Kate Douglas of New Scientist outlines the results of a series of studies designed to answer the age-old question: Which make better pets – cats or dogs? Some of the highlights are as follows.
Shared History with Humans – Dogs Were Domesticated First
Researchers have traced the origin of the dog to the domestication of wolves in China between 11,500 and 16,300 years ago. However, they suggest that dogs were probably used as food sources rather than companions initially.
Cats were first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent at least 9,500 years ago, most likely because their rodent-catching abilities were beneficial in protecting stored food.
Bonding – Dogs Are Easier to Study Than Cats
Dogs appear to bond with their owners much like human babies, showing happiness and courage in strange situations when their “parent” is present, and distress when the parent leaves. Putting dogs through the “strange situation test,” animal researcher Adam Miklósi of Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, Hungary, found that they behaved much in the same way as securely attached human babies would. Although Miklósi suspects that cats bond in a similar way, he was unable to persuade them to cooperate for the test because they found the laboratory setting too distressing.
Popularity – Cats Have Surpassed Dogs as the Most Popular Pets
In recent years, cats have become the number one pet, with nearly 204 million felines in the top 10 cat-owning countries (U.S., Russia, China, Brazil, France, Italy, UK, Ukraine, Japan, and Germany) compared to fewer than 173 million dogs in the top dog-owning countries (U.S., Brazil, China, Japan, Russia, South Africa, France, Italy, Poland, and Thailand) (Countries with the Most Pet Animal Population).
Although ownership statistics give some indication of how much cats and dogs are liked, it should be noted that cats are far more convenient, and many people who find cats and dogs equally appealing may choose cats over dogs simply because they don’t have time to walk a dog every day, can’t afford to pay the higher food and veterinary costs that dogs require, or live in small apartments that are not conducive to dog ownership. Thus, ownership statistics don’t necessarily indicate that cats are liked by more people than dogs.
Tractability – Dogs are Easier to Control and Teach
The question of whether tractability is positively or negatively correlated with intelligence is up for debate. However, few would argue that most dogs are far more biddable and generally cooperative than most cats, learning human rules more easily and showing a greater motivation to obey them.
Animals such as dolphins, chimpanzees, and cats usually learn by emulating other individuals, whereas dogs learn more like human infants, through direct teaching. Cats can be taught using rewards in much the same way as dogs, but this requires more patience on the part of the trainer, as cats are less motivated to please.
Usefulness – Dogs can Fulfill More Functions
Dogs can do a lot of useful things for people, including drug and bomb sniffing, guiding the blind, pulling sleds, and finding avalanche victims. Both dogs and cats can provide their owners with significant health benefits, but dogs have the added benefit of forcing their owners to go outside and get some exercise.
Cats have been used along with dogs as therapy animals, and cats have proven particularly therapeutic in prisons. However, the greatest historical use for cats has been rodent control. While this job was critical in the past, it’s not so important in modern times.
Eco-Friendliness – Cats Are Greener Pets Than Dogs
Studies of wildlife disturbance and predation, as well as statistics on the ecological footprints for North America’s most popular pets, indicate that cats are more environmentally friendly than dogs.