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An illustrated close-up of a proud cat with closed eyes in front of a green background. Mary Kirkpatrick for Vox

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What makes a good cat?

Maybe your cat loves you. Maybe it would kill you if it could.

Emily Stewart covered business and economics for Vox and wrote the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

I have absolutely no idea what makes Vincenzo a good cat. It’s a fact I keep to myself when I meet his owner, Donna Dzurishin, at the Garden State Cat Expo in New Jersey in mid-July. At one of the biggest cat shows in the country, my ignorance puts me in the minority. Plus, Donna’s got that warm kind of energy that almost compels you to hug her — it’s not clear if you need it, she needs it, or maybe you both do. You definitely can’t hug Vincenzo or any of the cats competing. The first rule of the cat show is that you don’t touch the cats (unless you ask first, and, as I come to learn, are prepared to be turned down).

Vincenzo is a solid black Persian — a black cat dusted in gray, with a long fluffy tail and round copper eyes that are hard to make out amid all the fur. People sometimes tell Donna, who has long black hair, that they look alike. Her daughter makes fun of her for it. Vincenzo is an “absolutely beautiful boy,” per Donna, and her first show cat — they’ve only been competing since February. There’s been a learning curve in navigating the show circuit, not to mention Vincenzo’s high-maintenance grooming routine, which rivals that of a Kardashian. “I’m obsessive-compulsive, so I put everything into it,” Donna says.

The idea that someone — let alone hundreds of people — would put their cat into a contest is foreign to me. I cannot fathom caring about ranking cats or undertaking the apparent effort being put in here. Why one cat might be “better” than the next is a mystery.

Donna describes what it is that makes Vincenzo special — his stocky body, his short legs, his nice round head. “Did you see him?” she asks. I don’t want to admit that the visual isn’t helping much in terms of my personal comprehension. Our conversation is cut short because the pair have been called to the ring. Donna pulls a nonplussed Vincenzo from his tent, fluffs him up as best she can, and hurries off. I wish her luck but then decide to follow — in the ring she’s headed to, Vincenzo is in the running for best cat, and I may as well see what happens.

As we walk over, Donna’s friend pulls me aside. She tells me Donna’s husband passed away recently, and cat shows have given her new life. The stakes suddenly feel high.

I am not a cat person. Whenever friends ask why I don’t have one — after all, I am a single woman in her 30s — my response is always the same: There’s too big a risk your cat hates you. Cat owners’ stories are basically, “Oh my God, you won’t believe what Fluffy just did! So cute!” And then they tell you about something objectively destructive and, occasionally, gross. Even if your cat likes you, it’s sometimes distant and perhaps kind of an asshole — most cats are. It’s not a bad thing, really. (See: Grumpy Cat, a cultural icon.) They’re semi-wild animals we have as pets, which is a whole separate complicated issue on its own. The main expectation you can have of a cat is that you can’t have a lot of expectations.

Cats are the ones that got themselves into this situation in the first place, historically speaking. They’ve been living with humans for 4,000 years, dating back to the ancient Egyptians, who deeply admired them, and probably even earlier. (In the Middle Ages, they were associated with witches and devilry, so ancient times were probably a much better era to be a cat.)

Unlike other pets, cats are self-domesticated, because humans — and their crops and grains and food — attract rodents. Cats figured out that where there are people, there are rats and mice, so they started hanging around. They came to America as furry little colonists, on ships.

A hand holding a cat toy on a stick.

Today, cats — along with dogs — are the most popular pets in the world. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, there are some 58 million pet cats in the United States, and a quarter of American households have at least one cat. They have cemented themselves as our begrudging companions, here for the snacks and the safety.

“The whole question of cats is less about the cat and more about the human. A cat is going to be a cat, and they’re very funny and affectionate,” says Ella Cerón, an author, friend, and owner of two black cats — Holly and Olive — when I tell her via text that I’m working on this story. “You as a person also have to understand that there are things in this life you cannot control, and one of those things is a cat.”

What even makes a “good” cat? Do we want them to be loving? Aloof? Friendly? Beautiful? Strong? Or is the idea mainly for them to catch critters? Are they supposed to bend to our will, or are we supposed to bend to theirs?

I decided to go to a cat show to find out. A show cat is different from a pet cat, but as Mark Hannon, former president of the Cat Fanciers’ Association, tells me, “A good pet cat doesn’t necessarily make a show cat, but a show cat should also be a good pet cat.” So, I figure it’s a start.

I know what you might be thinking here. A cat show?? Everybody at the cat show knows you’re thinking that, too. They’ve all had to tell their friends and coworkers that their Saturday plan is to take their cat to a beauty pageant; they’ve gotten the looks. But cat shows are, indeed, a thing.

