Cats vs. Dogs: Let's Call a Truce

Cats are mysterious -- or so we like to believe -- but does that mean they're not domesticated?

It's fun to think of cats as Egyptian idols, or wild things at heart, or "aloof" -- that's the usual word. Keepers of secret thoughts. But sometimes it interferes with appreciating them for what they are: animals attuned to human company over thousands of years who have earned a spot by the fireplace next to the family dog.

Why mention dogs? Because that's the customary, tired comparison. In truth it's easy to love both, as lots of us do -- at the same time, and for the same reasons.

The cats I know are glad to see their people at the end of the day, and usually say so. They follow us around the house and want to hang out. They try to get us to play with them. They miss us when we're gone. They pile onto the bed at night, and if you move to the couch to get some stretch room, the cats come along too. Dogs don't have a monopoly over those appealing traits.

On the other hand, dogs and cats are not the same animal, and that's good. Variety and balance enrich our lives. The beauty of living with companion animals is how they help us understand ourselves better and expand our understanding of others.

A recent news story offered a catchy message -- cats are only partly domesticated -- and a subtext: dogs are the gold standard of domesticity. You'd think that 9,500 years of hanging around humans would be long enough for cats to claim the D-word, but no. The writer invoked both fossils and hunting behavior to assert, once again, that "dogs want to be 'man's best friend;' cats, not so much."

Domestic cats are not just wildcats that tolerate humans in exchange for regular meals. They have smaller skulls in relation to their bodies compared with wildcats, and are known to congregate in colonies. But in comparison with dogs, cats have a narrower range of variation in size and form.

For starters, every land mammal has a narrower range of variation and form than dogs! Dogs are the most phenotypically varied land mammal there is. Just look around the patio of your Saturday morning coffee shop. Those dogs have been nipped and tucked and bred in dozens of different directions (180, by AKC count) because the dog genome is so easy to shape . But that doesn't mean less-malleable animals like cats are somehow less domesticated.

Cats too have been genetically modified for centuries to suit human whims. Although many could survive on their own if they had to, others (hairless and longhaired breeds, for instance) are as dependent on people as any teacup terrier.

The "cats aren't fully domesticated" argument also leans heavily on the fact that domestic cats (not all of them ) can be excellent hunters, like their wild ancestors. But that's a red herring too: domestication isn't defined as lack of hunting skill.

Domestication doesn't displace instinct; it shapes instinct, appearance, and other qualities to what humans want.

People who consider cats aloof might have a change of heart after learning more about cat behavior (here's a good guide). While a dog may greet you with barking, jumping, tail-wagging, or licking, a cat may say the same thing by slowly blinking her eyes, gently bumping your chin, shaping her tail into a question mark, or, of course, purring. Subtle, maybe, but are all your friends noisy extroverts? I'm sure you treasure the quiet ones too. Again, cats and dogs help remind us how living things complement each other.

Instead of sizing up cats against dogs, let's focus on appreciating and celebrating their differences just as we appreciate the differences among our friends. And let's not forget about the immense variety of personalities we find within both species; I'm sure you've met outgoing, social cats as well as dogs who are aloof wallflowers. The different behavioral expressions that result from phenotype (body type) like how cats pounce and gracefully leap, should be celebrated as much or more so than their athleticism and physical prowess.

I'd encourage you to ask yourself: Is it more helpful to compare a cat's behavior to what you'd expect from a dog, or to understand and value both felines and canines as the wonderful -- and different -- animals that they are?