Perhaps because it doesn't really give a damn whether you like it or not, the cat is gaining on the dog as our most popular pet. An estimated 25 million of them inhabit 30 percent of America's households. Like their ancient Egyptian ancestors, they are worshiped as small furry deities. Last year Americans spent $1 billion on cat food alone (and advertisers almost $100 million to promote the various brands), not to mention $169 million on such accessories as Kitty Litter and wind-up mice.

The most famous huckster of cat products was Morris. Snobbish, epicene and maddeningly finicky about his diet, Morris died in 1978, but that was hardly the end of the sales war. Today the effort to tap America's affection for cats and subsequently its pocketbook is led by fictitious animals. Among the best known are George Gately's Heathcliff and Jim Davis' Garfield, a pair of syndicated comic strip cats whose books and spin-off products have grossed more than $5 million. Then there are the nameless, enigmatic cats of the reclusive B. Kliban. Since the 1975 publication of Kliban's first book, they have proliferated onto wall clocks, ice buckets, sheets, cups and even women's underwear, and are appearing in a syndicated cartoon.

Meanwhile lovers of actual living, breathing and shedding cats buy 80,000 copies each month of the magazine Cat Fancy, which contains departments like "Meow Mart" and "Cats of the Stars." Some 200 books on cats are currently in print, including Gallico Szasz's The Silent Miaow and George Booth's Think Good Things about a Pussycat. Striving gamely to establish a centrifugal force is cartoonist Skip Morrow, whose recently published I Hate Cats book represents a jaundiced antidote to what he calls "the cutesy cat things everywhere." The remarkable thing is that even Morrow's imperiled cats, whether about to be catapulted into space or pressed into service as hockey pucks, still don't really seem to give a damn.

And now a word for those who hate cats

Dennis "Skip" Morrow is annoyed at being described as an ex-cat lover by his publisher in his new book, I Hate Cats (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $3.95). "I never loved them," he complains. Until recently, cartooning was a second career and a not very lucrative one at that. Morrow, 28, is a bar singer, working around Cape Cod and Vermont. "I sing by night and do my crazy graphics by day," he explains.

The inspiration for Morrow's book came one day in a saloon when he saw a cat scratch its master. The owner grabbed it by the neck and shouted, "Don't you ever do that again!" Morrow sketched the hapless animal being throttled. "People would look at that drawing," he remembers, "and say, 'I always wanted to do that to a goddamn cat.' " Last winter, with no snow on the Vermont ski slopes to divert him, Morrow took a portfolio of cat-abuse cartoons to an editor at Holt. "This is horrible!" the editor exclaimed. "This is disgusting! I love it!"

Morrow's book is already in its fourth printing, with a sequel in the works. A calendar is planned for 1982. Morrow says he is doing it all for cat haters, who he believes are an oppressed majority. "The whole cat craze was starting to upset me," he adds. "It's what 'Smile' buttons were." Morrow turns out drawing after drawing in which scraggly, woebegone cats hover on the brink of extermination at the hands of malevolent humans. "People say, 'How can you do that to a cat?' " Morrow reports. "I answer, 'How do you know something isn't going to come along and save the cat?' My most grisly stuff is in people's minds."

Morrow never owned a cat until six months ago when friends gave him a kitten named Lucy, with whom he lived in uneasy proximity until she was run over by a truck last month. "Let's just put it this way," he says gruffly. "The cat and I had an understanding." His feeling for the species is reflected in his attitude toward Garfield's comic strip owner. "He's a wimp," Morrow says. "The cat's in control. Garfield always gets what he wants and his master gets pushed around. He never retaliates, never says, 'Hey, no way.' That's why Lucy and I got along. She knew what she couldn't do."

Heathcliff scratches his way to the top

Heathcliff, the No. 1 cat in syndication, has landed (on his feet) in 600 U.S. and 100 foreign newspapers. An un-kittenish roughneck, Heathcliff generates fierce reader loyalty. He has grossed $2 million in book sales since his first appearance in 1973 and is expected to ring up another $10 million next year through the sale of a new book, Heathcliff Banquet (Grosset & Dunlap, $3.95) and knickknackery just now hitting the stores. Heathcliff also stars in a top-rated ABC cartoon show.

