Domestic cats have been sharing the lives of humans for centuries, and they certainly did so during the Regency. But the life of a cat during our favorite decade was rather different than that of a cat in the early twenty-first century. So was the attitude of most humans toward these often solitary and seemingly mysterious creatures during the Regency. For Regency authors who might want to allow one of their characters to keep a cat in an upcoming story, some details on cat-keeping in the early nineteenth century might be useful.
Domestic cats and their care during the Regency . . .
Cats essentially domesticated themselves, probably between 5000 to 8000 years ago, when a small wildcat realized that human settlements in the Near and Middle East were home to a plethora of rodents. Those rodents were drawn by vast grain stores, which were crucial to supporting human life in lean times. This opportunistic wildcat decided humans could be tolerated, in return for access to such rich hunting grounds, and the humans valued the rodent control service provided by the cat. The ancient Romans became enamored of the domestic cats they found when they invaded Egypt. Some were so attached that they smuggled them out of Egypt and took them home. Romans continued to highly value their own domestic cats so much that they carried cats with them into the lands they conquered. So it was that the first domesticated cats came to Britain. The Vikings added to the domestic feline gene pool, when they invaded the British Isles. Vikings also valued these efficient rodent hunters and welcomed them onto their ships as they ventured from their homeland to loot and pillage. Vikings are known to have kept cats during the period in which they held land in Britain and those cats would have bred with the native population.
The ignorance and superstitions of humans during the Middle Ages made life hard across Europe for all domestic cats, not just the black ones. The natural independence and silent stealth of cats caused many to believe they were familiars for any number of evil spirits. However, the wholesale slaughter of these creatures would in turn bring destruction to all humankind. Fewer cats allowed the rat population to increase, thereby allowing the Black Death to decimate much of Europe. In England, the attitude toward cats began to change when the Great Plague struck London in 1665. Observant people noticed that there was less plague in areas which were inhabited by many cats. The humans did not yet understand that the rat population was carrying the fleas which transmitted the plague, nor that the plague was less severe where there were fewer rats, courtesy of the cats. They only knew that the presence of cats reduced plague deaths. Once again, ignorance and superstition shaped the attitude of humans towards the cat, but this time in favor of the cat. By the turn of the eighteenth century, most people were no longer suspicious of cats and many even thought they brought good luck.
During the eighteenth century, the keeping of pets became much more common than it had in the centuries before. However, many more people kept dogs as pets than they did cats. In fact, most people who kept cats did so as the most effective means by which to control rodents on their property. They saw these creatures less as pets than as necessary working animals whose rodent hunting skills helped to protect valuable foodstuffs. But as the century progressed, cats became preferred as house pets, primarily by those of a more independent mind and introverted nature, such as writers, scholars and artists. Cats were small and quiet, and they seldom became boisterous or agitated, making them ideal companions for those who spent much time indoors, often engaged in intellectual pursuits. Stroking their soft fur or listening to their gentle purring had a pleasantly calming effect on many people.
By the turn of the nineteenth century, most people’s attitudes towards animals, especially pets, was much more considerate and compassionate than it had ever been. Some people continued to mistrust cats, usually because of their aloof and solitary behavior. However, such people tended to be those who wished to dominate their pets and they much preferred the more compliant and submissive behavior of most dogs. People who preferred cats as pets typically respected their independent nature and were pleased, even honored, to have won their affection. Even before the Regency began, many people who kept cats as pets did so solely for feline companionship, they did not expect their pets to earn their keep as mousers. In fact, some cat owners went so far as to tie a small bell on a ribbon around the neck of their cat in order to warn any potential prey of the cat’s movements.
Though there are a wide number of different cat breeds known today, the breeding of specific types of cats for certain qualities did not occur until the later decades of the nineteenth century. During the Regency, there were only a couple of distinct breeds of cat known in England. One was the "blue cat," which came from the Middle East by way of France. Despite their name, these cats were a solid deep blue-grey in color. The other named breed was the Angora, also known in Britain as the "lion cat." These cats were either white or dun in color, and had particularly long hair around their head and neck which created the appearance of a mane, like that of a lion. Most pet cats kept during the Regency were native British mixed breeds, with a selection of coat colors and patterns. One common coat pattern, typically found only on females, even today, is the calico, though cats of this color were also known as "chintz cats" in the early nineteenth century. Tabby was another color pattern name which was in common use during the Regency and had been since at least the 1770s. Rather than tuxedo cats, black and white cats in the Regency were usually called "magpie cats." Beyond their color, the most distinguishing feature among cats was that they were either long-haired or short-haired. [Author’s Note: Though "moggie" is commonly used to refer to domestic cats in Britain today, that term was not used until the early twentieth century and therefore, would not have been in use during the Regency.]
