I'M a 40-year-old woman with no children and I love my cat.

There, I've said it. Let me be clear: I do not own a whatnot full of porcelain cats, or a calendar featuring kittens with ribbons round their necks. I don't own any cat clothing (either for me or her). I have meaningful relationships with actual human beings - heck, I even have a husband.

I just happen to love my moggy. Abby was a pregnant stray when we adopted her four years ago (we rehomed the kittens when they arrived). "We're not having her in the bedroom," said my husband, who has a mild cat allergy. "Let's be clear about that."

That first night, she plonked herself between us on the duvet and stayed until morning.

Like a lot of cats, Abby doesn't easily go to strangers, but once you have won her trust, she is a wonderfully affectionate companion. She is endlessly entertaining and loves a good play fight - she will hang off my arm strafing me with her hind legs, as if attacking a giant rat, though somehow manages never to do me any harm. We have discovered how much communication is possible between animals with no shared language; her repertoire of looks, postures, growls and miaows covers every eventuality. Sometimes I think she is unaware we are different species.

Yet proud as I am of my delightful pet, I must admit to bracing myself in coming out so publicly as a cat-lover - or, more specifically, a childless female cat-lover. (Though I am now expecting a child.) It is annoying but true that, were I a dog-owner, I would not hesitate to advertise the fact. But cats provoke a different reaction.

For me, this can best be illustrated by separate conversations I've had with two unattached female friends, who had mentioned they'd love to get a cat. "So why don't you?" I asked. Both came up with the same reply: that they could not possibly, because they would instantly be written off as saddos who couldn't find a man.

How many women deny themselves the companionship of a feline because of fear of being derided like that? And do men who love cats feel equally inhibited?

This attitude towards women with cats appears to be deep-rooted. Every year at Hallowe'en the association between witches and their feline familiars is revived, a link that goes back to the Middle Ages when both women and cats were persecuted. Women with cats are viewed in an entirely different manner from men with dogs, or indeed women with dogs: a single man with a labrador and single woman with a cat both get companionship from the deal, but the sneery comments are typically reserved for the woman. This skews pet ownership choices and at its worst, and probably reflects tenacious prejudices about women, though there are signs that is changing.

Karen Shepherd-Best, 47, from Glasgow, recognises the sentiment. She currently has 10 cats. ("When I met my husband I had three and now I have 10, so you can tell who is the crazy one and it isn't me," she jokes.)

As a single woman, she was riled by the assumptions people made about her. "There is this idea that having cats is a substitute for a man, which really annoyed me - there's that perception that single women get cats because they can't get a partner. It doesn't apply to men."

Sociologist Dr Maria Desougi, an expert on the interaction between animals and humans, confirms that our choice of non-human companions and how we relate to them is profoundly influenced by social pressures and expectations. In her research, she has found that love for our pets is both a private experience and a public display that says something about who we are.

So, one's choice of pet is indeed taken by others to say something about you. But why should women, especially women without partners or children, be mocked for having cats?

We have all heard of the "crazy cat lady", the woman, usually older, usually single, whose numerous cats get the run of the house. The crazy cat lady is not merely a British construct; she is apparently jeered at in other European countries, too. Crazy Cat Lady is even a character in The Simpsons. Just a harmless joke? On one level, yes, but there is a striking parallel between this stereotype and the persecuted old women who once found themselves branded as witches: women who were past child-bearing age, lived alone outside male control and did not conform to the behavioural norms expected of them.

Cats were themselves persecuted in the Middle Ages, in large part due to their association with these older women who had them for companionship. Many were burned at the stake with their owners. Some speculate that cats were targeted partly because they are seen as wayward and prone to do as they please rather than submit to human control, challenging the medieval belief in man's dominion over other species - an attitude that echoes the very objections men had towards single or widowed women.

So the persecution of women and cats was linked for centuries. Like women, cats became the focus of superstitions. Because of their nocturnal habits, they were suspected of being demons. The character of Grimalkin, an old female cat derived from Scottish legend, appears in Shakespeare's Macbeth as a witch's familiar; today, the term is used to mean a jealous or ill-tempered old woman. There could hardly be a better illustration of how prejudices about women and cats have become all tied up together.

Wizened old witches and their black cats are now the archetypal symbol of Hallowe'en. On one level, this is a cultural construct embellished by film, TV and literature, but it also serves as a reminder of where some prejudices about women and their felines come from.