The first recorded cat show took place in 1871 in England, and cat shows landed in the United States not much later. The Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA), a nonprofit that licenses shows and governs their rules, was founded in 1906; its mission is “to preserve and promote the pedigreed breeds of cats and to enhance the well-being of all cats.” It currently recognizes 46 breeds. Its rival, the International Cat Association (TICA), recognizes 73. There’s not even agreement about what type of cat counts.

What makes a good cat, show-wise, is quite cut and dried, at least in theory. Cats are intended to adhere to what everyone refers to as “the standard,” meaning an ideal version of the breed, as rated by a judge. Cat shows are a way to proofread cats. Breed councils set the standards and can change them by vote, including whether to allow for different colors or change requirements from “medium to large” to “large to medium.” This seems astonishingly mundane; I’m told the debate can be very heated.

The current CFA standards are outlined in a booklet that spans 132 pages. To insiders, it’s the cat bible. To outsiders, it’s a goofy, arbitrary document. Both the Birman and the Cornish Rex get points for having a “Roman nose.” For RagaMuffins and Ragdolls, that’s penalized. The only cat where temperament is listed as a criterion is the Siberian: It’s supposed to be “unchallenging.” The Chartreux is supposed to have a smile.

The cat show world is both big and small. If you wanted to hit up a show every weekend, you could, though you might have to travel far for it — there are shows all over the country and the globe. Yet, it’s a contained community. Competitors see the same people over and over; they get to know one another and make friends. They see the same judges, too, and if certain judges don’t like your cat, you’re in a pickle until you get a better cat. “Oh, everybody gets mad if you think your cat deserved to be up there and it’s not up there,” Hannon, the former CFA president, says.

To judge a cat is to love a cat. When judges evaluate a cat, they hold them, caress them, whisper to them, coo at them, even kiss them. Becoming a cat judge takes years, with all the studying, training, and testing, and it’s not for the cash. Show organizers generally cover judges’ flights, hotels, and meals. Otherwise, judges make a dollar and a quarter per cat.

“We do it because we enjoy handling these cats,” says Nancy Dodds, a cat judge who flew in from Arizona for the weekend. “They’re like artwork.”

Illustration of a cat rolling on its back on a background of cat show trophies, medals, and ribbons.

Dodds puts on a bit of a show when she judges. She plays along when one of the cats gets frisky and sinks its claws into her table pole, refusing to let go. She spins one lackadaisical cat around on the table as it lies down and jokes about the heft of another, remarking, “I tell people I lift weights every weekend.”

The vibe of a cat show can only be described as semi-managed chaos — I guess the phrase “like herding cats” exists for a reason. A muffled voice over a loudspeaker calls out for cats to report to their assigned ring, each with its own judge (there are multiple categories and multiple “best cats” per day). Their owners deposit them into numbered cages behind the judge and wait for them to be pulled out and appraised.

There is no prize for best cat, just glory. Rankings are supposed to be objective and based on a points scale. “I don’t like to say we take points off, I like to say we put them all together, and the total is bigger than the sum of the parts because you can put all those parts together, and each point is worth something, and then you can have an ugly cat,” Dodds says. It sounds to me like dating: Someone can check all the boxes and still not be the right fit.

Judges really shouldn’t take into account a cat’s demeanor, but they’re only human, so it’s an inevitable consideration. Most people I speak to say that the highest-performing cats are the ones that (allegedly) want to be there. Peter Vanwonterghem, a judge who had flown in from Belgium, tells me, “You really see which cats feel comfortable on the table and which make an issue.”

Not all cat conduct is tolerated. Another rule of the cat show is no biting allowed. Three strikes and you’re out, banned for life.

Luckily for Donna, Vincenzo is not a biter, and he comes from a long line of good cats. The breeder Donna bought him from took a chance on her — you don’t hand out a show-quality cat to just anyone, let alone to someone who’s never shown before.

At its core, this isn’t really about winning. Donna’s husband died in February 2020 after a battle with cancer, and the loss left her deeply depressed. Vincenzo has been a blessing. Beyond competing in the shows, she’s made two close friends through her cats and cat show hobby, including the woman she considers her mentor. They met on Facebook when Donna posted a photo of her other Persian cat, Cupcake, on a page and asked for help with grooming — even a non-show Persian requires upkeep. “When I tell you I had her a mess, I had her a mess,” she says when we catch up on the phone a couple of months post-show.

While this has been a life-changer for Donna, she’s aware of how ridiculous it can sound. “I call him my son. People laugh at me. I say I love him like I gave birth to him myself,” she says.

She puts time into caring for Vincenzo every day, and on big days, the bathing and blow drying and brushing can take several hours. “It’s more baths than I take,” she quips of his bathing routine. There’s the sculpting of the face, which she’s just learning to do, including making sure his smile is right and, believe it or not, tending to his … eyebrows? … though she’s not sure that’s the correct terminology. Donna has spent thousands of dollars on Vincenzo, between the products and accessories and his multiple blow dryers. “To get the perfect show cat, they’re not inexpensive, I’ll tell you that,” Donna says.

