Cats in France – relationships, abandonment, language and seriousness


This is a page which tries to informatively discuss the relationship between the French living in France and the domestic and stray cat. Other than being more predisposed to abandoning cats than in other European countries, I think there is little difference in France in respect of this relationship compared to other northern European countries. But please read on.

French girl with 'chat' in the 1950s
French girl with ‘chat’ in the 1950s. Picture: Pinterest.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles:- Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

A lot of domestic cats

One personal blog says that there are a lot of cats in France. They say that they “are absolutely everywhere in France”. I am not sure if they are correct. There are probably no more domestic cats visible in France on the streets outside for example than in Germany or any other North European country including the UK. But they do mention a phrase used in France which means there is no one there. That phrase is “pas un chat”. This means not even a cat is present. The place is utterly deserted.

The French are more serious and are less interested in cute cats compared to Americans

One website claims that the French are more serious than Americans which translates to being less interested in cute cats. The French prefer politicians. BuzzFeed, a successful US website which opened a branch in France said that their viral posts (and they rely on viral posts) are concerned with politics and current affairs. They say that their articles about animals do very well in the United States because users of their website like to show friends cute and positive things. This they say is not the case in France where they prefer to share news on politics.

Feral cats in France

The Telegraph newspaper says that 8,000 feral cats are born daily in France. I suspect there are more feral cats in the south of France compared to the north. This is simply due to climatic conditions which are far more amenable to feral cats in the south. One news media website reports on July 21, 2014 that an elderly Frenchwoman was fined €500 for feeding stray cats in her neighbourhood.

The court which fined her had adhered to the strict rules of French law concerning the feeling of stray animals. Apparently, under French law repeated and continuous help of ‘disadvantaged animals’ is forbidden. The authorities decided that it is too risky for people with respect to the spread of disease such as toxoplasmosis. They want to protect children in parks and around schools for example. If you feed stray and feral cats they poop in public places and this can be a hazard to children the authorities believe.

This attitude is very similar to that found in other countries. Although it is very rare for a person to be fined for feeding stray cats in most countries. In fact, it is not a crime to do this in the UK. It may be against the law in certain counties in America and possibly in Australia where they tend to wage war against the stray and feral cat.

As the overall feral cat numbers, I would expect the situation to be very similar in France as it is in other northern European countries.

Abandoning pets in France

The BBC said that the French are the European champions at abandoning their cats and other pets. The reason? They go on holiday for a month in August and the convenience thing to do is to get rid of their pets for that month and I guess it’s permanent!

And they say that animal shelters in France are proof of this tradition. Take, for example, Betty Loizeau who has run a shelter north of Toulouse for 20 years. She says that when the French abandon their pets to go on holiday, they telephone a shelter and say that they will drop them off in a box outside the shelter. They give them forewarning of the abandonment but they don’t have the courage to talk to her in person and hand the cat or other animal over.

And it isn’t just the yearly holiday which encourages abandonment of companion animals. She gives two other examples. One man gave up his cat companion of 15 years because he got a new girlfriend who didn’t like cats. Another cat was abandoned because she twisted her leg after jumping from a balcony. The cat’s owner did not want to pay the vet’s fee so he or she gave them up.

According to this lady, the French excuse for giving up their cat are: going on holiday, having a baby, moving house or they have a new partner who is allergic to cats. The French who abandon their cats come from all social classes. When the animals are badly treated, they are more likely to come from the poor housing estates and among the Roma traveller community.

The statistics on abandonments in France are described as grim. Annually between 100,000 and 200,000 pets are abandoned. 60% of them are over the summer months when their owners go on holiday. By comparison, in the UK about 16,000 companion animals are abandoned annually according to the RSPCA.

So why are the French so carelessly abandoning their cat companion as when they go on holiday for a month? A veterinarian near Bordeaux, Marina Chaillaud, explains it by saying that a lot of companion animals are impulse buys. Perhaps she means adoptions because you only buy purebred cats. She has, though, studied the social relationship between the French and their pets.

