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Reigning cats or dogs? August 1, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, pets, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood love dogs. And we love cats. We also love birds, fish (and other aquarium denizens like shrimp, clams and snails), reptiles and amphibians, chickens, and bunnies. So far, we haven’t succumbed to the allure of insects, spiders, or ferrets. But our friend Rob is a ferret fanatic, and we’re following the career of our friend Susan’s tarantula Quentin with interest.

We both grew up with pets—our friend Ben’s first pet parakeet was purchased before I was even born—and we can’t imagine a life without the rich rewards of sharing our lives with them. Which brings us to wonder about the seemingly age-old debate about the relative merits of cats and dogs, most recently rehashed yet again in yesterday’s Parade magazine article, “Cats vs. Dogs.” Which is smarter? Which lives longer? Which is faster? Which is more popular?

Sheesh. Call us cynics, but we sometimes wonder if this so-called controversy is just made up by journalists desperate for stories. Especially when articles like the one in Parade note that only 62% of Americans have pets, but more than 90% of Americans consider their pet a member of the family. (Maybe the missing 28-plus percent have pretend pets.)

But we digress. We wonder about all this because we can say for a fact that every pet is rewarding in its own way, whether it’s a beautiful neon tetra, a cat that’s happiest purring on your lap, a dog whose tail can’t stop wagging when she sees you, a guinea pig who squeals happily when it hears you opening a lettuce wrapper, or a parrot whose funny comments make you laugh after a long, bad workday. Why must we be asked to choose one or another when we can have them all?!

Anyway, returning to the questions raised by the article, let’s dish up a few answers:

What pet is smartest? Setting aside folks who keep great apes as pets (what are they thinking?!), the smartest pet is unquestionably a parrot. The two brightest parrot species, the yellow-naped Amazon (our own renowned Plutarch the Pirate Parrot is a yellow-nape) and African grey (the world’s most famous parrot, Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s Alex, was an African grey), are now acknowledged by animal behaviorists to have the intelligence of a five-year-old child. In our opinion, many humans don’t have the intelligence of a five-year-old child, so this is saying something. (Groucho Marx: “Why, a two-year-old child could understand this! Get me a two-year-old child, I can’t make heads or tails of it.”)

According to the Parade article, the brightest dogs have the intelligence of two-year-old children; even an average dog can learn 165 human words. Presumably the five smartest breeds, which include our own beloved German shepherds and golden retrievers, know plenty more; don’t think for a minute they don’t know what you mean when you spell w-a-l-k, t-r-e-a-t, or c-a-r. (Or, of course, v-e-t.) Cats, by contrast, only recognize around 35 words, according to the article. But at least it acknowledges that the brightest cat breed is our own favorite, the Maine coon. To put this in perspective, Koko, the famous San Francisco Zoo gorilla, understands 2,000 human words; the average person, 60,000 words; our friend Ben, 600,000 words (just kidding about the last part).

Which lives longest? If it’s a dog-cat contest, the answer would definitely be cats. We’ve had a friend whose cat lived to be 30, and one of our Maine coons, Jessie, lived to 19. Small dogs can also live fairly long lives, making it into their late teens regularly or early 20s if they’re lucky, though the larger the breed, the shorter the life; great Danes, for example, tend to live only 8 years, and the max for our own preferred breeds, German shepherds and golden retrievers, is around 13, exceptionally 14 (sob). Given the much-longer lives of larger species like ourselves, elephants, whales, and horses, this makes no sense to us, but sadly, it’s a fact. However, the award in this category as in the intelligence category goes to parrots: A parrot like our Plutarch can live more than 100 years. (Plu is currently a comparatively youthful 27.)

Which is the best hunter? Solo, it’s a cat. Dogs hunt in packs like wolves, and are superb pack-hunters, but pet dogs don’t have a lot of opportunity to practice this skill. However, if you could see our cats Linus and Layla catch a mouse, assisted by our black German shepherd Shiloh, you might have to conclude that cats really can hunt in packs very effectively, and are willing to allow their dog “siblings” to join them, and all these authoritative answers are nonsense. Our old cat Jessie preferred to hunt in tandem with Silence Dogood as her hunting partner; Jessie would catch a mouse but not harm it, yowl to announce the catch, and then wait patiently by the front door, mouse in mouth, for Silence to don a fireplace glove, grab the mouse, and hurl it—outraged but unharmed—out the door.

Which is most useful? That depends. When humans evolved from hunter-gatherers to farmers and agriculture made civilization possible, supporting great civilizations from Mesopotamia to Ancient Egypt, cats were by far more useful. Cats ate the rats and mice that would otherwise have eaten the stores of grain that supported the cities. That’s why cats were worshiped as deities by the Egyptians.

