that probably plays out all the time in nature, but which I don't see all that often when I click links entitled "cute kitten video!!" In the back yard, a tiny (probably 7 weeks old at most) feral kitten was gleefully flinging an object around. Initially my reaction was typical: along the lines of "aww, how adorable!" But then I got a closer look at the object...and saw that it was a partly-eaten dead bird (most likely a house sparrow). Which I have to admit gave me a bit of a jolt. But that jolt was only momentary because I remembered, hey, this is a cat. Cuteness does not equal vegetarianism, after all!
So yeah. Personally I tend toward a vegetarian diet and prefer plant-based foods for myself whenever feasible. However this does not mean I would ever be tempted to impose my preferences and choices in this regard on my cats. Moreover, while I certainly disagree with factory farming practices and don't think I could stand hanging around in a slaughterhouse, I do accept that nature includes carnivores, herbivores, and omnivores, and somehow I doubt things would go well for life on Earth if all the carnivores suddenly disappeared!
But on to the main point of this post, which is to discuss a weird thing I've noticed looking around in the "pet" sections of grocery stores and the like. And that is the way products (especially food) for dogs and cats are marketed, formulated, and made available. I don't want to take the time right now to go around photographing display shelves and ingredients labels, so take this for what it's worth, but I suspect most people who've looked at these items will be familiar with what I am describing here.
Basically it looks to me like there's this perception of cats as being these dainty little creatures whose sensibilities might even be described as "delicate". Whereas dogs (with the exception of the "toy" breeds) are associated with a sort of rough-and-tumble "outdoorsiness" (or something along those lines). Dog food cans and bags tend to employ "strong"-looking or blocky lettering and dark or bold colors; cat food packaging is heavy on the pastels and the flowery script. Dogs and cats can of course be either male or female, but in many cases it seems like cat products look stereotypically "feminine" whereas dog products look stereotypically "masculine".
Now of course I am not claiming that the observations above are universally or 100% true for all foods and other products. For instance, foods marketed as being "natural" or "holistic" tend to use similar (frequently neutral or "artsy"-looking) packaging colors and designs for both cats and dogs. And there are certainly exceptions to the "all dogs are boys, all cats are girls" imagery; i.e., the archetypically masculine tomcat and the fluffy pink-beribboned poodle both show up repeatedly in popular culture. But I still think the overall trends otherwise I am describing here are at least prevalent enough to be worth mentioning.
All that said, I want to specifically focus on food here. Biologically speaking, cats are obligate carnivores (meaning they must consume the particular nutrients found in the flesh of other animals in order to survive). Dogs, while also technically carnivores, can eat a more omnivorous diet and tend to have less digestive trouble with grains than cats do. Yet the marketing and available selection of cat and dog foods and treats in many of the stores I've visited would suggest the exact opposite!
To illustrate what I mean, I was in one store recently (a local hardware store that is really more of a "general household goods" emporium, i.e., they carry lots of gardening equipment and rugs in addition to nuts, bolts, and tools) and in their "pet" aisle I noticed several things. One was that the selection of dog food was about twice as large as the selection of cat food. Another was that the dog food selection included at least one of the "natural" brands, noted as being high meat/low grain. The cat section included no such option; if I'd been restricted to buying food there, I'd have been completely out of luck as there was nothing Brodie (who gets severe stomach upset from corn and probably barley as well) could safely eat.
I have noticed the same trend in most grocery stores as far as treats are concerned. Treats of course are not a necessity, but as long as one isn't over-feeding one's cats or dogs, they can be a nice little mid-day surprise or supplement. But ye gads. Dogs get all this nice jerky stuff -- essentially pure meat -- while cats get these little "Fun Shaped" crunchy or chewy things that are, of course, predominantly corn. What. The. Heck.
So yeah. I am not sitting here fuming in outrage over all this -- there are, after all, multiple local pet supply stores where I can easily find reasonably species-appropriate cat food -- but this sort of thing does confuse and annoy me. It just seems like there's this bizarre cultural stereotype of cats being dainty, girlish...salad-eaters, or something, that is totally incongruous with their carnivorous reality*. And I don't think it does anyone, much less cats themselves, any service to misrepresent or disregard this reality.
* Not that there is anything wrong with being girlish, my point is more that there seems to be a conflation of cats with feminine with needing-less-meat, etc., which makes no sense at all, and wouldn't if applied to dogs or humans either!