If you're an accountant, and the balance sheet is what matters most, cats should be man's best friends. According to the 2012 American Veterinary Medical Association's Pet Ownership Demographic Sourcebook, there are 74.1 million pet cats in the U.S. - but only 69.9 million dogs. And it's the same elsewhere. According to the journal Nature, there are 2,037,046,000 pet cats when you add up the number of cats in the top 10 countries with the most pets. According to the same source, there are just 400 million dogs in those same countries.
However, in most cultures, while dogs are beloved, cats are another story, says John Bradshaw, director of anthrozoology at the University of Bristol School of Veterinary Sciences in the United Kingdom. By phone, he notes: "One person in 20 not only doesn't care for cats, but feels about them as they might about hairy spiders or venomous snakes."
Bradshaw, author of "Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet" (Basic Books, New York, NY, 2013, $27.99), says the problem is that cats remain misunderstood and mysterious. And we don't like all that mystery.
"I'm not sure we really understand cats more today than we did when they were first domesticated," Bradshaw notes.
Where we now know that dogs actually co-evolved with people, cats "self-domesticated" on their own terms.
"By all accounts, and based on DNA evidence, we really had little to do with domesticating cats," Bradshaw says. "Cats had everything to do with domesticating cats. Catching food was pretty easy if they hung around people and our food stores, where there were rats and mice."
Bradshaw says another part of the problem is that dogs are like people in so many ways, where cats are different.
"We've bred dogs to be very affectionate toward us and (they) are born wanting and needing to have a tremendous attachment to us," he says. "With cats, many (around the world) are still encouraged to hunt. No matter, cats aren't born with that predisposition to need humans quite the same way as dogs."
Cats aren't born itching to please us, either, Bradshaw points out.
"Dogs wake up in the morning with a wagging tail, happy as can be to be awake, alive and ready to do whatever they can to please us. Cats are more cynical in general. They're not solitary, as we once thought; we now know cats are quite social, and have long-term attachments that persist for their entire lives. But their goal isn't as much to please us as it is to please themselves," he comments.
So, is that the difference: Dogs are selfless and cats are selfish? Risking riling cat owners, Bradshaw laughs and then answers in the affirmative. He adds, "Dogs attend to us all the time. Dogs can't be easily trained to be independent. Dogs taking responsibility isn't so easy; they choose to focus on the person and not the task. Cats are greater innovators."
So does that mean that despite the fact that cats worry about "me first," they're actually more intelligent? Bradshaw isn't tackling that one, pointing out that intelligence is difficult to define. He does agree that cats probably know far more than even their families think they do.
"They observe and take in an awful lot," he says.
Still, with all of our knowledge, cats continue to be a puzzle.
"We certainly are curious about cats," Bradshaw says. "Look at the phenomenon they've become on the Internet."
Yet another issue is the fact that "we can look at a dog and know if the dog is happy or sad, or at least take a good guess at what that dog is feeling. Cats have rather expressionless faces, so it's not nearly as easy to ascribe emotions to them," Bradshaw notes. "We don't always know where their heads are at."
(Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can't answer all of them individually, he'll answer those of general interest in his column Send e-mail to PETWORLD(at)STEVE DALE.TV. Include your name, city and state. Steve's website is http://www.stevedalepetworld.com; he also hosts the nationally syndicated "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute." He's also a contributing editor to USA Weekend.)
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