In mediaeval Europe, cats ate the rats that brought fleas and plague, and should have received an even more heroic welcome. Unfortunately, they became associated with Satan-worship and witches and were systematically exterminated, resulting in the plagues and famines that swept Europe repeatedly during that period. Depriving lonely old women of their pets and martyring both for merely existing merits Divine retribution in our opinion!

Today, of course, dogs are more useful, whether they’re therapy dogs in assisted-living facilities or hosipitals, drug- or bomb-sniffers, trackers, hunting dogs, companions for the blind or wheelchair-bound, police dogs, library dogs, sentries, or a thousand other occupations. Our friend Ben feels confident leaving Silence Dogood in our German shepherd Shiloh’s protection, knowing that Shiloh normally loves everyone, but wouldn’t hesitate to defend Silence with her life if she detected a threat. (And I know Silence would do the same if she felt Shiloh were threatened, as I would defend them both with my own life.)

But that’s not to say cats are useless nowadays. Ours patrol the house for mice and insect invaders, and make sure these vile enemies are dealt with swiftly and decisively. They’re also quick to alert us to perceived dangers, whether it’s an oncoming storm or a stranger at the door. And there’s nothing like a cat on the lap to warm you on a cold day!

Which is most affectionate? Dogs have a reputation for slavish devotion and cats for aloofness. But our observation is that this is a bunch of hooey. All our dogs have loved us, and so have all our cats. They’ve all crowded around us for love and attention, praise and petting. We’ve never had an aloof cat, but then, we’ve never expected to have one.

We’ve engaged with all our pets and expected them to engage with us, and they never disappoint. And this has been as true of the most wary feral cat who found its way to our deck as it is of the cats and dogs we raised from infancy; it certainly takes them longer to trust, but what a great feeling the first time one of them makes the decision, rushes over, and shoves its head under your hand with a loud purr! Even our fish rush over when they see us. (Not that we think they’re being affectionate, we just think they enjoy looking out of their aquariums as much as we enjoy looking in.)

We think animals respond as we expect them to respond. If you treat a dog as a “dumb animal,” chained outside to its house without human contact, or assume cats have no interest in interacting with people so you ignore them, you’ll get what you expect. But the poor cats and dogs, who would love to lead a full life as part of the family, certainly won’t get what they deserve. And if that’s the way you treat animals, how exactly do you relate to people, people such as, say, your kids and spouse?!! Oh, yes, we’re sure that ultimately you’ll get what you deserve. In fact, you’re already getting it every minute, aren’t you? Otherwise, how could you act like that towards anything or anyone?!!!

But again, we’re straying from the point. Which is that, for us, it’s not a question of cats or dogs. It’s the joy of cats and dogs, and parakeets and parrots and every other creature that can increase our joy and expand our world. Every pet we’ve ever had the privilege of knowing has enriched our lives and taught us so much about the nature and value of life and relationship. Every pet has shown us the meaning of, the value of, love and trust. Absolute love, and utter, absolute, ultimate trust.

No wonder people risk their lives to save their pets. They know, without question, that their pets would do the same, and more, for them if they could, and never think twice. Not because they’re stupid and incapable of thought, but because of their boundless love and trust. May we find the strength to love them and merit their love, and in the end, may God find us worthy of them.



1. eddie s - September 6, 2011

i suspect the “90% consider their pets to be part of the family” to be flawed drastically, on the grounds that said interviewed peole are trying hard not to “look insensitive”. MILLIONS, and I do mean millions, of cats and dogs turn up at shelters every year simply because said families/people “coudnt have a pet in the place they were moving”, so instead of opt for a home in a les ritzy neighborhood they choose to get rid of the “cherished part of the family”.
Im not judging their logic, Im just saying I think this percentage is very flawed. Truly, Id wager it to be more like 50%.

Hi Eddie! Goodness knows, you’ve pushed one of our hot buttons here. Every time I hear that a pet has been abandoned because the owner’s new apartment/condo/etc. “won’t allow pets,” I want to find that person and, ahem, have a little chat with them. It’s like people who say they turn to prostitution, drug selling, robbery, etc., because they “have to have a way to support themselves.” Well, of course they do. But I’m sure McDonald’s, Wal*Mart, and bazillion other places that require no education or training would be happy to take them. There is ALWAYS a choice. The people who view pets as disposables, to be tossed the moment they cause any inconvenience, are doubtless the same ones who toss Granny or Dad into the nursing home and never give it a second thought, unless it’s to worry that the expense might put a dent in their inheritance. My only consolation is that they, too, will be judged at the Weighing Out, and possibly well before, when their own families or relatives dispose of them when they become an inconvenience.

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