Fear and even hatred of cats remains a recognisable though thankfully much rarer phenomenon today. But attitudes towards cats and dogs are also bound up in current social assumptions about gender roles, according to Dr Katrina Brown, a human geographer at the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen.

She has studied dog-walking and the way men and women control their dogs, and believes there is something in the idea of dog ownership as a sign of masculine status. "You have control over the animal, a sense of mastery," she says. "There's definitely a sense that it's part of the dominant construction of masculinity that some men derive some extra status from denigrating the cat."

This idea that some men feel more comfortable with dogs instead of cats certainly resonates with me. Growing up, I had some older male relatives who seemed to feel it unmasculine to show affection towards cats. Recently, I was talking to a man in his 60s who was genuinely flummoxed when he heard about a teenage boy who wanted a cat, asking: "Why doesn't he want a dog?"

Brown has witnessed men expressing "absolute venom" towards cats. She speculates that this may be a reaction to the differing natures of cats and dogs. Canines "wear their hearts on their sleeves, so don't seem to be very hard work, whereas with cats you have to use a lot of psychology and learn to read the signs. That's where the rub comes with masculine norms - you have to put in the extra work to create a relationship.

"This idea of cats being hard work and men not really understanding them, there have been parallels made with women: the idea that sometimes they are coy, sly, unpredictable and hard to make out. It's based on this idea of men being straightforward and not emotionally complex, which I am critical of because it lets men off the hook.

"There is a sinister side to it: if you see a particular animal as 'the other', you make them hateable and make it OK to abuse them. There are parallels in history with the way cats and women have been treated."

Turkish sociologist Basak Tanulku agrees that cats are associated with feminine traits, in contrast to dogs, whose label as "man's best friend" is linked to their role as working animals, assisting men with hunting, patrolling and farming. He believes parallels in some men's eyes about cats and women include the notion that cats "emotionally abuse" their owners and act on their instincts.

These are, of course, generalisations: there have always been men who love cats and are not afraid to say so. Mark Twain delighted in felines, saying: "When a man loves cats, I am his friend and comrade, without further introduction." Other famous manly cat lovers include Ernest Hemingway (he had several, including a six-toed moggy called Snowball) and Winston Churchill (he was so devoted to his cat Jock that he requested a marmalade cat by that name should always have the run of the Chartwell estate; it now has its sixth Jock).

But men who like cats often feel awkward about admitting it. Tom Cox, author of Under The Paw: Confessions Of A Cat Man, has seven cats. He writes: "Being a heterosexual man and admitting to another heterosexual man that you like cats can feel a little like telling him that you still sleep alongside your childhood collection of teddy bears."

Some men, he says, hide their cat love, some "take things a little too far" and some are just "normal blokes who see nothing emasculating about wanting to spend time with the world's most popular household pet, and our cat love does not serve as a metaphor or a crutch". Well said, Tom.

It is odd that these gendered ideas about cats have persisted for so long. Strip away the socio-cultural baggage and what you are left with, after all, is a playful pet and a formidable hunter. What is threatening to anyone's masculinity about that?

Yet women are more likely to identify themselves as cat enthusiasts. Desougi confirms that gender does appear to influence pet ownership choices. Certainly, the majority of staff at cat charity rescue centres tend to be female. Elaine McFall, secretary of the Scottish Cat Club (who works at a rescue centre and, along with her husband, has several cats), confirms that most cat club members are women, though if this is because loving cats is deemed more socially acceptable for women or because women have a special affinity with them, is hard to say.

Ania Tajsiak, who is crowd fundraising to open Scotland's first cat café - where people can interact with cats in a café setting - in Edinburgh, doesn't buy the idea that cats are more suited to women. She says: "You have different cats, different dogs and you just have to find your match."

She also challenges lazy stereotypes, including that cats are less loyal than dogs: "My parents have had a cat for 14 years and every day she's waiting for them when they come home from work, so you can't say she's any less loyal."

The good news is that old-fashioned gendered attitudes about pet ownership are showing signs of disintegrating. McFall says: "I do find it's been changing in the past 20 years. More men, I feel, are showing more affection for cats. When the public are at the shows, the men are interacting with the cats. At the rescue centre, we have a lot of men helping to pick cats with their partners."

Brown thinks a change in attitudes is taking place in parallel with men's growing ease about showing affection publicly for their children - part of a general relaxation among men about what constitutes masculinity.

As that changes, perhaps so too will the sometimes good-natured, sometimes vicious jokes about women and their cats. With thousands of cats needing homes - the SSPCA has had more to rehome this year than ever before - that can only be a good thing.