For centuries, intact male cats in Britain were known as ram-cats or boar-cats. But in 1760, an anonymous story, The Life and Adventures of a Cat, was published in London. The hero of this tale was a male, or ram-cat, named Tom. This book was so popular and widely read that before the decade was out, most people in southern England typically referred to male cats as "Toms" or "Tom cats." However, even during the Regency, the term ram-cat was still in use in some of the northern English counties and most of Scotland. Male cats have sometimes been neutered since the seventeenth century, and neutered male cats were often referred to as gibed cats or "gib-cats." Though breeding female cats today are called queens, that term was not introduced until the late nineteenth century. During the Regency, female cats were usually called doe-cats or she-cats. Female cats were not spayed until the twentieth century, so abstinence was the only birth control option for Regency cats.
Purpose-made cat food, which can be widely purchased today, was not introduced commercially until the early twentieth century. However, when keeping cats as pets during the Victorian period became fashionable among the upper classes, "cat collops," that is, meat cut into small pieces, was offered by some of the better butcher shops. During the Regency, this was much less common, though it appears that a few butcher shops which catered to the upper classes and people who kept pets, did offer diced meats intended for cats. These cat meats were usually trimmings and entrails, most often of beef or mutton. Fortunately, these not-so-prime cuts may have been less costly, yet they were ideal for maintaining feline health. Cats are pure carnivores, so they must have primarily animal protein in their diets in order to thrive. In fact, cats need at least twice as much protein as do dogs. An essential nutrient for cats is taurine. They cannot make it within their own bodies, so they must get it from their diet. Without an adequate intake of taurine, cats will be at risk of vision and hair loss, as well as serious heart, digestive and reproductive issues. Fortunately, taurine is found in animal tissue, and is particularly high in organ meats. It can also be found in eggs and dairy products like milk and cheese. Cats also need much more fat in their diets than do dogs, and cheap meat trimmings were more likely to have a higher fat content than would more expensive lean cuts. Though some cat owners fed their cats raw meat, it seems that most usually cooked any meat which they offered to their feline friends.
In addition to minced meats, many cat owners also fed their cats bits of cooked chicken, other fowl, like duck or goose, and fish. Sometimes this was table scraps left over from a meal, though many caring cat owners prepared this food specifically for their cats. Careful owners would be sure to remove the bones from any fowl or fish before they allowed their cat to eat it, to prevent any risk of choking. Regency cats were also sometimes given milk or cream. It was not known then that milk in any significant amount is not good for adult cats, who find it hard to digest. Kittens can usually be given milk with no ill effects. Bits of cheese or cooked eggs were often included in the diet of a Regency cat. Some were even given cooked potatoes, or vegetables, though these foods provided no useful nutrients to these small carnivores. Nevertheless, some cats would eat them, if they were hungry enough, and these foods could fill an empty stomach when meat was in short supply. Wise and considerate owners would also have taken care to provide their feline friends with a large bowl of clean water, available at all times.
Naturally, once a cat had enjoyed a tasty meal, it would eventually have to find a place to eliminate its waste. Fortunately for cat owners, cats naturally take to using what we know today as a litter box. However, clay litter was not developed until the late 1940s and it was not available commercially until 1954. The term "litter box" was also not in use until the mid-twentieth century. Prior to that time, including during the Regency, most people who kept indoor cats provided their feline with a shallow box filled with sand or soil in which their pet could do their business. Such boxes may have been made of wood or metal, and some were specially made of wood lined with thin metal, such as tin. These boxes would typically be placed in a discrete part of the house, often near a back entrance, and away from the main part of the home, where they could easily be carried outdoors for cleaning. Sand and soil is not very absorbent, so the contents of the box would have to be changed out fairly regularly to reduce unpleasant odors and ensure that a fastidious cat would continue to use the box. Regency cats who were allowed to go outdoors may not have been provided with a sand or soil box and would have done their business while outside.
There is an apocryphal story that Sir Isaac Newton invented the cat door. Sir Isaac did keep cats, but even before the end of the seventeenth century, there is evidence that some people cut holes in their doors in order to enable their cats to come and go as they pleased. The story about Sir Isaac Newton may have been circulated to embarrass him, because it declares that he cut a second, smaller hole in his door when his cat had kittens. The purpose-made cat door or cat flap, which is widely available today, was not introduced until the mid-twentieth century, so it did not exist during the Regency. But some cat owners may have cut a hole in one of the doors of their house in order to provide their cats with access to the outdoors. Those holes may have been left open, or they may have been covered with a sturdy cloth or perhaps a bit of leather, to keep in heat and to keep out insects and other small pests. Since window screens did not yet exist, an alternative may have been to leave a window open wide enough to accommodate a cat. But it would have been important to ensure the window was not closed while the cat was out, or it would have been left outside with no way in.
