Pets and Their People

How biological science can illuminate human-animal relationships

The Bond Between Pet And Owner

Why dogs and cats don’t perceive it the same way

Much has been written about the human-animal bond, and the benefits it can bring to owners of companion animals.  Sometimes pets are portrayed as more-or-less interchangeable, as if it made little difference to the relationship whether the pet happens to be a cat, a dog, or a rabbit.  The emotional ties that owners feel towards their pets may be somewhat independent of the type of animal involved, but the way the animals feel about their owners will be markedly different from one species to another.  Moreover, these differences have profound implications for the well-being of animals that find themselves in a less-than-ideal relationship.

Of course, it’s obvious that cats and dogs aren’t the same, and the differences between them will be reflected in what they can contribute to the relationship.  Few cat owners take their cats for walks, so it will mainly be dog owners who get the benefits of physical exercise and sociable exchanges with other owners.  Dogs are much easier to train than cats are, and are much more tolerant of other members of their own species: both these differences stem from the two animals’ contrasting origins, and both are clues as to how they perceive their relationship with us.

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The domestic cat is essentially a rather solitary and territorial animal, and one that is still not completely domesticated, despite appearances to the contrary.  Descended from the North African/Middle Eastern wildcat Felis lybica, it probably began a loose association with mankind some 10,000 years ago, but domestication in the sense of turning into a pet does not seem to have begun until about 2,000 BC, and has not proceeded entirely smoothly since then.  The status of cats as pets has waxed and waned over the centuries, and it is only very recently, on an evolutionary time-scale, that they have become as popular as dogs.  Apart from the minority of kittens that come with a pedigree, most are the product of matings planned by the cats themselves, not by their owners. This habit takes cats outside the strict definition of a domesticated animal, which requires breeding to be at least predominantly under human control. 

Cat scratching
Alan Peters

Moreover, many cats appear to enjoy hunting, a habit that until recently formed much of their raison d’etre, but now disgusts many of their owners, and enrages lovers of wildlife.  That cats have been unable to shed this habit is probably due to their exacting nutritional requirements, shared with all of the cat family including lions and tigers.  Until these became fully understood some forty years ago, much of the food provided by cat owners would have been nutritionally inadequate, forcing those cats to hunt in order to obtain the nutrients they needed for successful breeding.  Now that a completely balanced diet for cats is available in every supermarket, no cat should need to go out hunting, but insufficient time has passed for this instinct to die out.

Dogs have a much longer and more complete history of domestication.  Moreover, they are descended from a species, the grey wolf, which had already evolved a highly sophisticated social brain that was, evidently, ripe for adaptation to a life with mankind.  By eight thousand years ago, when cats were still making their first tentative steps towards eventual domestication, dogs had already diverged into multiple types, adapted for guarding, hunting and even as status objects. 

Domestication wrought two major changes in their behaviour that were crucial to their adaptation to the domestic environment.  As they turned into dogs, they became much more tolerant of other members of their own species, unlike wolves, which are highly aggressive towards all but the members of their own pack.  They also gained a unique sensitivity towards human body language, gaze and gesture, enabling them to be trained to carry out a multitude of tasks, from herding to guarding to guiding.  Cats, perhaps unfortunately, have not made as much progress on either of these fronts, most still regarding other cats with deep suspicion, and having a much more limited understanding of human behaviour than dogs do.

For most cats, the relationship with their owner is important, but not all-consuming: most cats seem perfectly content to keep their own company for much of the day.  Cats undoubtedly display an attachment to their owners that transcends mere cupboard-love, based as it is on behaviour such as rubbing, purring and licking that are also used to cement bonds between one cat and another.  However, their limited ability to communicate effectively with cats outside their immediate family means that many owners inadvertently place them under significant stress

Cats do not naturally “get along with” each other, but many owners will obtain a second cat in the belief that it will be “company” for their original cat, only to witness their house being acrimoniously divided into two separate territories.  Even a cat that feels relaxed while in its owner’s home may be terrorised by a neighbour’s cat as soon as it emerges through the cat-flap.

For most dogs, the attachment they feel towards their owner is fundamental to their well-being.  Thousands of years of selection for animals that are biddable and easy to train has ensured that while dogs enjoy one another’s company, they crave human attention.  Unfortunately, they do not appear to have evolved the ability to turn this off at will, so the modern habit of leaving companion dogs alone for hours at a time can cause them considerable distress.  Thankfully, it is possible to train dogs to relax while they are on their own, provided they have not already experienced the cycle of anxiety caused by what they experience as repeated abandonments.

Separation distress

Alan Peters

Thus the well-being of both cats and dogs depends critically upon their owners’ perceptions of how they experience that relationship.  For most cats, their owner’s careful and sympathetic management of their interactions with other cats is perhaps more important than the nuances of the relationship they enjoy with their owner.  Dogs, by contrast, feel that relationship with such an intensity that many can only be contented if they are taught how to cope with being left alone.

John Bradshaw, Ph.D., is the foundation director of the Anthrozoology Institute and honorary research fellow at the University of Bristol (UK). more...

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