Yeah, I went there. I made cat birthday cake.
— Casey Barker, https://www.goodfoodstories.com/cat-birthday-cake/
Casey’s cat Harry Plumparelli was turning 11 and she was certainly celebrating a long, happy relationship. But Casey is not the only animal partier out there.
According to a survey by the American Pet Products Association (APPA), 5% of all US cat owners gave Fluffy a holiday or birthday party in 2016.
That translates into roughly 6,144,000 people who wondered, as they chopped up meat for the “cake,” whether they also should make a cat-sized party hat or just go with the catnip ball.
So, how do you make a cat birthday cake–and why?
Short answer: Casey blogged her recipe, which includes chicken, tuna, and potatoes (Harry loved it, by the way). Why so many pet owners do this is hard to say. It’s just one facet of something too complex and deep for words.
Details: Partying is not just a cat person thing. An even higher percentage of dog owners (11%, or 17 million Americans) admitted to giving Fido one in 2016.
The go-to explanation is that pets are substitutes for children, but anyone who has ever cuddled a cat or gazed into a dog’s eyes knows better.
There is a unique animal-human connection here, something that benefits both us and our pet.
Besides, families with children have pets, too. In fact, many dog and cat owners told APPA that pets were good for the family’s health and brought everyone closer. Pets were also used to teach children responsibility.
Over half said that their pet is like a member of the family–this is not a new attitude.
Sixteenth-century conquistadors were surprised to find New World natives surrounded by tamed parrots, monkeys, and other animals. One local name for such tamed animals was iegue. It was also used for adopted children.
The practice of taming and adopting animals continues today in some lowland South American tribes.
Though no proof exists, it’s tempting to think this loving attitude has been present throughout humanity’s 14,000-year-plus history of pet keeping.
Why parties, though?
Cat birthday cakes aren’t for everybody, but gratitude is a very common human quality. And we do understand how much our pets give us–companionship, entertainment, stress reduction, and so much more.
Why not thank Fluffy or Fido this way or with a special treat?
It makes us feel good, too by presenting a guilt-free opportunity to be a little carefree and childlike again.
Yet because we’re still adults, we see the bigger picture. That’s why some online cat birthday party planners suggest donating to a shelter or, if you’re having people over, asking everyone to bring a shelter donation.
Is there a down side to all this?
Short answer: Not as long as it makes us happy and doesn’t bother the cat. Pushing too much is what leads to problems.
Details: Designer pet items have sold well for decades, but nowadays Nielsen advertising experts report that, worldwide, owners of all common pets respond to ads that address pet health concerns in human terms.
It’s not just marketing. Owners really have shifted focus and the advertisers have followed, for example, by promoting pet food without GMOs, gluten-free, and/or with organic ingredients.
This is especially true of people in their 20s and 30s. The APPA survey in 2016 shows this demographic group in the US not only has the most cat and/or dog owners but also is more open to things like pet supplements and vitamins, flavored oral veterinary medications, and calming products (pheromone applications–a new category in this year’s questionnaire and used by around 20% of dog and cat owners).
This generation is also the most likely to pay for extra pet services, up to and including day care and hospice, even though it has relatively high levels of student loan debt and unemployment.
Advertisers call the phenomenon “humanization” or “familiarization” of pets. But what people are actually doing is continuing the age-old practice of anthropomorphism.
We’re hard-wired to do this.
Back when everyone was a hunter-gatherer, the ability to give animals and inanimate objects imaginary human characteristics was very helpful.
- People with the ability to put themselves in the prey’s situation and predict its next move were the most successful hunters.
- A rock formation that could be called something like “Baldy” or”Old Man of the Mountain” stood out, especially in bad weather or other rugged conditions. Local people united around it, too.
- African wildcats approaching the first farmers were cute–about the size of a human infant, with a babyish round head and large eyes. And they kept grain-eating pests away from the harvest.
Yes, anthropomorphism probably played an important role in cat domestication. One reason we didn’t drive away the wildcats was because their appearance triggered something parental in us.
Cats quickly learned to roll with this.
The story continues today. And just as proper Victorian ladies fed their cats cream and breadcrumbs boiled for hours with fish, we health-conscious moderns fill our cat’s bowl with high-nutrient, preservative-free food and give it vitamins as well as heart-shaped treats on Valentine’s Day.
Not to mention parties.
Cat birthday and holiday cakes fit well into this bigger picture. It’s just one way to express our very human appreciation of a beloved companion.
Occasionally people do forget that animals are different from us.
Because of the sense of pack identity, dogs are especially prone to behavioral problems when treated like human beings, but cats can get stressed out by this, too.
Another problem area is our tendency to respond to animal behavior as if it was human communication.
That’s all well and good with LOLcats, but in real life Fluffy just might not be interested when talked to or given a command. If the owner, expecting human-like social support, is hurt by this, Fluffy could eventually end up on the street or in a shelter, despite being a good pet.
Most of us do understand what to expect from our animal companions. And there are many ways to show them our gratitude.
So, if the spirit moves you, celebrate! Go for the kitty hat AND the catnip ball, and keep the camera ready. Or just spend a little more time with Fluffy that day, perhaps with some extra treats.
Any loving attention makes your cat happy. It’s also a wonderful way to celebrate a friendship that, along with the one people share with dogs, is unique in the animal kingdom.
Featured image: Trish Hamme, CC BY 2.0
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