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The perennial debate over cats and dogs

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The argument about dogs versus cats is not a new one: which are smarter, which make better pets. Many people describe themselves as a “dog person” or a “cat person” even if they have both as pets. In late 2017, the results of a study of animal neurons brought at end to at least part of the argument, declaring dogs more intelligent than cats.

Neurons are a special type of nerve cell found in the brain that transmit messages and process information, and a greater number of neurons is associated with greater intelligence. An international team of researchers at Vanderbilt University counted neurons in the cerebral cortex in eight main carnivorous species: dog, cat, ferret, mongoose, raccoon, hyena, lion, and brown bear. They found a golden retriever had much more cognitive capacity than a hyena, lion, or brown bear, and a brown bear has about the same number of neurons as a cat. The raccoon’s brain was a surprise, more closely resembling a primate’s brain. The dog had 500 million neurons, double the 250 million found in the cat’s brain, so you could hear the dog people cheering around the world, “We knew dogs were smarter!” By comparison, humans have as many as 16 billion neurons per person, orangutans and gorillas have about eight to nine billion neurons, chimpanzees have about six to seven billion, and elephants have 5.6 billion.

However, the debate about cats versus dogs goes beyond mere neurons. There is real vitriol flung about, which has always puzzled me, and it would seem the cat haters have the edge on flinging. There’s even a word for people who hate or fear cats: an ailurophobe. I tried without success to find a word for people who hate dogs.

Cat bashing contributes quite a bit to the feline literature out there as does the bashing of cat owners. For some indecipherable reason, a former friend gifted me with “The Official I Hate Cats Book,” which offers page after page of cartoon fantasies about teasing, torturing or eliminating cats…e.g., propelling them by slingshot into a shark-infested pool. It only goes to show there are some very angry people out there. Or fearful. Or both.

Historically, cats have been worshipped as demigods by the ancient Egyptians or hated in medieval Europe when they were thought to be aligned with the devil and mistakenly blamed for carrying the plague across the continent. Ironically, killing so many cats who killed the rats carrying the plague may have helped spread the plague. Currently, they are maligned as killers of huge numbers of small mammals and birds every year, but John Bradshaw, internationally recognized cat and dog researcher, contends that in all likelihood, your house cat is probably a clumsy and inefficient hunter unless it was born feral or on a farm. Cats born in the wild are taught to hunt by their mothers in their first two months of life, and house cats usually miss this instruction. Any successful hunting is probably due more to luck than skill.

In his 1922 cultural history of the domestic cat, “The Tiger in the House,” Carl Van Vechten notes, “One is permitted to assume an attitude of placid indifference in the matter of elephants, cockatoos and…roast beef, but in the matter of cats it seems necessary to take a firm stand. Those who hate the cat hate him with a malignity which, I think, only snakes in the animal kingdom provoke to an equal degree.”

A more recent attack by Joseph Stromberg claims that cats are selfish and unfeeling, not really showing affection when they rub up against owners or other cats, but merely marking territory. Bradshaw disputes this, saying it is definitely social behavior when cats cuddle up and purr with each other or with humans; that to say it’s not more social than a wild cat rubbing its face on tree bark is like saying that when humans shake hands, they’re mostly checking for secret weapons. (Although, the origin of handshaking is said to date back to the 5th century B.C. in Greece when it was considered a sign of peace, showing the hand had no weapons.)

I think a large part of the distrust of cats is because they can be unpredictable. A study at the University of London showed that while a dog will look to humans for clues in an unfamiliar situation, cats are more likely to explore the space on their own. One researcher said that their independence doesn’t mean they’re not affectionate but that “cats prefer to deal with things in their own heads.”

Some cats are snippy or even mean, but then, so are some dogs, and either would cause distrust. Years ago I was visiting a friend who had a calico cat named Root Beer that was friendly and welcomed attention until it decided without warning that it had had enough. I always thought I could overcome his cantankerous behavior, but I had the bloody scratches to prove otherwise. One morning I was up early and wanted to make coffee. Root Beer was winding around my feet yowling, wanting breakfast. I found the cans of cat food, but I couldn’t find a can opener anywhere. Root Beer got louder and more frantic, making me fear for my ankles. I was opening cupboards and drawers when she went over to a lower cupboard and pushed on it with her paw; it sprung open to reveal an electric can opener. She certainly put her 250 million neurons to good use. As someone wise said, “Dogs have owners. Cats have staff.”

Women of a certain age come in for lampooning about their penchant for collecting cats. One favorite cartoon on the subject shows a banner over the door reading, “Happy Fortieth Birthday!” Three cats are sitting on the step, saying, “We’re your cats.” I happily fit the stereotype, although cats and dogs have always shared my home.

Another favorite cartoon shows a panel with an owner talking to his dog; the next panel is labeled “What Dogs Hear.” The ballon from the dog’s ear has “Rusty…blah blah blah, Rusty.” Whereas the cat, of course, hears nothing. But then, I once had an Irish Setter who was pretty much the same way. Best dog cartoon of all time by Gary Larson is labeled “When Irish Setters go to work” and shows one standing on his hind legs, saying to his Irish Setter wife, “Well, I’m off to run around in circles and basically act like there’s nothing in my head.”

So, cat lovers may consider dogs the less desirable species, seeing them as codependent droolers, always underfoot, without an original thought in their heads; and dog lovers may regard cats as sneaky, cold and untrainable, but we all love our furry companions and wouldn’t trade them for anything. I unabashedly serve as staff for my four cats, letting them in and out on demand, turning on the water for Tobie, who loves to drink from the faucet; putting a pillow on the desk for Freddie, who always keeps me company in my office when I’m working; and giving them each the ear or tummy rub that they particularly like. They don’t count my neurons and I don’t count theirs.

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