Let’s be honest, there’s a reason dogs are called man’s best friend. Friendly, affectionate, and always eager to give you a warm welcome with a wet nose and a wagging tail, there’s no doubting their intentions, or their affections. Cats, on the other hand, are a different kettle of fish altogether. Aloof, disdainful, and as likely to greet us with bared teeth and a twitching tail as they are to not greet us at all, their reputation could use a serious makeover.
Dog lovers take this as a clear sign that in that old age battle of cats versus dogs, dogs are the victors. After all, who wouldn’t rather a pet that actually returns our love rather than simply sees us a convenient feeding vessel? Cat owners, on the other hand, are quick to disagree, arguing stridently against the mere notion that dogs are capable of forming stronger bonds with their owners than their feline equivalents. So, what’s the truth? Are cats the unfriendly, self-sufficient little menaces of legend, or have we been wrong about them all this time? And if we have been wrong, why is their less than friendly image quite so persistent in our minds?
To trace where their current image comes from, we need to look far, far back into the realms of history. While dogs were domesticated fairly quickly, going from wild wolves one day to friendly little helpers the next, cats took a lot longer to turn their back on their wild ways and learn to live in harmony with the human caregivers…. and unlike dogs, there was only one party in control of the process, and it certainly wasn’t a human.
When the first domesticated cats started popping up in the Neolithic villages in the Middle East around 10000 years ago, they were treated in very different ways to the companion dogs already on the scene. While dogs rarely left their owner’s sides, cats were kept at a distance; there were no evenings in front of the fireside for them, nor heaped bowls of choicest meat at the end of a hard day’s graft. Instead, they were seen as a useful way of keeping marauding vermin away from crops- and little else. They lived outside and hunted their own food. Their interactions with humans were passing, with no real vested interest on their side to develop the relationship further- after all, why put the effort into nurturing a relationship if you still had to bring home your own dinner? “Dogs and humans are very similar and have lived together for a long time. In a way, it has been co-evolution. With cats, it is way more recent. They come from a solitary ancestor that isn’t a social species,” Karen Hiestand, an animal expert and trustee of International Cat Care says.
10000 years later, and while they may now have been made welcome into our homes, and have a much more co-dependent relationship, those same old territorial instincts still lurk beneath their fluffy exteriors. Turn a dog loose and it’s hit or miss how they make it on their own. Turn a cat loose and it won’t be long before they start hunting down the neighborhood squirrels and adapting to their new surrounds. While we think we may have tamed cats, they’re still wild at heart. They’re also essentially solitary little creatures. Their direct ancestor, the African wildcat, wasn’t exactly known for its extrovert ways, preferring to keep itself to itself (apart from on the few occasions it would put on its best side in the hope of attracting a mate). “Cats are the only asocial animal that’s been domesticated,” Hiestand notes. “Every other animal we’ve domesticated has a social bond with other members of its species.”
For years, research into animal behavior has centered on dogs. If cats have no real bond, or capability of forming a bond, with their owner, then why investigate it? As it turns out, we may have had it wrong all this time. Recent studies have proved that far from being incapable of forming an emotional connection with their caregivers, cats can, and do, form deep bonds… it’s just those bonds display themselves in a much more complex, and very different way, to dogs. So, could it be that we’ve got cats wrong all this time? Have we been comparing the characters of a dog to a cat, and found them lacking for no fault of their own?
While some cats may like to keep themselves at a distance, the spectrum of personalities is huge; for every cat that’s aloof, there another that likes nothing more than spending time with us. The real problem could just be that we’re not quite so attuned at picking up on the prompts and signals of their affection as we are with dogs. Like dogs, cats use their bodies to signal emotion: unlike dogs, where a doe-eyed expression and a wagging tail are hard to misinterpret, a cat’s body language is an although more subtle affair. For example, while we used to think a cat rubbing against our leg was simply them marking their territory (in much the same way they would against a tree), it’s now thought they do it as a way of transferring their scent onto you, and yours onto them, creating a common “shared’ scent in the process. Can’t get much more bonded than that….
Could it be that cats are showing us affection, but we’re just too blind to see? It could well be: as The Independent reports, a recent study found that 64.3 percent of studied cats showed signs of a strong, secure attachment to their owners… a pretty convincing statistic, we think you’d agree. So, could it be time for us to cast aside our age-old assumptions of a cat’s cussedness? It seems so. Perhaps we need to stop comparing our cats to our dogs, and simply start appreciating each for their own unique qualities. We aren’t saying a hissing cat is necessary pleased to see you, but one that simply eyes you up from the sofa before casually yawning in your face may well be.