Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

Temple Cats

Around the world, cats are welcome members of monastic communities

By Kim Campbell Thornton

Andrews McMeel Syndication

When I walked onto the grounds of Gachen Lama Khiid at Erdenetsogt in Mongolia's Khangai Mountains, nearly the first thing I saw was a cat sunning himself outside the temple. Cats are not especially popular as companion animals in Mongolia, but when I thought about it, the cat's presence made sense. I confirmed my suspicion later as I drank salty milk tea with the monastery's head lama.

"Is it common for monasteries to have a cat?" I asked.

Our guide, Batana Batu, translated his response. Yes, he said. The cat is there to protect food stores from mice.

Cats have served as pest control at temples and monasteries throughout the world for centuries. Egyptian temple cats were trained to hunt snakes and rodents, reported fifth-century Greek historian Herodotus.

In Cyprus, at the Monastery of St. Nicholas of the Cats, snakes overran the island after a drought. The monastery's patron, the future St. Helena, had 1,000 cats brought in from Egypt and Palestine to kill the snakes.

An unknown ninth-century Irish monk wrote a poem about his cat, Pangur Ban, that we still read and appreciate today:

"I and Pangur Ban my cat,

'Tis a like task we are at:

Hunting mice is his delight,

Hunting words I sit all night."

Medieval monks prized cats not only because they warred against mice to protect food stores, but also because they prevented mice from nibbling on the manuscripts the monks labored to create. The occasional inky paw print on a page was less destructive.

Nuns in convents were forbidden to have pets such as dogs and monkeys -- a rule they frequently broke -- but there was one exception. The 13th-century "Ancrene Wisse," rules for nuns, notes in the section titled "On Domestic Matters": "You shall not possess any beast, my dear sisters, except only a cat."

Between 1306 and 1467, Exeter Cathedral had a succession of official cats. A penny per week was budgeted to supplement the diet of the cat, who was otherwise expected to chow down on mice and other pests. The north transept wall still has a hole (an early cat door?) through which the cat could enter and exit.

Several cat breeds are reputed to have originated as monastery or temple cats. The legend behind the Burmese is that Buddhist monks regarded the shorthaired brown cats as embodiments of gods.

The Birman, once known as the Sacred Cat of Burma (now called Myanmar), is said to descend from cats that were companions to temple priests in the northern part of the country.

The story goes that a priest named Mun Ha, accompanied by his beloved white cat, was praying in the temple beneath the golden statue of the goddess Tsim Kyan Tse, whose eyes were represented by brilliant sapphires. Marauders in search of treasure broke in and attacked the priest. As he lay dying, the cat rested his paws on Mun Ha's head and faced the statue. Suddenly, his white fur became tipped with gold, his legs darkened and his eyes changed from yellow to deep sapphire blue, but his paws remained pure white. The next morning, the remaining monks awoke to find that all the cats had undergone the same transformation.

In France, the Chartreux was once known as the monastery cat associated with Carthusian monks at the Grande Chartreuse monastery near Grenoble. The blue cats were believed to have originally come from Syria, brought to France in trade or by returning Crusaders in the Middle Ages.

The cat's mousing prowess is surely what gained him entrance to contemplative life, but undoubtedly his tranquil nature and love of solitude earned him a permanent home.

Q&A

Stop barking

with new habits

Q: One of our dogs always barks and growls when he sees other dogs. My husband yells at him to try to get him to stop. I know that's not the best response, but what should we do instead? We try to drag him away, but that's not always possible.

A: It can be embarrassing when a dog starts to bark at other dogs, especially if they haven't done anything to provoke him. Your husband's reaction is normal, but as you say, it's not very effective. Neither is dragging the dog away (or picking him up if he's a small dog).

In fact, both of those responses can increase the likelihood that your dog will bark at other dogs, especially if he's barking out of fear. Punishment can escalate his anxiety and teach him to associate other dogs with negative consequences. Dragging him away can make him think that his barking is working because it removes him from the presence of the other dog, causing him to bark even more the next time he sees a strange dog.

Instead, work with a trainer or behaviorist to teach your dog an alternative response, such as sitting and looking at you when he sees another dog. You can also pair the sight of another dog with rewards, such as treats or play with a favorite toy. Both of these techniques can help your dog develop a positive reaction toward other dogs and relax in their presence.

It's also important for you and your husband to remain calm when this behavior occurs. The anxiety that you undoubtedly feel when you see another dog approaching travels right down the leash to your dog and can contribute to the likelihood that he'll start barking.

You can learn more about managing reactive dogs at fearfreehappyhomes.com.-- Mikkel Becker

Do you have a pet question? Send it to askpetconnection@gmail.com or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.

THE BUZZ

Cats are smart

about their food

-- Cats are not simply obligate carnivores -- meaning that they must have meat in their diet -- but hypercarnivores, requiring a 1:1 ratio of energy from protein to energy from fat. When given a choice, cats choose foods with an appropriate balance, even if that food choice doesn't smell or taste as good as others. They need meat protein because they're unable to process plant proteins for energy. A 2016 study found that cats instinctively avoid new foods to lessen their risk of stomach upset. So your finicky cat? He's just looking to eat right.

-- Don't forget to include your dog, cat, bird or other pet in your estate plan. A pet trust -- legal in all 50 states -- allows you to set aside funds for an animal's care, administered by a trustee. Pet trusts can take effect during an owner's lifetime -- if he or she becomes incapacitated or moves into a nursing home, for instance -- or on death. The trustee disburses payments to a designated caregiver on a regular basis. In most cases, a pet trust ends when the pet dies or after 21 years, but pet trusts can be set up for longer periods for animals with long life expectancies, such as parrots or tortoises.

-- Does your dog wolf his food? Eating too quickly is a common canine problem, especially among Labrador retrievers, beagles, basset hounds, cocker spaniels, corgis, dachshunds and pugs. It can lead to gassiness and may even contribute to the development of gastric torsion, or bloat. To encourage your dog to eat at a more moderate pace, place some clean, smooth stones -- too large for him to swallow -- in his food dish so he has to eat around them. You can also purchase food bowls with built-in obstacles that will force him to eat more slowly. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

ABOUT PET CONNECTION

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts headed by “The Dr. Oz Show” veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker, founder of the Fear Free organization and author of many best-selling pet care books, and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. Joining them is behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.