She believes that certain breeds of cat and dog become fashionable and this creates a surge of purchases. But when the animal becomes less fashionable, they dump it and upgrade with a new breed of animal which is trendier.

Another problem is that gifts of companion animals are often abandoned. She refers to parents gifting pets to their children. When the children grow up, they lose interest and abandon them.

A further reason why the French tend to abandon their pets more than other nations is because they have an “omnipresent state”. What she means is that the French can get prescription medicine from a pharmacy without handing over money because it is state funded. When they have to buy medicine for their dog or cat they have to pay with cash and they are shocked and don’t like it. Many sick and old animals are abandoned for this reason.

Another is the commercial problems of looking after cats and dogs when they are on holiday. If owners want to put up their cat or dog in a boarding cattery over the summer months, they have to pay extra. She says that you will see frightened, lost dogs wandering near motorway service stations or beach resorts.

There is talk of new legislation to introduce compulsory tagging. I believe that means compulsory micro-chipping. And they want to raise the minimum age limit for buyers of companion animals. Both are intended to try and minimise abandonments. Some people think that any new law would be a waste of time because there are current laws which are perfectly adequate.

The Middle Ages and the persecution of domestic cats

It is said that the well-known persecution of domestic and stray cats through the Middle Ages when they were associated with witches occurred more often in France and Spain. France and Spain distinguished themselves in this form of animal torture. One author, the Russian historian, Aleksandr Bushkov writes that “The French had a nice habit of burning and hanging cats on the day of John the Baptist”.

French language around companion cats

The domestic cat male is commonly called a “chat” while the female is a “chatte” and the youngest a “chaton”. The word comes from the low-latin “cattus” which according to the Littré’s edition of 1878, comes from the verb “cattare”, meaning to watch, the cat is considered to be a hunter who stalks his prey. This latter interpretation is controversial, given the terms used in the Afro-Asian languages.

A more familiar term for cats in France is to call the cat by the word “minet” and the kitten by “minette”. This term has been used since 1560, from “mine” (pronounced like “mean” in English), a popular name for the cat in the Gallo-Roman. This word is the origin of the expression of “potron-minet”, which means “good morning”. According to the Littré, it would be a distortion of the grazing minet, i.e. when the cat, who rises early, goes to seek his food.

This explanation is probably from the author of the nineteenth century, Claude Duneton. This expression comes from “poitron-jacquet”, backgammon designating a squirrel (morning animal walking lifting the tail) and designating the poitron post. From Potron-minet means “at a time when we see the back of the cat.” As for the “kitten” or “minette” which “mine”, when the term is applied to humans, a young man or young girl who strives to please and is very much concerned about appearance.

Cats in France that are male and not castrated are called a “matou” a term of uncertain origin that would perhaps be a derivation of “mite” as in “chattemite”. The cat is also colloquially called “Mistigri” composed of the word “miste” a prefix, meaning skillful, and gray, colors.

In slang, a cat is called a “greffier” (English = “clerk”). There are two opposing explanations for this. First, the pun on the word “griffe” (English = “claw”) is obvious and on the other hand, the fur of some black cats has an area of white on the chest (Tuxedo cat or black and white cat), and it refers to the fold of white as was seen on the black dress clerks until the nineteenth century.

As for how the French care for their cats, my distinct impression is that it is similar to other Northern European countries including Britain. Northern European countries are more sophisticated in my opinion on cat guardianship that the southern nations such as Greece and Malta and indeed Eastern Europe where animal welfare is of a lower standard by a large margin.

Personal experience

When I was living in Paris back on the late 1970s, I remember a young woman taking her cat on a lead for a walk down the pavement (sidewalk). That was very advanced cat caretaking for the era. I lived in France for two years and I don’t recall anything about that experience which enlightens me about the relationship between the French and domestic cats. I didn’t see domestic cats other than the one mentioned. I guess they were mainly indoor cats even in the 1970s.

The French purebred cat

There is only one purebred cat associated with France; the Chartreux unlike America where many cat breeds have been created mainly in the middle of the 20th century.

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