His creator, George Gately, 51, lives in suburban New Jersey with his 81-year-old mother and won't keep a cat in the house because he is afraid she might trip over it. Gately spends 80 to 90 hours a week in seclusion creating Heathcliff. The cartoonist takes special satisfaction from the pugnacious personality he has given the animal. "Before him, cats were depicted as either stupid or sinister," says Gately. "But cats are smart. Heathcliff represents the anti-hero, like Humphrey Bogart. He's a tough little mug."

The son of a father who was an amateur cartoonist, Gately grew up as George Gately Gallagher, but dropped his last name to avoid confusion with his brother John, also a cartoonist. After graduating from Pratt Institute, he spent six years in advertising, then quit to cartoon. His first strip was about a Poor Soul type called Hapless Harry. Later he switched to Heathcliff, borrowing the name from the character in Wuthering Heights. "When Merle Oberon stood on the hill calling 'Heathcliff, Heathcliff,' " Gately remembers, "most people thought the scene was sad. I thought it was the funniest thing in the world."

Reluctant to talk about his competitors, Gately credits Heathcliff with triggering the cat craze. "People didn't think a cat could carry a comic, but I disagreed," he says. "Now there are a lot of other strips but I don't mind. It's a compliment. There's room for everybody. You just have to stay good."

Before Garfield, it was a gnat

In 1976 cartoonist Jim Davis, 35, was trying to develop a comic strip featuring a gnat. "It was almost five years before I accepted the bitter reality that bugs don't sell," he says. Finally he began work on a pasta-loving slob of a cat named after Davis' grandfather. From the beginning Garfield wore a constant smirk, his heavy-lidded eyes glittering with indolent menace. Garfield appears in some 400 newspapers already and is adding 20 new papers a month. Davis' paperback, Garfield at Large (Ballantine, $4.95), has sold 300,000 copies and topped the New York Times best-seller list for 11 weeks in a row.

Although there is no Garfield prototype, Davis grew up surrounded by cats on his parents' 120-acre farm in Fairmount, Ind. He suffered from severe asthma as a child and learned to draw during time off from school. A graduate of Ball State University, he now lives quietly in Muncie, Ind., with his wife Carolyn, 33, who handles Garfield's rapidly expanding business affairs. They have a son, Alex, 17 months, but no cat because of Carolyn's allergies. Davis is awestruck by Garfield's whirlwind success, which he attributes to the animal's capacity for satisfying his followers' fantasies. "One reason Garfield is interesting for cat lovers," he says, "is that he confirms what they've always suspected about cats. In Garfield they see his human aspects—his refusal to diet, his inability to walk through a room without knocking things over, and his total pursuit of warm places to curl up and sleep. He champions a lot of unpopular causes, like anti-jogging, and what's more, he doesn't apologize for them."

Kliban is the king of the cat business

It was B. (for Bernard) Kliban who first observed that the ordinary cat bears an extraordinary resemblance to a meat loaf. That small perception became the basis of his hugely popular book, Cat (Workman, $4.95), published in 1975 and now in its 25th printing.

Galvanized by the book's success, Workman brought out a Kliban cat calendar that sold 90,000 copies in its first year, 1977. This year the sale will reach 460,000. Meanwhile Kliban became the king of merchandising, with 28 licensees adding up to a $50 million worldwide empire. The hundreds of products range from umbrellas to beer mugs. Kliban bed sheets became the best-sellers in the entire industry for Burlington. "We never thought it would be this explosive," a Burlington executive admits. Harrods, the exclusive London department store, has a special Christmas section for Kliban imports, and Bloomingdale's had an eight-foot-high, 250-pound Kliban display cat worth $1,500.

All of this is vaguely disconcerting to the artist, who was allergic to cats as a child, never meant to make a fortune on them, does not own any (though he once had four) and says he'll never draw another. Already a millionaire, Kliban has precious little incentive to do anything he doesn't want to. "I don't even like owning things," he once complained.

An art school dropout who worked as a freelance cartoonist before hitting it big, Kliban took refuge behind an utnlised phone number when people started calling him in the middle of the night to meow. Divorced, he lives alone in Marin County, Calif. At 45, Kliban has described himself as "your typical aging beatnik" and definitely not "some cute, curly-haired old man radiating benevolence." It doesn't matter, either to fan or to beneficiary. "He's my leader," says one grateful owner of a cat-specialty store, "my Number One seller, my bread and butter."