Abraham Riesman didn’t realize he loved cats until his roommate’s feline Elvis almost burned down their Williamsburg apartment after tipping over a hot iron.
“I couldn’t stay mad at him,” Riesman, now 30, remembers, 10 years later. “I was astounded to find that I only found love and empathy for this deeply nervous cat who couldn’t get his life together.”
Since moving out of that apartment, he’s turned into a cat owner three times over: first with his ex-girlfriend, who ended up with the cat after their break-up; and currently on his own, as the proud owner of two rescues, a neurotic tuxedo kitten named Tim and an eight-year-old Calico mix named Barbara. “It was love at first sight even though they both had a stomach bug that caused them to shoot diarrhea over the litter box.”
Riesman is living proof of The New York Times’ declaration eight years ago that “man’s new best friend is no longer a golden retriever, but a cuddly cat named Fluffy.” Still, Riesman and other self-proclaimed “cat dads” have yet to bust the popular myths that dogs are a natural fit for dudes, that cats are just for cat ladies and that a guy with a cat is a “commitment-phobe” or otherwise undateable. As Dara Adeeyo summarized the anti-cat dad perspective for Cosmopolitan in 2013: “Cats are lazy creatures who hate interacting with people. So if a dude owns a cat, I can only assume he’s just as lazy and averse to social interaction as his feline friend.”
Cat dads (like cat moms) may not deny that laziness plays a role in choosing a cat, as opposed to a dog. “A cat is almost like a self-cleaning oven,” admits Paul de Revere, 31, who adopted a cat four years ago, after his family’s cat died. But still, for most men I spoke with, it was simply an affection for cats, not cultural zeitgeist or a statement on masculinity that led to their ownership. “I melt for them in a way I don’t for any other kind of animal,” adds de Revere. “It comes from a genuine place.”
What’s more, cat dads feel like they’re fighting against the idea that cat ownership says something negative about them — as romantic partner, as a future father, as a man. “Some men look on it as not particularly masculine,” adds de Revere. “I couldn’t give a fuck. I don’t care.”
None of the men I’ve talked to have found cats to be a special boon or hindrance to their dating lives. Zac Rigg, 30, did hesitate after one female friend insisted that she “would never hook up with a guy with a cat,” but has found it only presents an issue with dating when he is seeing someone with an allergy.
Others, in fact, prefer the softer masculinity cat ownership projects. “It demonstrates to a potential mate that I have a gentleness to me,” said Riesman, who wrote an essay about dating as a cat owner for New York Magazine earlier this year. “And I don’t think that’s a put-on — I think that’s a very genuine part of me.”
Keith Bowers, 49, senior editor at Catster, a magazine for cat lovers, agrees. “If you’re a male cat owner you really have to develop a relationship with that animal and be sensitive to why they do what they do. I think that translates well to being in a relationship.” So does famous cat dad Marc Maron. “Emotionally, a cat is a pretty good fill-in for a woman,” he told Time Out in 2014. “You’re never really sure what the hell they’re thinking or whether they really like you. Maybe these young guys are just preparing themselves for adult relationships.”
Those views conflict with the dominant idea that getting a dog is the next step toward becoming a grown-ass adult — that dog ownership alone instills men with the essential qualities of becoming a husband and father, like being nurturing and responsible.
But according to Jake Moffett, 23, co-parenting two cats with his boyfriend has taught him a lot about what it would be like to raise kids together — it’s just that those lessons are all learned behind closed doors. “Guys owning dogs are just much more visible. You can take them out,” says Moffett. Or as Bowers puts its, “Dogs have dog parks” — where dog-owning couples flaunt their parental unity and dog-owning singles seek out new mates by showing how responsible they are. “None of that exists for cats.”
The closest thing to a cat park may be the internet, which, as the 2008 Times story suggested, might be the key to the perceived rise in male cat ownership. “People love taking photos and videos of their cats on Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat,” says Peter Sterne, 24, who has a Twitter account for his cat, Hunter. “The people that are online and tend to be on Twitter all day tend to be cat people.”
While that may reinforce the cat lady stereotype — the lonely cat owner at home taking photos of themselves, obsessing about their cat — Bowers says social media has helped people realize just how diverse cat owners—and in particular cat dads—actually are. Serving as an MC at CatCon, an annual convention for cat lovers, “I saw so many guys there, including 6-foot-4, combat-boot, black-Levis-wearing guys who were just crazy about cats,” says Bowers.
Bowers also notes the importance of male cat owners like Jackson Galaxy, the host of “My Cat From Hell,” and Mike Bridavsky, owner of the internet sensation Lil Bub, in the representation of modern male cat owners. Ernest Hemingway and Morrissey are also on the long list of famous male cat owners.
“Any young boy might look at [them] and say THAT’S a cat lover, that’s a guy who likes cat, not [the stereotype] on the playground,” Bowers says. He adds that his male former co-workers were supportive, not judgmental, when he told them he was moving on from the alt-weekly where they worked to Catster. “These are three of the most hardest-working, drinking, grizzled journalists I’ve ever met,” Bowers recalls. “It turned out they were all fascinated and owned cats and were interested in freelancing for Catster.”
Moffett speaks of his cats the way that many people talk when they’ve become mom or dads —of a type of love they didn’t know existed. “I never thought I would have that kind of affection for another creature,” he says. “I always look forward to them jumping on the bed in the morning.”
All the cat dads agreed that owning a cat was a responsibility that came with both rewards and sacrifices. “The biggest challenge is that your entire living space, including your own body, is no longer entirely yours,” Riesman explains.
“The one thing that I find most rewarding about having a cat, living with a cat is that I just look into my cat’s eyes and the whole universe opens,” said Bowers. “Yeah, sometimes he licks his butt and meows in the middle of the night, sure, but sometimes Thomas and I just relate to each other and it’s this mystery. It opens you up to something that’s so much bigger than what you encounter in everyday life.”