The concept of the crazy cat lady is a part of our culture. It's a stereotype of an older woman living on her own, surrounded by a dozen cats, talking to her pets in a mumbo-jumbo fashion, and not noticing that they are piddling all around her. There have been books, tv programmes and movies featuring crazy cat ladies.
I have a friend who lives in terror of someday becoming a crazy cat lady: for her, it'd be a fate worse than almost anything else. She likes cats, but she likes people too. Her worst fear would be for the balance to be tweaked the wrong way, with people disappearing from her life, and cats moving in to fill the space.
The truth is that the crazy cat lady myth is exactly that: largely a myth. Our culture has an ambivalent relationship with cats, with around half the population loving them, and the other half being suspicious of them. So for the 50% who are uneasy about cats, it's reassuring to have a mythical mad person who has 'gone over to the other side' with these peculiar creatures. People love having a figure like this to mock, which is a shame.
The myth probably goes back to medieval times, when cats were believed to be 'witches' familiars', working together to create mischief in the world, and even being burnt at the stake together. Ever since those days, women living on their own with cats have been regarded with some suspicion.
And like many myths, there are elements of truth hidden in the stereotype. Women do seem to be more interested in being kind to animals than men. Around 80% of new graduate vets are now women, and on social media, issues involving pets seem to attract far more female interest than male.
And when it comes to filling a home with animals, women are more prone to this than men. The general syndrome of 'compulsive hoarding', recently recognised as a psychiatric disorder, affects men and women equally. Most of us probably know somebody who fills their house and garden with worthless clutter that they find impossible to get rid of.
However, there's a sub-type of the phenomenon known as 'animal hoarding'. Women are far more likely than men to succumb to this, by a ratio of three to one. My own suspicion is that this is just a reflection of the fact that women tend to like caring for animals more than men. Perhaps 'car hoarders' are more likely to be male?
So when stories of animal hoarders make the news, women are more likely to feature than men, and when the photos of such situations show dozens of cats strolling around the house, the images perpetuate the myth, reinforcing everything we believe about crazy cat ladies.
A Russian woman began to hoard cats in her mid-thirties, when she felt sorry for a few local feral cats in the snow-bound winter months. By the time she reached the age of fifty, she had 130 cats in her two bedroomed apartment. She seemed to be a responsible cat carer, making sure they were all neutered so at least there was a lid on the source of the overpopulation. But the sight of her home, crawling with cats, was shocking when the BBC caught it on video.
Meanwhile in California, another woman ended up moving into a mobile home after sacrificing her large family home to over 1000 cats. The house has long since stopped being a home for humans. At some point, the lady's care for cats moved from hobby to a passion. She chose to transform her house into feline accommodation, and it has since become California's largest no-cage, no-kill, lifetime cat sanctuary. Her mission, assisted by a team of volunteers, is to place rescued cats and kittens into loving, permanent homes, as well as providing a safe, happy and healthy home for any of the cats that remain unhomeable. She could, perhaps, be called a crazy cat lady, but when you find out more about her, it's far more noble than the mad myth.
While many people who work with animals are trying to move on from the crazy cat lady myth, the media seems to keep finding stories that perpetuate it. One example is the latest information about a microscopic parasite, Toxoplasma gondii. This parasite reproduces in cats, and so cats are often blamed for spreading it to humans. Recent evidence suggests that some psychiatric disorders (including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia) may be linked to the parasite. So could the company of cats literally be driving 'cat ladies' mad?
The answer is 'no'. While cats can shed the parasite in their droppings, living in a house with a cat is not a risk factor for infection. The parasite survives in the environment for many months, and any warm blooded animal can pick it up by ingestion. Farm animals can become infected by grazing on pastures where cats have passed by. The most likely way that a human will pick up infection is by handling raw or undercooked meat.
Blood tests show that in most countries, 30-50% of the human population has been exposed to Toxoplasma, while in France, 84% of the population show evidence of infection. This suggests something cultural other than cats: could it be linked to the French enjoyment of relatively raw meat as a culinary treat?
It's nothing to do with the outdated 'crazy cat lady' myth, that's for sure.