Working Cats

Some house cats resemble couch pillows; others hold down a full-time job.

Among the paid or volunteer “employees” are therapy cats, café cats, and feral cats retrained to work on farms. There are even bureaucats monitoring the halls of officialdom!

But the first working cats were sailors.

Ship cats

As much as kitties hate getting wet, they have ridden the waves for thousands of years–ever since Phoenicians, Greeks, and other maritime traders first smuggled them out of the Land of the Pharaohs.

At first, Egyptian cats were status symbols that only the elite could afford. After a few voyages, sailors realized that there also were practical benefits to keeping some of these newfangled domesticated animals on board.

They were much better at pest control than the weasels and other small carnivores in use at the time. This translated into more money, since more cargo survived the voyage.

Another nice thing about ship cats is that they don’t take up much room, and their “fare” naturally includes meals.

Cats also provide bored sailors with companionship and entertainment.


Be careful, sailor. The first mate says that angry cats can summon up storms with their tail! Source, public domain.

Down through the centuries, cats traveled everywhere with people, on land as well as by sea.

This connection was so close that researchers now map domestic cat coat colors and patterns to trace ancient human migrations and activities. (Todd)

During the Middle Ages, European laws mandated a cat on every ship. (Ottoni and others) A bit later, dogs were listed as cargo on the Mayflower when it sailed to North America in 1620, but ship cats were so common that there probably also were some feline passengers on that historic voyage.

That’s a point historians of the Maine Coon would like to clarify. Genetic testing shows that these big long-haired fancy-cats originated in Europe, but it’s still a mystery who brought them to New England–Vikings, the Pilgrims, or later European immigrants.

Well-known twentieth-century ship cats in the West’s merchant marine and naval fleets have included Blackie, Peebles, Convoy, Pincher, Tiddles, and Pooli (a US veteran who reportedly rated three service ribbons and four battle stars).

Among the ultrafamous are:

  • Simon, the only cat among all the dogs, horses, and pigeons who have been awarded the animal version of Britain’s Victoria Cross.
  • Unsinkable Sam/Oscar, who saw service on both sides in World War II and survived several sinkings. I would watch that movie.
  • Trim, who accompanied his human friend on the first circumnavigation of Australia and had several adventures (including falling overboard and swimming back to the ship). Trim now has statues in both England and Australia.
Unsinkable Sam

Seriously, you guys, stop shooting at each other. I’m trying to get some sleep! — Unsinkable Sam (Source, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich)

Domestic cats still sail into port today, but they are pets, not working animals. Most navies banned mascots of any sort decades ago because of health concerns and the need for quarantines.

Other working cats

Holding a cat and feeling as well as hearing it purr is one of the most relaxing things anyone can do. For that reason, you would think that cats make good therapy animals, and sometimes they do. However, dogs have made the most inroads in this career field.

The drawback to cats is that they are idiosyncratic, to say the least. A cat may take a liking to certain individuals and allow close contact–or it may bristle with rage and very sharp claws and teeth.

Or it may do both. Every domestic cat’s middle name is “Unpredictable.”

Nevertheless, domestic animals have been used in therapy since the 19th century, though this was drastically reduced in the early 20th century after the discovery that diseases are transmitted by germs.

In the 1980s, a study showed that cardiac patients live longer if they own pets. At first it seemed that relaxation was the benefit, but now researchers think that social support from a cat, dog, or other companion animal is the key to better health and a longer life.

Animal-assisted therapy has become very popular. Most therapy cats and other critters are personal pets that their owners take on supervised visits in hospitals, nursing homes, and other treatment centers.

The jury is still out on on how effective it is, but there is some evidence that a therapy cat does help patients with their standing balance and speech.

Some experts have raised welfare concerns about animal-assisted therapy, pointing out that any therapy animal is certifed only on the basis of how they respond to simplified temperament tests. That tells people how well they can handle stress, but not whether the animal actually wants to meet strangers.

This is also a concern with cat cafés.

Ever since Cat Flower Garden first opened in Taipei during the 1990s, people all over the world have enjoyed the opportunity to interact with cats while sipping coffee or tea and enjoying pastries.

The concept really took off in Japan after the turn of the century, and by 2015 there were 58 cat cafés in Tokyo alone. They are also very popular around the world.

Supposedly Vienna had the first cat café back in 1912, but it closed after a couple years. Cats returned there in 2012, when Neko opened. The café’s name is also the Japanese word for cat, showing the strong Asian influence in this modern trend.

Some of these restaurants have been closed for sanitary reasons, but most operators use common sense (and in the US must also follow strict health laws).

The biggest concern is for the cats, who are confined to a relatively small area, live in a group, and face daily contact with strangers.

This is offset by the fact that some cafés, like Dream CATchers in Ghent, Belgium, and most of those in North America, work with local shelters to get cats adopted. And in some areas, euthanasia rates are dropping as a result.

Shelters also use rehoming effort for feral cats. These kitties can’t handle a human home, let alone a café, but they make great barn cats.

SpokAnimal, in Washington State, and Barn Cats, in Texas, are just two such programs. The cats are neutered, vaccinated and otherwise given a health check-up, and then offered to responsible people who will give them a job–and a forever home.

In a way, such a transition back to the farm is indeed a return to the old human-cat relationship. But there is another field open to this little Felis species. It’s not quite as old as sailing, though it has been around since at least the days of Henry VIII, when England’s Lord Chancellor worked with his pet cat at his side. Today, other cats hold the position of Chief Mouser.


In 2011, Larry the Chief Mouser was cajoled into granting an audience to Britain’s Prime Minister and the President of the United States. (Source)

Some feline government positions in the UK and Canada have lasted well into the 20th and 21st centuries.

As well, cats have worked in various postal services and once were hired to deliver mail (it didn’t work out very well). There are even paw prints in the floor outside the old US Supreme Court rooms.

But the most famous bureaucats of all were “hired” in the 1700s to control rodents at the Hermitage Palace in Russia. It is now a museum, and cats are still on duty there, as well as available for adoption.

I have no idea what these people are saying, but they obviously love the Hermitage cats:

Featured image: Aoiaio, CC BY 3.0 DE


Fredrickson-MacNamara, M., and Butler, K. 2006. The art of animal selection for animal-assisted activity and therapy programs, in Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy: Theoretical Foundations and Guidelines for Practice, ed, Fine, A. H., 121-147.

Ottoni, C.; Van Neer, W.; De Cupere, B.; Daligault, J.; and others. 2017. The palaeogenetics of cat dispersal in the ancient world. Nature Ecology & Evolution. 1:0139.

Serpell, J. A. 2010. Animal-assisted interventions in historical perspective, in Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy, ed. Fine, A. H., 17-32.

Serpell, J. A.; Coppinger, R.; Fine, A. H.; and Peralta, J. M. 2010. Welfare considerations in therapy and assistance animals, in Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy, ed., Fine, A. H., 481-503.

Todd, N. B. 1977. Cats and Commerce. Scientific American. 237:100-107.

Wikipedia. 2018. Cat caféé Last accessed May 20, 2018.

Wikipedia. 2018. Therapy cat. Last accessed May 20, 2018.

One comment on “Working Cats

  1. Pingback: Working Cats – Jeanne Foguth's Blog

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