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Do People Love Their Dogs or Cats More?

People care more about dogs than cats—if the dogs don't act like cats.

Alice and Martin Provensen/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0
Source: Alice and Martin Provensen/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

One of the easiest ways to start a heated debate is to raise the issue of whether dogs or cats are better and more satisfactory pets. There actually is some scientific data that has been collected on this issue, and it suggests that, although both dogs and cats provide joy and companionship to their humans, dogs are more emotionally satisfying, and dogs are also more universally preferred.

Confirmation that dogs are valued more than cats shows up in a variety of different statistics. For example, among American pet owners, dogs are taken to the vet twice as frequently as cats (even though there is no medical justification for this difference). Furthermore, the emotional investment that we have in dogs shows up in the fact that dog owners are more likely than cat owners to follow their veterinarian's medical care recommendations, and dogs are more likely to receive preventative care, such as vaccinations, regular physical examinations, and dental treatment. It is also the case that dogs are more likely than cats to be given premium and organic food, and also are more frequently given special treats and gifts.

Although the data showing that our emotional attachment to our pet dogs is greater than that of our pet cats is clear, up to now there has been little scientific data to answer the question as to why dogs are more valued. However, a recent set of studies by Colleen Kirk, at the New York Institute of Technology in New York City, provides an attempt to shed some light on this question. The theory that she offers is an extension of a concept that has become popular in marketing, management, and occupational psychology and it is based on the idea of "psychological ownership."

To put it simply, psychological ownership refers to a feeling that "It's mine!" A number of studies have suggested that psychological ownership is strongly associated with emotional attachment. In other words, we care more about the things that we feel belong to us. We can develop psychological ownership through three different routes. Feelings of ownership are generated when we have control over something, or when we have invested ourselves in something, or if we have come to know that thing very well.

So what does this have to say about our feelings toward dogs and cats? Here it appears that the greatest influence comes from that first pathway leading to a sense of psychological ownership—namely the idea of control. It is universally accepted that dogs are more controllable than cats. That's why, when someone finds that it is difficult to control the behavior of people, they are apt to complain, "It's like trying to herd cats!"

Our belief about the differences in the ability of humans to control the behavior of cats and dogs has resulted in many popular sayings, such as: “Dogs come when they're called; cats take a message and get back to you later”; or "You can keep a dog, but cats keep people because they think humans are useful domestic animals"; or "A dog is a man’s best friend. A cat is a cat’s best friend." All such observations suggest that dogs are more controllable and are more attentive to humans.

Kirk suspected that these behavioral differences might affect our feelings toward cats and dogs. To study this, she conducted three different experiments. In the first, she simply wanted to verify that dogs were more valued than cats, and to see whether this had any association with psychological ownership. Psychological ownership was determined by questions where the participant had to express an opinion on the truthfulness of statements like: "My pet lets me be in control," or "I feel like this is 'my' pet." There were also questions about how affectionate, friendly, or loving the participant's cat or dog is. The value put on the cat or dog was measured by how much each participant was willing to spend on veterinary care if their pet required a life-saving operation.

The results of this first study were quite clear. People felt a higher degree of psychological ownership for their dogs than their cats. People were also willing to spend twice as much for life-saving medical care for their dog than for their cat (the average was $10,689 for dogs versus $5,174 for cats).

The second study again looked at the concept of control, but also added a second factor, namely the personal investment which we have in our pets. Kirk reasoned that "it is likely that even if an individual is able to control the behavior of a pet, if they attribute the pet's behavior to the efforts of someone else who trained the pet, rather than to the pet's own volitional response, their psychological ownership of the pet may be dampened." So she basically replicated the procedures used in the first study, but instructed half of the participants, “Now, for the rest of the survey, imagine that your pet had originally lived with someone else. Imagine that the pet's behavior as you know it is entirely the result of any training that someone else did before you got the pet.” She also added two additional measures of the value people put on their pet: One was how much the person might pay for a personalized food bowl, and the second dealt with spending money to purchase a painting of the pet.

Here the results again were clear. If participants felt that the control that they had over their pet's behavior was due to someone else's training, they seemed to have weaker feelings of psychological ownership, and their emotional attachment to their pet was diminished. Under those circumstances, they were also less willing to spend money on their pet's well-being or on items related to their pet. (An interesting implication of this study is that it suggests that one way to build a stronger bond between a dog and its owner might be to take it to obedience class.)

In the final study, participants were asked to describe their feelings towards their pet by rating how accurate certain words were in portraying their animal's behavior. The words tested included: “loving,” “connected,” “bonded,” and “attached.­" In addition, they were asked to respond to the question: “Is the behavior of the pet you are imagining more like that of a typical dog, or that of a typical cat?” Once again, the willingness to spend money on veterinary care or on items connected to their pet served as the measure of attachment.

The fascinating thing about this last experiment is that it found that dogs who behaved like cats were less valued and that cats who behaved more like dogs were perceived as more psychologically owned and brought out more of an emotional attachment. This was again reflected by how much the participants were willing to spend on their pet's health and other matters.

According to this set of studies, the reason that we value dogs over cats has to do primarily with the amount of control that we have over our pets, which, in turn, influences our sense of psychological ownership. The ideas that "Dogs have owners, cats have staff" or "You own a dog; you feed a cat" clearly indicate that we feel that dogs belong to us, while cats have a more distant and apathetic relationship to us. Because dogs respond to us and usually comply with our demands, we have a stronger emotional bond with them and feel that they are deserving of more care, love, and friendship. The relatively aloof, antisocial, and uncooperative nature of the cat lowers its value in comparison to dogs. As the writer Aldous Huxley said, "To his dog, every man is Napoleon; hence the constant popularity of dogs."

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Colleen P. Kirk (2019). Dogs have Masters, cats have staff: Consumers' psychological ownership and their economic valuation of pets. Journal of Business Research, 99, 306-318.