Why Your Dog Cares and Your Cat Doesn't

An evolutionary perspective on differences between cats and dogs

Posted Feb 11, 2019

So here's a typical kind of interaction you might have with your dog:

You get home after a long day, only to find that Buster has gotten into the recycling again. For some reason, he loves to, occasionally, get into the recycling bin and wreak havoc. Plastic bits are found all over your kitchen and shreds of paper will be found throughout the downstairs floor of your house for the next few weeks.

Buster!!! What did YOU DO!?!?!

lydia89 / pixabay
Source: lydia89 / pixabay

Buster meekly walks into the room, averting gaze. His tail is between his legs. If ever an animal were expressing guilt, that time is now. He meekly comes up to you. And then nudges up against you, as if saying "I'm sorry, I just couldn't help it. Will you please forgive me? Your are the greatest human in the history of the world!" So of course you forgive Buster and spend 5 minutes cleaning up the mess. You politely ask him to not do it again in the future.

Compare that scenario with this one that you might have with your cat:

You get home after a long day, only to find that Trixie has knocked over three houseplants—for the third time this week! You're not amused. This will be a solid 10-minute cleanup job, and you really just want to sit on the couch and do nothing right now.

Trixie. Trixie!? Trixie, where are you!? I know what you did!!!

Glenn Geher
Source: Glenn Geher

No sign of Trixie anywhere. You shrug. You get out the vacuum and cleaning supplies, getting to work. The whole time you are wondering if you should give away your houseplants at this point. Conveniently, the second that you are done cleaning, you catch a little moving ball of orange fur in the corner of your eye. Yup, it's Trixie. She is looking at you and is sitting near her food bowl. She starts to vocalize, implying one thing: Feed me now.

No apology. No guilt. No promises about changed behavior into the future. No "I've seen the error of my ways." Nope. Her communication to you at this moment is constrained to her desire for food. If you want an apology, Trixie might suggest that you go find Buster the dog.

At this moment, an insight into Trixie's nature solidifies for you: Trixie is a total psychopath, and there is nothing you can do about it.

The Timeline of Dog and Cat Domestication

An evolutionary perspective has the capacity to shed light on pretty much any feature of life. In fact, once we take an evolutionary perspective on differences between dogs and cats, we can begin to understand their social behavioral differences.

Both dogs and cats were domesticated by our hominid ancestors for practical reasons. Dogs are super-vigilant and they are great at scaring off predators. Our ancestors who took in proto-dogs about 40,000 years ago in parts of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, benefited because they had a great alarm system and highly effective protection (see Skoglund et al., 2015; Mikolsi, 2018). And dogs can be trained to help with hunting and all kinds of other activities that our pre-agrarian ancestors relied upon for survival.

As demonstrated in Dugatkin and Trut's (2017) award-winning book on the taming of the Siberian foxes, the ancestors of domesticated mammals, such as dogs and cats, were likely selected for relatively tame behavior. Over generations of selectively breeding relatively tame proto-dogs, eventually floppy-eared, cute, and cuddly dogs emerged. So now they were good at sounding the alarm, protecting us from predators, and cuddling. Trifecta.

The best research into the history of dog/human co-evolution suggests that dogs go back about 40,000 years, or about 2,000 human generations (see Skoglund, 2015). A lot can happen in that amount of time! In fact, given how quickly selective breeding can shape attributes of organisms (relatively to the slower speed at which natural selection acts), it makes sense that psychological attributes in dogs that kept them socially connected to humans would have had time to evolve in the course of the history of dogs. This is why dogs show unconditional love, express guilt, and can detect human emotions via various channels (such as voice and facial cues).

The history of cat domestication is a bit different. Cats didn't come on the scene in human evolution until after the advent of agriculture. Most natural historians will put the domestication of cats at about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago (see Driscoll et al., 2007). Middle Eastern wildcats who hung around early human agricultural villages were great at keeping mice and other vermin away from crops. This was a pretty handy thing. In fact, cats around the globe still perform this function in agricultural areas.

Glenn Geher
Source: Glenn Geher

As was true with proto-dog selection, proto-cats were partly selected for tameness. Early humans were not interested in getting attacked by aggressive wildcats. Over time, domesticated cats emerged via the selective breeding process. Elite killing machines with whiskers and cute little faces. Purrfect! ...

But now think about this: Domesticated cats have been on the scene for only about 1/4 the amount of time that domesticated dogs have been on the scene. This is much less time to evolve specific attributes that would connect cats with humans in a nuanced, social manner. This is probably why dogs will respond to us pointing and to other human gestures in a way that cats will not. Sure, cats have clearly been domesticated and they have connections with humans, accordingly, but the broad suite of social and emotional connections that are found between dogs and humans is simply not there in the same way when we are thinking about the relationship between cats and humans. This is why Buster cares and Trixie doesn't.

Bottom Line

Both cats and dogs emerged as products of domestication across human evolutionary history. Ancestral dogs and ancestral cats helped early humans solve problems of survival. And for this reason, cats and dogs hold a special place in the hearts of humans across the globe.

Glenn Geher
Source: Glenn Geher

As we know, dogs are more likely to demonstrate social-emotional features such as guilt compared with cats. An evolutionary analysis can shed light on why this is the case. Dogs have been domesticated going back about 2,000 human generations. Cats have only been domesticated for about a quarter of that time. From this perspective, it is no wonder that dogs are more likely than are cats to show all kinds of strong social and emotional connections with humans.

So if you have ever wondered if your cat is a psychopath, the answer may well be yes—but a cute, benevolent psychopath who has little malice. 

(In full disclosure, even though I currently live in a two-dog household, I consider myself a cat person. This post is dedicated to my favorite cat ever: Peanut. He was definitely not a psychopath! His memorial is here.)

References

Driscoll, C. A., et al., (2007). The Near Eastern Origin of Cat Domestication. Science, 27, 519-523.

Dugatkin, L., & Trut, L. (2017). How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mikolsi, A. (2018). The Dog: A natural history. Princeton. Princeton University Press.

Skoglund, P.; Ersmark, E.; Palkopoulou, E.; Dalén, L. (2015). "Ancient Wolf Genome Reveals an Early Divergence of Domestic Dog Ancestors and Admixture into High-Latitude Breeds". Current Biology.