It's Time to Smash the 'Crazy Cat Lady' Stereotype

Women aren't the only ones who love cats. Andy Sapp [CC by 2.0]/Flickr

Women with cats are often assumed to fit one of two stereotypes: the crazy old spinster or the career-driven woman who can't seem to land a man.

The term "cat lady" has become synonymous with hoarding, loneliness and depression, and nearly 49 percent of Americans buy into this stereotype, according to a recent survey by PetSmart Charities.

It's not hard to see why — consider the documentary devoted to the subject, ads mocking the cat lady cliche, and the media calling Taylor Swift's decision to star in a cat-filled commercial "brave."

What's behind the stigma?

woman kissing cat

"Cats and women have a strong historical and cultural connection — much of which has resulted in negative stereotyping, especially of single female cat owners," writes Forbes contributor Kiri Blakely.

There's also a long history of using feline-inspired words to describe women, with a decidedly negative spin. Consider the connotation of words like catty, kitten, cougar, pussycat and catfight when used in reference to women.

Blakely goes on to explain how both felines and women are often characterized as being sneaky, inscrutable and difficult to please and how they're frequently either held in high esteem or looked down upon.

"Women are often shunted into either the Madonna or whore category, just as cats have been either revered as deities (ancient Egypt) or vilified as demons (Salem witch trials, 1692)," Blakely writes.

The same labels used to describe "cat ladies" are often ascribed to felines as well, such as moody, independent and aloof.

Cat vs. dog

Although cats are the world's most popular pets — outnumbering dogs by three to one — they're widely assigned negative personality traits while dogs are regarded as man's best friend.

man cuddling cat

In fact, fewer than half of the 1,000 people polled said cats were protective, loyal or friendly, but more than half described dogs as having those traits.

Part of the reason behind this could be that dogs have been bred to respond to human commands whereas cats never needed to learn to obey us. Cats essentially domesticated themselves.

As we began farming, they moved in to prey on rodents attracted to crops, and they stuck around because it's beneficial to them.

Some experts even suggest it's these personality differences that draw women to cats and men to dogs.

"Canines offer a more consistent reflection of one's status as alpha," psychologist and animal welfare advocate Pia Salk told Forbes. "They deliver doting behavior without their male human having to ask for it and are seen as less of a threat."

Real men love cats

However, plenty of men — from Ernest Hemingway to Howard Stern — identify as "cat people." In fact, entire books, websites and photography projects have been devoted to the subject of modern men and their cats.

But not every man is comfortable claiming his "crazy cat dude" status.

"For years, the first rule of being a dude in Cat Club was: You do not talk about Cat Club," Brian Levinson writes in Time Out New York.

And in Brian Donovan’s hilarious essay "Confessions of a Male Cat Owner," he says he’s "tired of living in the cat closet" and shares a list of 'shameful' admissions like, "I do not use the 'private' function on my Internet browser to hide my use of pornography, but rather the ridiculously weird cat searches I do on a regular basis."

But is it really that weird to for a man to have a cat?

"Guys are supposed to be rugged and manly. I guess cats are perceived as not masculine. I guess society tells men they need a big burly dog as a companion," said Greg Thore, an Atlanta resident who's had cats all his life and shares his home with Dude The Cat (pictured right). "Is it really strange for a man to love and nurture a cat? No."

When raised the question of "Do real men own cats?" nearly 84 percent of respondents said yes, and in 2008, the New York Times declared that "single, heterosexual male cat owners are on the rise."

"I do think it has become more acceptable for men to own cats — partly for practical reasons, like the growing realization that they’re better city pets, and partly the whole acceptance of our cross-gender traits that men crave intimacy, too," writes Clea Simon, author of "The Feline Mystique: On the Mysterious Connection Between Women and Cats."

Changing perceptions

Although stereotypes of cat owners and their moody felines persist, those perceptions could be changing.

While the gap in our perception of cats and dogs remains vast, according to PetSmart Charities' survey, 56 percent of respondents said negative stereotypes about cats are untrue and 71 percent said stigmas about cat owners are outdated.

What's the best way to help kitties get a PR makeover — and help shelter cats in the process? It could be as simple as posting a selfie with your cat.

Respondents said they get most of their information about cats from friends and family, and 56 percent said they believe more people would adopt a cat if stereotypes about them and their owners were removed.

However, only one-third of cat owners post photos and information about their feline friends on social media.

That may be hard to believe since cats rule the Internet, but experts say sharing positive information about cats can not only help dispel myths about them and their owners, but also help more felines find homes.

"Our survey shows that America is ready for a major 'cattitude' adjustment. It's time to end the stereotypes around cats and cat people to help more cats get adopted," said Jan Wilkins, executive director of PetSmart Charities. "That starts with cat owners proudly sharing how cats make wonderful pets and enrich our lives."

According to the ASPCA, 3.4 million cats enter U.S. shelters annually and 1.4 million of them are euthanized.

So go ahead and post that adorable kitty selfie, all you cat ladies and cat dudes. Do it for the cats.

Which of these ideas about cats and their owners do you buy into?