Although service animals have long been a part of society, the animals most often associated with working are dogs, as they have been bred to eagerly perform specific duties for centuries. Cats, on the other hand, are typically thought of as aloof, stubborn and impossible to work with, in large part because they love to lounge around and only seem concerned with their own wellbeing. However, cats who work on ships have been overcoming these clichéd notions for centuries. In fact, ship’s cats have served on naval, trading and exploration ships since ancient times, when cats were taken aboard Egyptian ships that cruised the Nile so they could catch birds in the thickets that lined the riverbanks.
The History of the Ship’s Cat
While the domesticated cat originates from ancient Egypt, ships that traveled along maritime trade routes eventually helped bring cats to the rest of the world, and some of their ancestors ended up working on pirate ships! These talented felines would become a valued part of a crew of swashbucklers who sailed the high seas in search of treasure. Believe it or not, ship’s cats fill many roles and take their duties quite seriously, and the cats who once worked on pirate ships were no different.
Thanks to their keen natural hunting instincts, the most important duty that cats perform aboard a ship is catching rodents, namely mice and rats. These pests can cause all sorts of problems on a ship, with food for the crew, valuable grain cargo, woodwork, ropes, and (nowadays, anyway) even electrical wires at risk if the rodent population isn’t kept under control. Rodents are also infamous for their ability to carry disease, which can pose a major threat to the health of everyone on board a ship, especially when they are at sea for long stretches of time. Rat fleas are particularly frightening to have on board a ship because they can carry the plague, and were also thought to have been the main source of the Black Death that spread during the 1300s. Pirates and the ships they ran were not typically known for their good hygienic practices, which is why having a cat on board was an especially helpful and easy way to keep the vermin at bay.
A Furry Friend
While their ability to hunt and kill rodents was their foremost duty, cats on board pirate ships also made great companions for the crew, who would tend to get lonely as they traveled around searching for loot. Every day was unpredictable for a pirate, and knowing that the ship’s cat was there provided a sense of security and comfort. Cats have an uncanny ability to quickly adjust to new, unknown environments, which makes them the ideal sidekick for ships working at sea.
No doubt about it: for cats working on pirate ships, it was all paws on deck!