Cats are our best friends really, study finds

Showdown: In 2015 there were 8.5m pet dogs and 7.4m pet cats in the UK, according to the RSPCA.

Many of us love cats, but they rarely seem to love us back. Now researchers say they are keener on humans than we thought. Time to settle an age-old rivalry with our other favourite pet…

“The wildest of all the wild animals was the cat,” wrote Rudyard Kipling in Just So Stories. “He walked by himself, and all places were alike to him.”

A dog is a man’s best friend, but cats are usually seen as aloof. They refuse to go for walkies. We cannot train them to guide blind or deaf people. They cause allergies.

Many scientific papers have said cats are unconcerned by human interaction and difficult to train. But last week a study found that cats enjoy human company — and even prefer it to playing with toys, the smell of other cats or eating.

Academics in the USA placed 50 cats in solitary confinement and then tested which of a series of stimuli they were most interested in afterwards. Half of those which responded to the experiment spent more time with humans than on anything else.

“Although it is often thought cats prefer solitude to social interaction, the data of this study indicate otherwise,” the researchers wrote in a journal on animal behaviour.

Their work uses a very small sample size, and should be taken with a large pinch of salt. But it has re-opened an age-old debate: could cats make better pets than dogs?

Dogs have been human companions for longer than cats. Our bond with dogs is tens of millennia old; some scientists even say we domesticated dogs twice. Cats probably became tame between five and ten thousand years ago; some geneticists still regard the cat as semi-domesticated today.

Our ancestors bred dogs to guard, hunt and herd; now humans train dogs to spot the signs of seizure, find bombs and uncover criminals. We have never given cats the same workload. Scientists also say dog walking keeps us fit and encourages human interaction — and dog owners laugh more often than cat owners.

But cats have historically been better survivors than dogs, mainly because they are more effective hunters. And cats bring benefits too. Research has found that “cat people” are more intelligent than “dog people”. Cats have a smaller carbon footprint than dogs. Cat ownership reduces the risk of suffering a heart attack.

The dog days are over

The evidence is overwhelming, say dog lovers. Dogs are more loyal and less selfish than cats. The average pooch forms a deep and personal bond with its owner, learns how to please us and respond to our needs. And they require greater care than cats — so our relationship with them is more rewarding.

“Never!” cry cat fans. Dogs are obedient to the point of annoyance. Our pets should remind us of the value of affection and attention. And cats are undemanding and independent: they happily while away hours sitting on a windowsill watching the world go by. Perhaps the world would be a better place if more of us were so relaxed.

You Decide

  1. Would you rather be a cat or a dog?
  2. Are cats better pets than dogs?

Activities

  1. Work in pairs. Create two adverts: one encouraging people to get a pet cat, and the other encouraging them to get a dog. What will be the key messages in your advert?
  2. Find out more about the historical relationship between humans and either dogs or cats. Write a one-page explanation of why, as far as we can tell, we keep the animal as a pet.

Some People Say...

“The best pets are those which need looking after the most.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Researchers at Oregon State University and Monmouth University found that cats preferred human interaction to other treats they offered them. The technique they used is considered fairly reliable: it has also been used in similar tests on dogs, elephants, tortoises and giant pandas.
What do we not know?
As with any scientific findings, the researchers’ conclusions are open to further examination.
What do people believe?
The researchers’ sample size was fairly small — 50 cats took part and only 38 of them responded to the experiment. The authors noted that some cats might be friendlier than others. But they found similar results for cats from both homes and shelters. And their work was considered rigorous enough to be published in Behavioural Processes, a reputable journal.

Word Watch

Tested
Academics in the USA took 50 cats from homes and shelters and put them in solitary confinement for two and a half hours. Then they put them in a room with a human, some food, a toy and a scent on a piece of cloth, and measured how long they spent with each object.
Half
Of the 38 cats that responded, 19 spent the most time with the human being; 14 with the food; four preferred the toys; and one liked the scent.
Millennia
Some scientists estimate that dogs have been domesticated for around 32,000 years. But evidence also suggests many dog breeds formed relationships with humans when they separated from wolf packs around 100,000 years ago.
Ago
In 2004 researchers found remains of a human and a cat buried side by side from 9,500 years ago in Cyprus. Scientists believe cats and humans came together after the advent of agriculture, when wildcats helped humans by killing rodents and pests.
Survivors
In 2015 a study of 2,000 ancient fossils found that the cat family was historically better at surviving than the dog clan. The cats usually outcompeted the dogs for scarce food supplies.

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