Cats on the Battlefield. How Felines Have Helped Win Wars

Introduction

Throughout history, cats have played a unique and unexpected role in armed conflicts. While not officially enlisted, cats have served alongside soldiers in an unofficial capacity for centuries. Though they were not trained for combat like military working dogs, cats provided invaluable services to the troops. Their keen senses, hunting skills, and companionship on the battlefield and on ships boosted morale. Cats worked as mousers, companions, mascots, and even radiation detectors. This article will explore some of the ways cats contributed to war efforts over the years.

Ship Cats

Cats have a long history of being brought aboard ships to help control rodents. According to Wikipedia, cats naturally hunt and kill mice and rats, making them well-suited for life at sea. Their hunting skills along with their ability to adapt to new environments have made cats a vital part of ship crews for centuries.

Ship cats were useful in keeping down vermin populations that could otherwise destroy supplies and spread disease. Having cats onboard dates back as far as ancient Egypt. By the 18th century, it had become common practice for ships to carry cats. Most ships had several cats to control rats and mice.

According to Quora, cats were a mainstay on naval ships well into the 20th century. Their mouser skills made them an indispensable part of the crew. Ship cats continue to be used today, though advances in ship construction and sanitation have reduced the need for vermin control.

Trench Cats

During World War I, cats were adopted by soldiers fighting in the trenches. The unsanitary and dangerous conditions of trench warfare meant that rats were a major problem. Rats not only spread disease, but they would eat soldier’s rations and even bite them in their sleep.

To help combat the rat population, soldiers began adopting stray cats and kittens they found near the trenches. These cats were called “trench cats” or “ratters”. The cats became loyal companions to the soldiers, providing comfort and killing rats. According to some accounts, the cats were so fierce when it came to killing rats that they learned to go for the head or neck for an instant kill [1].

Trench cats helped boost morale in the dismal trenches. Soldiers would share their rations with the cats and some even sent back photos of their adopted cats to loved ones. The cats provided a source of entertainment and a reminder of home. Some trench cats were killed by enemy fire, but they continued risking their lives to keep the trenches free of rats.

Parachute Cats

During World War II, the Allies considered using cats as a way to spy on the enemy. The most infamous plan was Acoustic Kitty, a project by the CIA to use cats for espionage. The CIA surgically implanted microphones and antennae into cats, with the goal of using them as living surveillance devices. Once dropped by parachute, the cats could wander near foreign officials and transmit conversations back to agents.

In 1967, the CIA spent over $20 million on Acoustic Kitty, hoping the first cat would infiltrate a Soviet Embassy. However, the project failed when the cat was released near the embassy and immediately run over by a taxi. The project was abandoned shortly after (source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acoustic_Kitty).

While Acoustic Kitty failed, it highlighted the creativity and flexibility of using cats for espionage. Other instances of parachuting cats proved more successful, like cats parachuted into Borneo to deliver supplies to British troops fighting Indonesian forces in the jungle.

Weaponized Cats

There have been some attempts throughout history to weaponize cats for military and intelligence purposes. One infamous example was a CIA project in the 1960s called Acoustic Kitty. The goal was to surgically implant listening devices in cats and use them for spying. In a $20 million dollar project, cats were implanted with microphones and radio transmitters so they could covertly record audio near foreign embassies. However, the first Acoustic Kitty was hit and killed by a car during its first mission, showing the difficulty of trying to rely on cats in this way.

More recently, an artist created a project called WarKitteh – a cat collar with some electronic warfare capabilities built in. However, this was an artistic project not seriously intended for military use.

While cats do have some stealth abilities useful for spying, most attempts to weaponize them have not gone mainstream. The difficulty of training cats for specific tasks and reliance on technology makes weaponized cats impractical compared to using cats more informally as mascots or for rat catching.

Mascot Cats

Cats have a long history of serving as mascots for military units. Their presence helped boost troop morale and provided comfort during difficult times. Some of the most famous military mascot cats include Simon the ship’s cat who served on the HMS Amethyst during the Chinese Civil War and was awarded the Dickin Medal, the only cat to receive such an honor. Private First Class Hammer served with the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II and saw action at Guadalcanal and other battles in the Pacific. Another famous mascot was Unsinkable Sam, known for surviving service on three different ships that were torpedoed and sank during World War II.

“Cats have a long been considered by many soldiers, sailors and airmen as bringing good luck. So it’s not surprising that so many units have adopted feline mascots.” (Hero Cats of the U.S. Military). Wherever military units have served, cats were likely there too, providing comfort and companionship during difficult times.

Detecting Radiation

Cats have historically been used to detect radiation due to their sensitivity and reaction to the effects of radiation exposure. According to The Guardian, cats’ fur can stand on end when in the presence of radiation, acting as a natural warning system. This reaction could be used to alert humans to radioactive contamination and waste. There have been projects such as The Ray Cat Solution which proposed breeding cats to change color in response to radiation as a warning system for future generations around nuclear waste sites. While speculative, cats do seem to detect and react to radiation in noticeable ways.

Therapy Cats

Cats have been effectively used in animal-assisted therapy for veterans to help alleviate symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) [VA.gov Whole Health Library on Animal-Assisted Therapies]. Their calm temperament and ability to form bonds with humans make cats well-suited for providing emotional support and comfort. Pet Partners and the Department of Veterans Affairs are working together to increase the use of trained therapy cats at VA medical facilities, with the goal of improving veterans’ mental health and quality of life [VA.gov news release on Pet Partners therapy animal services].

Studies show that interacting with cats can lower stress, anxiety, and depression in PTSD patients by elevating mood-boosting hormones like oxytocin and decreasing cortisol levels [Penn Medicine on pets and PTSD treatment]. A cat’s consistent companionship and lack of judgment provides a source of comfort and motivation for veterans struggling with PTSD. With proper training and handling, therapy cats can be incorporated into talk therapy, emotional processing, and mindfulness exercises as part of a holistic approach to PTSD treatment.

Training Cats

Training cats for military purposes presents unique challenges due to the independent nature of felines. Cats are not known to be as obedient or eager to please as dogs, making them more difficult to train for specialized tasks (Collective Training Sustainment Resources). The military has experimented with training cats for roles like explosives detection, but cats can be stubborn and easily distracted during training sessions (Slate, 2011). Unlike dogs, cats require more creativity and patience to positively reinforce desired behaviors. According to animal experts, the best approach is through operant conditioning methods using food rewards and repeating simple tasks frequently in short sessions. However, even then, a cat may refuse to cooperate on a whim. Ultimately, while it is possible to train cats for military purposes, it requires great time and care compared to training dogs or other animals.

Conclusion

In summary, cats have played a variety of important roles in wars over the years. Ships cats helped control rodents on naval vessels. Trench cats provided companionship and pest control in the trenches of World War I. Parachute cats were dropped into combat zones with airborne troops to boost morale. Cats have also served as mascots for military units and as trained helpers, such as by detecting radiation on nuclear submarines. While the full extent of cats’ contributions is unknown, it’s clear they have provided valuable services during wartime alongside their human comrades.

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