Long before the Regency, it was understood that many cats, both domestic and wild, were attracted to certain aromatic herbs, in particular, catmint. This plant is a native of the British Isles and most of Europe. It has been cultivated since the Middle Ages as an ornamental plant which attracts butterflies and can be used in the making of an herbal tea. In the seventeenth century, this same plant was transplanted to North America, where it is more commonly known as catnip. About one-third of cats do not have the gene which causes them to be affected by catmint/catnip and therefore, they have no response to it. However, the majority of cats are strongly attracted to catmint/catnip, though their responses can vary widely. Some cats will rub against it or roll around in it, while others will eat it, run about wildly for a time, then collapse into a deep sleep. Regency cats would have had similar responses. Their owners may well have grown catmint in their gardens as a treat for their feline friends. They might have offered it to them freshly cut from the plant, or dried and/or crushed into a coarse powder, as catnip is usually sold today. However, during the Regency, cat lovers would usually have had to grow and prepare their own catmint, as there is no evidence it could be purchased commercially during those years. Which is not to say that some enterprising persons who sold herbs and potions in a region may not have grown and packaged catmint for sale door-to-door or in some shops in the area.
Cats can sleep up to eighteen hours a day and most caring owners would have provided them with a comfortable bed. Beds for cats during the Regency were typically made up of a basket or a wooden box into which was placed a pillow or cushion. The cushion would usually be covered with a few layers of cloth, which could be laundered as needed. Flannel, a soft and sturdy cloth which could stand up to a lot of laundering, was a popular choice for cat beds. However, old bed sheets or towels might also have been used. Of course, as many of us know today, our feline friends will curl up for a nap any place that suits them. Regency cats were no different. They might prefer the cushion of a sunny window seat on a cool day, or the seat cushions of a chair or sofa in an unoccupied room when they wanted some quiet time. And how many cat lovers would deny their cat the use of their bed, if their beloved pet wished to sleep there?
A budding pet supply industry began evolving in Britain during the late eighteenth century. However, those few entrepreneurs involved in the business seem to have been focused primarily on products for birds, such as cages, cuttlefish bones and seed; or on dog items, offering an array of collars and leads. And most of these suppliers sold their wares in large urban areas where there would be enough customers to enable them to turn a profit. Very few pet supplies were on offer for cats during the Regency. A few collars might have been available, but there would have been little in the way of cat carriers, scratching posts, grooming implements or toys. Cat owners who needed to transport their cat any distance often acquired a covered basket for the purpose. In a pinch, cats seem to have been bundled into a pillow case or other cloth bag for brief transport. Though anyone who kept cats during the Regency knew that their furry friends had a constant need to claw something, they did not necessarily understand why they did so. But an observant owner would have seen their cat clawing a tree trunk or fence post and get an idea. That owner might mount a length of tree trunk or branch as a place for their cat to claw while indoors. Or, better still, they might put a length of wood on a firm base and tightly wrap that wood with hemp rope, which would make an ideal scratching post, especially for a completely indoor cat. Though grooming implements such as combs and brushes were not specifically made for cats during the Regency, a cat owner could always re-purpose any brush or comb to use in grooming their pet.
Since cat toys were not commercially available during the Regency, most cat owners would have had to make their own toys for their cats, or have someone else make them. Though a cat or kitten playing with a ball of string or yarn has become a cliche, such a toy is potentially lethal, especially for a kitten. The papillae on the surface of a cat’s tongue all angle toward the back of their throat. Thus, once they get something on their tongue or in their throat, like a length of string or yarn, it is nearly impossible for them to spit it out. Their efforts to do so might very well result in their choking or even cutting off their air supply. Regency cats may have been given small balls, or their owners might have made them small stuffed toys, perhaps laced with a bit of catmint, to attract their interest. Certainly some creative cat owners may have devised toys such as a stuffed mouse on a string with which they could play and entertain their cat. And, as they have done for centuries, many cats may well have found their own toys, with no regard as to whether or not playing with any of those things was acceptable to their human companions.
Dear Regency Authors, if one of your characters in an upcoming novel wishes to keep a cat as a pet, I hope the information provided here will enable them to do so with reasonable accuracy. The modern and convenient cat foods and pet supplies which we take for granted today were not commercially available during the Regency. Nevertheless, a caring and clever cat owner would have been able to make or acquire various items which would enable them to provide a good home and enrich the life of their feline friend.