We usually reserve mention about recent studies involving animals to our Research Nutshell section, but this time I felt compelled to weigh in from a lay perspective.
A study recently conducted by the University of Tokyo and published in the journal Animal Cognition claims that cats respond differently to human beings than dogs do.
This assertion has been made before, usually in the form of funny T-shirts or posters marketed to animal lovers. You’ve seen them: “Dogs have owners; cats have staff. ” Or “Dogs come when they are called. Cats take a message and get back to you.”
Or often don’t, as this study claims. The researchers observed 20 cats in their own homes and noted how they responded to recordings of their guardians’ voices calling their names versus the voices of strangers. The results found that “although [the cats] showed greater response to their owner’s voices than strangers’, they declined to move when called by any of the volunteers.” The authors note that “this cat-owner relationship is in contrast to that with dogs.”
Indeed, dogs didn’t become known as “man’s best friend” by being indifferent to us. Most dogs will respond quite enthusiastically to almost any form of human attention; some live in an almost constant state of anticipation and enthusiasm.
Some analysts claim that the difference between cats and dogs lies in their evolutionary history with humans. Dogs were domesticated much earlier than cats, and because they naturally live in packs, were more quickly and easily incorporated into interspecies family life. Cats, as this study’s authors note, “domesticated themselves” once humans started cultivating their own food and wild cats figured out that grain = rodents = dinner.
I have shared my home with three sets of cats and dogs over the past few decades, so I know how this plays out. I don’t think dogs are slavish and cats are aloof; they just have different criteria for interaction.When you call your dog, he or she immediately assumes that you are doing so because you’re about to offer food, toys or walks. Even if you use the tone reserved for discovering the trash can contents on your living room floor, the dog still comes, just more slowly.
Cats, on the other hand, want to assess the situation and decide if it warrants a reply. My current family feline, Benjamin, is an indoor cat, but he will take every opportunity to escape through a door if it’s left ajar for all of two seconds. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does, no amount of calling makes him reveal his location. He can be 10 feet away under a bush or two doors up the street. I’ve spent more than an hour combing the yard and looking in every possible spot to flush the little sucker out, but he won’t come back until he’s darn good and ready. And even then he expects to be fed immediately, as if it was my fault he ended up that far from his dish.
Ditto for when he’s in the house, warm and cozy in the back of a closet or out of sight on top of the kitchen cabinets. I’ll be frantically calling and searching, wondering whether he snuck out unnoticed and is now coyote bait, only to see him casually emerge half an hour later, stretching and yawning, knowing darn good and well he heard me calling and ignored me. The superior species is clearly in control.
On the other hand, my black Labrador, Talli, assumes that any mention of her name automatically involves a meal or a tennis ball and she can’t reach you fast enough.
The Tokyo study notes that while “dogs are perceived by their owners as being more affectionate than cats…dog owners and cat owners do not differ significantly in their reported attachment level to their pets.”
Maybe cats and dogs appeal to different sides of human nature. We cherish dogs because they seem to love us unconditionally, but we respect cats because they are more discerning and we feel we’ve earned their affection.
When people ask whether I’m a cat person or a dog person, I just say “yes.” Because when one is curled up on my lap and the other is snoring beside me, we’re communicating just fine.
– Jill Howard Church