Cats have been associated with humans for at least 4,000 years - in ancient Egypt, their role in controlling rodents in grain stores was so important that cats were even worshipped as gods.
These days, over 26% of Australian pet-owning households have a cat, and this probably has more to do with their suitability as companions than their ability to answer prayers. Cat ownership is in slight decline in Australia. Cat owners receive many benefits from this companionship.
Scientific studies over the last twenty years have shown that pet owners are generally healthier than non-pet owners - they suffer fewer minor illnesses and complaints, have better psychological health scores, and generally an improved overall feeling of "well being".
Children who are raised with pets have higher self esteem, and learn nurturing and social skills, as well as a sense of responsibility for others. Pets have been used as adjuncts to therapy for the bedridden --- the benefits to an elderly person sitting with a cat curled up on the bed cannot be overestimated.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence for the benefits of cats came from a study of over 5,000 people conducted by the Baker Medical Research Institute in 1992, which found that cat owners (and dog owners) have significantly lower risk factors for heart disease than non-cat owners, and that's despite the fact that they drink more alcohol!
The key to these benefits is to be found in their unique qualities as companions. Cats are extremely tactile, or "touchy" animals, and love to be patted and stroked, or just lie contentedly in the lap of their owners. Touch is a basic requirement for humans, as it is for all social species, and the companionship of a cat can be especially important for people who live alone.
Cats are also very, very entertaining, retaining a kitten-like playfulness and curiosity well into adulthood. People gain hours of relaxing pleasure watching their cats play, or just sitting listening to them purr. This relaxation is probably one of the major clues to the cat's health effects - cats provide an easy antidote to the stresses of modern life.
The relative ease of care of a cat makes it the preferred pet in many circumstances. Cats do not need formal exercise as they will exercise themselves during play, and they can live comfortably in much smaller spaces than most dogs.
Add the fact they they are naturally clean and fastidious animals, and it can be seen they are ideal pets for busy lifestyles. Cats also sleep many hours of the day and will save their active time for when owners get home - an added bonus!
The same advantages apply to the elderly or incapacitated, who may not be able to meet the care needs of owning a dog.
Of course, most people don't own cats just because they are practical. Cats have a certain character or personality which is distinctly their own. They are friendly and affectionate, yet retain an individuality and grace. Most people own cats for the sheer joy of their "catness".