Random Ephemera

Dogs or Cats? Which Are Better Pets?

Pet owners tend to be passionate about the animals they share their homes and lives with, and that's natural. Our pets become part of our families over time. When it comes to dogs and cats, many pet owners develop strong opinions about which make better companions, and also about why one is "better" than the other. Some people's opinions on the matter are so extreme that the debates between "dog people" and "cat people" can get ugly and mean spirited at times. Some who self-identify as "cat people" will argue that dogs are dirty, needy creatures that aren't as smart as cats. Some "dog people" seem to feel cats are indifferent and unfriendly, and not as engaging as their canine companions. Both sides of this debate occasionally project these tendencies onto the humans they're arguing with, promoting the idea that people who prefer dogs are dumber than people who prefer cats, for instance. On the other side, we have a mean societal stereotype about an unmarried woman beyond a certain age being a "crazy cat lady."  I feel that the type of person who really hates either cats or dogs, and who believes his choice is superior, is proving more about his own screwed up personality than pointing to any hard evidence about the nature of these animals. But what do researchers say about this stuff?

One of the most common debates among cat and dog owners is which species is more intelligent. I've witnessed plenty of cat owners arguing that cats are smarter than dogs, pointing to their relative independence as evidence. To them, dependency points to canines being somehow less able to care for themselves, and thus showing less intelligence. Dog owners will often argue that dogs can be trained to do certain tasks more than most cats, and that those abilities take a higher degree of intelligence. So which is true?

Recent studies have found that dogs are about as intelligent as a two- to two-and-a-half-year-old human child, which is significant. According to dog behavioral research, average dogs can count, reason and recognize words as well as a toddler, and this may be the key to why they've been used so often as service animals. It's also true that dogs have larger brains than cats, and while larger brain size doesn't always indicate higher intelligence, it tends to among mammals. Research also indicates that in the years since dogs were initially domesticated, their brains have continued to grow, while cats' brains have remained nearly unchanged. Dogs interact socially in ways that are thought to be more complex than with cats, and that's the theory explaining the reason their brains are still growing.

Other researchers believe that cats are as smart as dogs, but their intelligence is demonstrated differently as a result of dissimilar evolutionary paths. It all comes down to dogs being pack animals and cats being able to fend better as solitary creatures. Some researchers feel that independence along with the natural feline cautiousness and curiosity shows a high level of intelligence.

When it comes down to it, though, for most pet owners, whether dogs or cats are smarter is a moot point. After all, not many of us choose our companion animals so they can discuss current events with us or master the game of chess. We get them because we feel a certain affinity for them. That brings us to another part of the puzzle. Strong preferences for either dogs or cats indicate a lot about a person's personality and lifestyle.

If you get into any heated debate over cat or dog superiority, it becomes quickly obvious that people who strongly prefer one to the other often share certain personality traits with that species of pet. Wild dogs hunt in packs, mostly before dusk, and their domesticated counterparts have carried that over to their interactions with humans. Dogs retain that need for social interaction, and depend on humans for it. It's hardwired into their very nature, but some folks who aren't fans of dogs point to it as a critical weakness that makes them inferior to cats. Some dog owners who dislike cats point to feline independence and aloofness as a sign that cats lack affection and are less fulfilling pets.

Both of these points of view are rooted in the personality traits of the pet owner more than in any objective superiority of either species. Several recent studies on people who strongly prefer dogs or cats seem to indicate there are several traits many of them share. In one study, people who self-identified as "dog people" were significantly likely to be more sociable than cat owners, which seems to confirm some widely held preconceptions about pet owners sharing personality traits with the animals they choose to live with. Dog owners were also more likely than cat owners to prefer planned tasks and activities over spontaneous behavior, and were more likely to have more traditionally conventional interests, whereas cat owners tended to indicate more of an openness to unusual ideas and artistic expression.

In another study, cat owners were much more likely to live alone and rent an apartment than dog owners, who were twice as likely to own a home and be married with families. Single women were the most likely to own only cats, which may be partially responsible for the unfair and unkind "cat lady" stereotype. The study also indicated that people who chose to own only cats tend to be more introverted and reserved than people who only owned dogs, and are also more likely to have passive rather than assertive personalities.

This information makes it clear why some people have strong preferences for either cats or dogs, and it's not because of some intrinsic flaw with either species of animal. People tend to want pets that complement their own personality traits and lifestyles, and for an introverted person who lives in an apartment, and tends to enjoy spontaneously occurring activities, a cat makes a lot more sense than a rowdy dog who needs more attention. On the other hand, a person who is outgoing, and whose lifestyle is typically more structured, might prefer the friendly attention and closer interaction that a dog has to offer.

When it comes down to it, the pets we choose say a lot about who we are as people, so most arguments about the superiority of cats or dogs over the other are really just a crappy way some people try to criticize folks who have different lives than them. Any person who hates one of the two main species of domesticated animals that humans keep for companionship probably has a few serious issues he or she should work out. It's important to remember that both dogs and cats have spent thousands of years living alongside us, and have benefited humankind in countless ways. Arguing over which is better or worse seems immature and beside the point. We should enjoy the time we get to share with our furry companions, and try not to judge the pets or choices other people make.  
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Chris Lane is a contributing writer who enjoys covering art, music, pop culture, and social issues.