Vincenzo is indeed a fancy cat. Donna’s other cats, of which there are three, not so much.

She bought Cupcake as a therapy cat for her grandson during her husband’s illness. She isn’t show quality (there’s something wrong with her eyes). Then, her daughter wanted an Exotic Shorthair, so they got Lila, who failed out of a breeding program in Russia. (All three generations of Donna’s family live in the same house.) Lila is adorable, but she’s got a lot of issues — she has anxiety and a heart murmur. “Probably the best thing that happened to her is that she got here with us,” Donna says. Giovanni, also an Exotic Shorthair, was next, at Donna’s grandson’s Christmas request. He’s registered with the CFA, but he’s too skinny to show. Vincenzo is the last arrival, coming in December 2022. “I said to my family, ‘I’m doing something for myself,’” Donna says.

She loves them all, but Vincenzo is her favorite.

A drawing of a cat atop a pedestal.

Shows take a narrow view of what a cat should be — the whole shebang is pretty much looks. But what about cats as pets or just as living beings with which we coexist? How would one even begin to set real-world standards for a cat? What do we get out of our relationships with them?

Many people consider their cats to be members of their families, their kids. They often say their pets help them with stress and loneliness, though problems and anxieties can arise with pets, too.

Jessica Austin, a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder who studies the dynamic between people and cats, explains that cat owners like having a relationship with a being that is fairly independent and content to be on its own. “They see the cats as having their own interests, having their own needs, having their own desires, and that’s fine,” she says. “If you are a person who needs validation from your pet, maybe a cat is not the best pet for you.”

Cats provide a quiet kind of companionship. Austin quoted one of her research subjects — a cat dad — on their unique appeal: “It’s somebody who is content being alone together.”

Societally, cats can be misunderstood. You often hear people say they are uncomfortable around cats or that they flat-out don’t like them. That’s for a multitude of reasons, experts say — they’re wilder, they’re more skeptical and standoffish. And, to put it plainly, they are not dogs.

“It’s basically what I call looking at cats through dog-colored glasses, so in that respect, cats are failed dogs, you know? We hold up this ideal,” says Jackson Galaxy, a cat whisperer, television host, and YouTuber, in an interview.

We’ve got a sense of what makes a good dog. It’s a loyal companion. It loves you unconditionally. Maybe it has a job, like hunting, herding, or being a cop. Even if it doesn’t, it probably knows a trick or two. With cats, it’s fuzzier.

Cats aren’t here to serve us; the relationship is more of a push and pull. They require boundaries. They are an exercise in consent.

“They’re still primarily predatory, they’re also a prey animal,” says Mikel Delgado, a scientist and cat expert. They have a need for safety and comfort in new environments, and we often don’t recognize that. “We are looking at our companion animals through a very human lens, and we don’t really think about how they experience the world.”

When a cat is dissatisfied, owners will know it, and its surroundings are often at fault. If you’ve got a “bad” cat, the bad is on you — your cat is scratching the couch because it doesn’t have anywhere else to scratch. Cats are not as eager to make people happy in the way dogs are, nor are they as motivated by food. People can only give them so many treats before they’re over it. “We are responsible for their emotional well-being, but they’re not responsible for ours,” Delgado says.

Back at the Garden State cat show, I have abandoned all journalistic integrity and am firmly Team Vincenzo. I’ve followed him and Donna to the ring where they’re naming best cat.

There are 10 finalists in cages behind the judge. She pulls each out in descending order, Miss America style, talks about their attributes, and compliments them before she returns them and places a ribbon on their holding spot.

Tenth best cat is named, then ninth, then eighth, and so on, and Vincenzo still hasn’t been called. The tension builds. With two cats left, the judge pulls Vincenzo from his cage. Team V breathes out a sigh — second isn’t bad. But then, when the judge puts him back, she doesn’t hand out a ribbon to indicate his placing. Vincenzo is still in the running! She then takes out the other cat, a white Persian, his competition.

It’s Vincenzo, the black poof, versus his unnamed opponent, the white poof. The judge says that both are, in reality, the best cat and asks the audience to clap for their favorite. It sounds like Vincenzo gets less applause, but it’s hard to tell. Whatever the case, Vincenzo wins. He is named best cat. Donna cries. Her friend cries. If I’m being honest here, I almost cry a little bit, too.

“I’m ecstatic. I was very nervous. This is a hard competition here,” a still-emotional Donna tells me in what amounts to a post-game interview. Vincenzo has won best cat before, but not at a show as big as this one.

The stakes in life don’t always have to be high for them to feel like it. Joy comes from truly unexpected places. And if it’s a cat — because it’s your reluctant pet, your show animal, or whatever else — so be it.


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