Feline asthma

Cat asthma as a political argument to Republican pet owners.

This is about public policy, promise.

My elderly cat Hobbes now has a respiratory problem, as I do. It’s probably feline asthma. Cats get asthma like humans, while dogs don’t. One cause, say vets, is air pollution.

Credit: MeowValet on YouTube

The literature seems stronger on indoor air pollution than outdoor. Second-hand tobacco smoke is a culprit, as are wood fires and incense. I found a serious controlled Taiwanese study on indoor pollution making the link. The effect of outdoor pollution has been less studied for animals. One Mexican study creepily found similar lesions in the brains of big-city dogs to those found in humans with Alzheimer’s.

It seems safer just to rely on the parallelism in the symptoms and mechanisms of cat and human asthma, and the massive literature connecting the human form to air pollution, to conclude that all air pollution is bad for cats too. The effect is reinforced by the height difference: cats and dogs breathe in air at car exhaust level.

This hypothesis suggests a political strategy. In the USA, there are said to be 49.2 million households with a cat. There are 50.4 million with children under 18. That’s 39% each. I couldn’t find a combined breakdown, but let’s assume that the two are independent. That would give 30 million childless households with a cat. The real total will be different, but it’s still a very large number.

This demographic skews old, white and therefore Republican. It cares for its cats. It strikes me as a good argument to make to this group in favour of the energy transition and the GND that the policy will protect the health of their pets.

Some will say: this is ridiculous. Are there really a non-trivial number of voters who will be swayed by the health of cats but not the health of children? If there are, surely they are either “low-information voters” – idiots – or moral imbeciles, and lost causes in either case?

My answers are (a) quite likely and (b) no.

Let me make the case for the defence. The questions are linked by the broader issue of moral myopia.

In the thought experiments of Ethics 101 seminars, involving burning houses and trolleys, it’s not difficult to say that a life of a child is more valuable than that of a cat. (100 cats? 101 Dalmatians? The last Sumatran rhino versus Donald Trump? The last one is easy.) The problem with such experiments is that they do not reflect the real choices and moral structures of daily life.

There is a very strong moral presumption that you should care for the health of your child, and this obligation extends in reduced form to your pets. It reduces sharply in intensity for other children and animals. This even holds within extended families: a grandparent’s suggestions about the health of a grandchild have to be offered tactfully or risk being rejected as interference. It’s a defensible position that you should put more effort into caring for your pet than for random strange children. Clearly many people do, and if this is wrong, it’s the moral myopia we all share apart from a handful of saints.

In general, even very myopic people do not think or say “I don’t care at all about the children of strangers”, or cats. What they do say is “They aren’t my problem”, and by implication, they are somebody else’s. Fair enough: they have their own parents, caregivers or owners. If that fails, the government steps in, using the taxes they pay. The moral obligation here for the pet-owners is to vote for a government that will do the job.

The Good Samaritan parable does not fit this world well. Unlike trolley problems, it sets up a completely plausible first-century scenario of brigandage on an unpoliced highway. There are no social services to pick up the injured traveller. He gets help from other passers-by (all strangers) or dies in the road. The straightforward inference of the parable is that we ought to help strangers when their normal local backup fails. YMMV but it does not directly state that kin bias is wrong. It does set the bar for strangers pretty high: the Samaritan incurs significant costs and presumably sacrifices some of the goals, business or personal, he had for making the dangerous trip in the first place.

The framework does not directly work for public goods like clean air: effective action is collective and political or nothing. Individual action, say buying an electric vehicle or switching to a bike, becomes political by example. So we need to support organizations and parties with good plans for dealing with the problems we recognize as individuals.

However, for such collective action we run into our cognitive and emotional limitations. Comparative advantage applies in ethics as well as trade. Effectiveness requires us to concentrate on one or two goals we care about strongly, and build up knowledge and contacts. Early in my blogging career here, I wrote a couple of posts on drugs policy. Since I know much less than Mark, Keith and others here on the subject, I was not adding value and stopped. If you don’t like my electric aircraft motors, tough luck, they are in the area I have chosen. Becoming a single-issue (or few-issues) bore is not only psychologically necessary, it’s the right thing to do. On issues outside our personal focus, we all rely in a fuzzy way on the wisdom of the tribe.

Out moral framework is thus perforce a shoddily constructed kludge. It is full of hidden fault lines and inconsistencies. It’s not surprising that we often get things wrong. On the positive side, it allows us to learn and change: not usually from systematic reflection, but from stories that probe the cracks. The Good Samaritan parable is an outstanding example. But a humbler story of cat asthma can be another. Perhaps Republican politicians and their fossil fuel donors do not have Fluffy’s best interests at heart.

It’s worth a shot. The Facebook ads write themselves. I leave it to the experts in the black arts to choose between sciency ukases from professors of veterinary science in white coats, tear-jerking pleas from the weeping children of bereaved pet owners, and sterling wheezy performances from Fluffy herself.

PS: This is post 14,903 in the 17-year history of the RBC blog. It’s surely the first to include a cat video. I hope snobbish readers will pardon the lapse, in a high-minded cause.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

3 thoughts on “Feline asthma”

  1. Found this to be a strange article.
    1) Yes cats get asthma and so do people.
    This is well known and there was no need to go on with so much other unrelated, disconnected ‘rubbish’.
    Can I ask the author, James Wimberley, to try harder next time.

  2. I realize Mr. Wimberley is engaging in some satirical playfulness here, but I’m not sure he’s too far off track. It’s worth remembering that just a few years ago, Republican after Republican changed their (usually his) stance on gay rights, announcing that they had learned that a family member was gay. I have long suspected that some Homeowners Associations are one or two cases of board members’ dogs getting cancer from lawn chemicals away from allowing clover or wildflower lawns.

    At this point, anything is worth a shot.

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