They had names such as Tom the Terror, Wockle, Bounce, and Dirty Face. They traveled thousands of miles on the most storied warships with some of the saltiest sailors. They were valued members of the crew, often issued custom miniature uniforms and their own tiny hammocks. Many never set a paw on dry land during their entire lives. They were the cats that served in the world’s navies.
Cats have been on ships for almost as long as humans have been going to sea, and sailors have been largely responsible for spreading cats across the globe. Ancient Egyptian tomb paintings depict cats hunting from boats sailing down the Nile, while Phoenicians recognized the value of controlling the rodent population on their ships as they traded throughout the Mediterranean.
Rats and mice were a major problem on ships because they ruined the crew’s food, chewed through equipment, and spread disease. Cats, with their predatory prowess, were a cheap and effective solution to any vermin infestation. The U.S. government, in an effort to protect documents from nesting rats, began to purchase clowders of cats in the 19th century, eventually supplying them to the U.S. Navy. In the United Kingdom, one of the earliest and largest cat rescue programs occurred during the First World War, when thousands of strays were rounded up in cities and given to the military. The cats supplied to the Royal Navy even received a weekly “victualing allowance” of 1 shilling and 6 pence to pay for treats from the ship’s canteen.
Angels, devils, and ‘furry barometers’
Early sailors believed that cats could control the weather with their tails. When feline tails twitched in a certain manner, people once reasoned, it meant the cats were angry and preparing to unleash a violent storm that would soon fall over the ship. Later sailors realized that cats twitched their tales when they were agitated by a sudden drop in air pressure, indicating that the ship was heading into unfavorable weather. Crews began to monitor all the mannerism of their ship’s cats and viewed any unusual behavior as a storm warning. The felines were, in a sense, little furry barometers.
They were also a source of superstitions: Seamen preparing to sail considered it good luck when a cat chose to board their vessel. However, they feared disaster if they had a longtime ratter that decided to jump ship just prior to setting sail. Even worse, sailors thought their fate was sealed if they saw two cats fighting on the pier: It meant that an angel and devil had already started to battle for the souls of the crew.
Nine lives on the high seas
Though cats are known for their aversion to water, they acclimated quite well to life on the sea. Unlike the “limeys” of the Royal Navy, who famously had to drink citrus juice to prevent scurvy, cats make their own vitamin C and can survive on a diet consisting of fish and mammals without needing to eat fruits and vegetables. And when rodents were in short supply, cats had different methods for catching fish for themselves. The easiest prey were the ones that simply washed up on the deck. Some cats overcame their dislike of water to become skilled divers that could snatch fish from the ocean. The cats that never got comfortable with swimming still managed to hunt by deftly knocking down fish leaping over the ship’s bow. Because cats got most of the moisture they needed from eating the fish, they did not require a lot of potable water like human sailors. In addition, cats have an excellent internal filtration system that allows them to drink a bit of sea water if necessary.
Feline companions were also important for boosting morale among homesick sailors on long voyages, providing the crew with much-needed affection and a bit of softness in the spartan environment of ship. Since cats were considered mascots to be shared by all the sailors, they also helped to create bonds among the crew.
The animals are notoriously difficult to train to do tricks, but some sailors claimed they learned to “speak cat” and were able to get their mascots to perform feats such as standing at attention, saluting, walking tight ropes, and ringing bells. This especially contributed to the U.S. Navy’s goodwill efforts in foreign ports when locals were invited for ship tours that included a brief show featuring performing cats.
Natural outlaws and political liabilities
Larger navy ships could have as many as two dozen cats that established their own territories. The one that was smart enough to claim a ship’s galley usually became the fattest. Other mousers stayed in the bowels of the ship where they would not be as bothered by all the activity on the deck and the sounds of the guns. The friendliest felines were happy to stay in the berthing area where they received plenty of attention from sailors and could sleep in hammocks that reduced the swaying of the ship—after all, ship cats could get just as seasick as humans.
Following the end of the Second World War, the special position that cats held on navy ships began a rapid decline. Due to improvements in fumigation and pest control, cats became outmoded in their primary job to rid ships of vermin. Ship captains who were not cat lovers started to categorize felines as an unnecessary distraction.
A bigger problem for cats in the U.S. Navy was that they became a political and legal liability in the immediate post-WWII era. The defense budget was slashed and the Navy was downsized dramatically, alarming admirals who believed that they were being cut to the bone and left without a fleet sufficient enough to protect the nation’s interests against the rising threat of communism. Members of Congress who were advocating deep defense cuts ridiculed the admirals by revealing that one ship had used resources for a three-man committee to plan a funeral for their mascot cat. It was cheap shot because the costs of keeping cats to maintain morale was nominal (and often paid by the crews themselves), but it embarrassed the admirals by giving the public the impression that the Navy was spending money frivolously.
More than anything, it was new and stricter international quarantine laws that ended the tradition of the ship’s cat. Prior to the 1950s, many nations gave ship’s cats special status that made them exempt from quarantine laws, allowing them to roam free in foreign ports where perhaps the worst consequence was a scrap with a local tom. The laws enacted by most countries after the war forbade cats from leaving a ship before going through a lengthy quarantine period. If local officials caught a cat sneaking off a ship, the captain could be heavily fined or even placed under arrest.
Recognizing that cats are natural outlaws, the Navy wanted to avoid having their captains involved in a legal and diplomatic dustups due to a curious cat trying to circumvent quarantine. Current U.S. Navy policy does not explicitly ban cats on ships, but the special permission that sailors now need to bring a feline friend on board is almost never granted. Most navies of the world have adopted a similar policy—except for Russia.