For a disturbingly large number of otherwise normal human beings, life with cats is an unequal competition. The cat is clearly in charge.

The power-struggle can be lost rapidly. Senate staffer Robert Peck and a cat named Cheeta had scarcely met, after he rescued her from a tree and adopted her, before she took a swan-dive off his third-floor roof and fractured her pelvis.

"The vet said he could put her to sleep, but there was a chance if he operated," said Peck. "What could I do? I told him, 'Go ahead.'"

The vet's tab was $500, and Peck's contribution didn't stop with that. Home again and forbidden to walk, Cheeta spent her convalescence waited on by Peck, who carried kitty trays to her for breakfast and supper.

Washington, being full of cats, is full of similar tales. Consider this sampler of the more instructive accounts:

Joan Mondale discovered a few years ago that being the wife of the vice president in no way empowered her to take command of her cats, Kitty and Squirt. On one occasion in the vice presidential residence Mondale was presiding over a meeting with officials of the National Endowment for the Arts and assorted assistant secretaries when she heard a rustling at a closed door.

No one else heard anything, but Mondale found herself unequal to ignoring the signal.

"Excuse me, there's something important I've got to do," she said, walking over to the door and opening it. Tail high, Kitty marched in through the doorway and across the room on a lordly progress to some unspecified destination. There was silence in the room, finally broken by Mondale, who said ruefully, "I guess you know who's incharge here."

In their clawing for power, cats have attracted collaborators from the human world who ought to know better. Linda Reynolds, executive assistant to the director of the Washington Opera Society, had the innocent thought of acquiring a kitten from the Humane Society.

"I was a nervous wreck," Reynolds recalled of her preparations for the required screening session. "I called the cleaning woman; I hid the liquor..." And, as it turned out, there was a hitch; the society likes working people to adopt two cats, lest loneliness prove a problem for the single feline.

Almost before she knew what was happening, Reynolds' fantasy of a cuddly kitten became George and Gracie. Reynolds' story ends with the usual rueful refrain: "They run my life."

Cats sometimes like automobile travel, but they never like cages. Owners who take cats along for the ride must endure yowling from the carrier or suffocation with the windows closed unless they can devise some third way. Photographer Jann Gattoni built custom screens for her family car. Now the four Gatdren Before Dogs (15 W. 81st St., New York 10024). Although she has concentrated on the dog menace, Lee has been raising her back for years that cat owners also have been getting off too easily.

One of her recent efforts has been to get hotels and motels to bar pets. "I travel a lot," says Lee, "and I am always noticing stained rugs, bedspreads and mattresses in the places I stay. Ask the maids what's the cause of the stains; cats and dogs. Sometime when there's a cat show, go to the nearest hotel and smell the odor in the corridors."

Three years ago, the tireless Lee wrote to Dr. William H. Foege, the assistant surgeon general of the Public Health Service, to demand federal action against the possible health hazards of allowing cats and dogs in hotel and motel rooms. Foege, like Frenkel, did not want to overstretch the federal arm by bringing it to the barricades against cats and dogs. He said that catching a pet infection was "unlikely in establishments which adhere to conventional standards of hygiene."

That has been Lee's point all along, that anyone with a vested interest in pets -- owners, hoteliers, the pet food industry, the pet accessory industry, the cat and dog psychologists -- is likely to downplay or ignore the trouble caused when humans live with animals like cats.

Frenkel wrote in his 1973 paper: "When the risk factors are known [about toxoplasmosis] and in the public domain, people can choose. Unfortunately, not everybody is in touch with the available information, and few people give up consistent pleasures for infrequent diseases. In addition, broader ethical questions are also involved. An infectious cat exposes not only his owners, but neighbors who choose not to own pets."

The nonowning neighbor isn't alone. Cats are too intelligent and too independent to approve of the current arrangement either.