So all of us with a cat keep a handful of deep, dark secrets of what we’ve called our cats when no one was around. I’ve overheard a number of these embarrassing pet names and pet insults and have a few of my own, of course. I’ve called Keith a "hell monster" and "my sweetest, most precious angel" in a terrifying baby voice and everything in between. It is natural, they are some of the most enraging and rewarding members of our families, and the way we talk to them reflects that diversity of experience. But how we identify our cats in relation to us is something a bit different.
I have always thought that there was something lacking in the word "pet" that doesn’t fully encompass the relational aspects of sharing your life and your home with an animal. I feel like "pets" are more passive than social animals, a term better suited to hamsters and birds. No offense, of course, to the hamster and bird enthusiasts in the audience.
I first started thinking about this when I started watching the guilty-pleasure reality TV show My Cat From Hell. In it, Jackson Galaxy regularly refers to cat "guardians" rather than "owners" and I have since adopted the term, even if it is more earnest than I generally prefer and places me deeper in Cat Lady Country than I ever thought I’d land. But really, ownership of another living creature, even one that is almost entirely dependent on you, doesn’t do enough justice to the independence of the cat.
Below are a bunch of the terms I’ve heard people call their cats and a brief description of why they work well and a couple of reasons that they don’t.
The fur kid! For me, this conjures up images everywhere from that little werewolf kid from The Munsters to a cat standing upright with a ThunderCats backpack, nervously anticipating the first day of kindergarten. Or would that be catergarten? (Sorry, I had to.)
This is a popular one, particularly among parents of human children that need to differentiate between their cats and their kids but still want to communicate the importance of the cat as a member of the family. If you consider yourself a "cat mom" or a "cat dad," this is the best choice for being consistent, and who doesn’t want to be consistent? Also, thinking more about that cat with a tiny backpack going to school (what on earth would a cat learn in school?), I lean heavily in favor of this one in terms of adorableness.
Now, everyone refers to "the cat" from time to time but for some people, there is more commitment to this term for their cat than others. As in, "I have to check with the cat before we get pregnant" and "The cat will be displeased if I buy turkey instead of steak."
I like this idea that it is the cat rather than my cat or your cat because it makes it seem like this cat is the only one in the world. It’s like when people refer to "the king," it is implied that there is obviously only one and everyone knows which one you’re talking about. And let’s face it, that’s what your cat thinks of himself, anyway.
I’ve heard this one thrown around and it just seems marvelously sophisticated, doesn’t it? Like you should only mention your cat companion whilst holding a teacup with your little finger raised and wearing lace gloves.
I feel that this one works best for someone who lives alone with a cat, as the word "companion" generally refers to a 1:1 relationship. And though it would be adorable in a kind of sophisticated goofball way, it would be strange for a kid to be referring to the family cat as their companion. But a lot of kids are sophisticated goofballs so go ahead if you want!
I guess I should change my email and mail to "Greetings from Deep in Cat Lady Country," as I refer to Keith as "the baby" and my treatment of him matches it well. I hold him like a baby, talk in the aforementioned terrifying baby voice to him, and ask him rhetorical questions like, "Where’d the red light go?! Where’d it go?!?!" the way one might to a delighted infant, but he just looks at me with a combination of pitying love and mild disdain.
This one is constantly confusing people with whom I am not especially well acquainted, especially since Keith is a human name and they think I’m talking about a real baby. Phrases like "The baby is going to be upset if I get home too late" and "I can’t wait to see if the baby likes this!" have probably resulted in more than one person lightening my project load at work thinking I’m a single mom so I’m going to keep it up.
Simple and to the point, cats really are our friends. I know that dogs trademarked the "Man’s Best Friend" title ages ago but I think cats make a respectable showing in this category too. They can’t give us career advice or take us to drinks after break-ups or anything, but we trust them to care about us and they trust us to care about them in a way that friends do. That’s why I call Keith my cat friend when I’m not calling him a hell monster or a precious angel.
I was trying to think of which one of these most applies to Keith but figure I’ve used them all to recognize the different roles he plays in my life. As our buddies, our children, and our confidantes, our cats are so much more than the word "pet" does justice to.
Which word do you use when referring to your cat? Tell us your reasons why in the comments!
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About the author: Alana Massey is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY, with one cat named Keith and a number of inanimate objects that are far less exciting. She writes about animals, fashion, celebrities, feminism, and religion. She is a graduate of NYU and Yale Divinity School, where her favorite thing to do was talk about St. Francis of Assisi.