Cats and dogs are the two most popular choice of pet, to the extent that people say whether they are a cat person or a dog person. It’s similar to that deleted scene in Pulp Fiction where Mia Wallace asks Vincent Vega whether he is an Elvis person or a Beatles person. I think cats would be more Elvis, I can imagine them suiting the pompadour hairstyle and outfits more and being solo performers, while dogs would be more Beatles, I can imagine them suiting the moptop hairstyle more and being in a group playing instruments. That said Elvis had ‘Hound Dog’ which makes an appearance later. Did the Beatles ever have a cat song? Why am I typing this!? Get back on topic!
When I was a kid learning all the opposites, I remember asking my dad if a dog was the opposite of cat. Of course, dogs and cats aren’t opposites in the way that in and out or up and down are. But we do tend to position things as binary and opposites. So we tend to think cats and dogs are everything the other is not, but it’s not quite as simple as that. They are different from each other, but not opposite from one another. It’s like comparing Pavlov’s Dog to Schrödinger’s Cat when they are two very different types of scientific experiment. Sorry, I had to shoehorn a reference to those two things in somewhere!
But this programme had dogs and cats facing off against each other like Top Trumps, scoring on intelligence, agility etc. It was presented by two naturalists who have fronted many recent popular BBC nature programmes. In Team Dog’s corner we had Chris Packham, who has presented Springwatch/Autumnwatch/Winterwatch and Nature’s Weirdest Events. In Team Cat’s corner we had Liz Bonnin, who has presented Animal Odd Couples and Animals In Love.
The programme showed scientific tests to show what dogs and cats are like.
A lot of people see cats as more intelligent because of the “Dogs are dumb” stereotype. But dogs have larger and more complex brains, and they have scored well in scientific tests.
Luna, a husky at the Clever Dog lab in Vienna, was shown being able to recognise the difference between two sets of dots on a screen. She pressed the higher set on the screen with her nose, and was awarded with a treat. If she got it wrong, she got nothing. She did well at it, scoring 9 out of 12. In a more difficult test, she scored 60%. A similar test in the Clever Dog lab in Vienna was taken by a dog named Mikhail who had to press a picture with his nose showing either an upper half or lower half of a face, and having to guess the correct emotion – namely whether the person was angry or happy from their mouth or eye expression, to win a treat. Dogs who took this test were correct 70-80% of the time.
In Lincoln University there was a similar test to the one in Vienna. Pixie, a cat had to pick the larger number to get a treat. She did quite well, getting 4 out of 5. But she got bored with the test, and refused to do any more.
Cats are more independent. The programme showed both dogs and cats being offered two plates. One with lots of food, one with only one piece of food, but with their owner fussing over it. Every single time the dogs went to their owners, while the cats tended to go to their owner at first, but always turned to the plate with more food. Cats go to the option that they see as better for them, dogs go to what their owner’s tell them.
Chris Packham showed his poodles Itchy and Scratchy (so he named his dogs after a cartoon mouse and cat?) filmed when he leaves the house, and they became stressed, whining and howling. They didn’t like being left alone at all. Dogs can be so dependent on their owners that separation can distress them.
In contrast, we had Bob the cat (not to be confused with a bobcat) who was fitted with a camera on his collar, and he had lots of different ‘owners’. He went to different houses, including a college, to be fed and petted. He came and went to different homes as he pleased.
Other test results showed that dogs and cats have different strengths.
Dogs are well known for having a very strong sense of smell, and they do score better than cats. We saw just how good a dogs sense of smell is with Boris the sniffer dog tracking Chris Packham. When you see sniffer dogs in cartoons, they often sniff the ground and follow it that way. But Boris sniffed the air. He was fast on the trail too, finding Chris Packham in ten minutes. The scent dogs pick up on is produced by dead skin cells, and the bacteria on the cells creates a scent unique to that person.
There is a stereotype that dogs have better hearing than most animals. There are a lot of jokes about high-pitched singers reaching notes “only audible to dogs”, but hearing is an area which cats score better than dogs. They can hear much higher frequencies than dogs can, possibly because they hunt mice and other small animals. They can hear their prey before they see it.
Their eyesight is good too, and is better than dogs eyesight. Cats eyes reflect a lot of light, and it again could have developed that way because of how they hunt, as they mainly hunt during the night.
A test where a dog and a cat had to go through a maze in pitch black darkness saw Fen the dog become anxious, going back where she came for a bit, but eventually got to the end in 43 seconds. Oedipus the cat however went straight through and he got to the end in just 8 seconds.
Another cat, Kendo, got the “which cup is the ball under” trick right every time.
Further tests showed that cats can jump higher, but dogs can jump longer distances.
A lot of the differences in the behaviour and the skills of cats and dogs are down to how they evolved and how they were bred by humans.
Dogs are descended from wolves, and share 99.96% of their genes with them. Packs of wolves were used by early hunter-gatherer humans to help with their hunts, and eventually were bred as dogs. But despite their genetic similarities, a wolf is still a wild animal. Even if a wolf is raised in captivity, it is tame rather than domesticated like dogs are.
Domesticated cats are descended from the Arabian wildcat, and they have kept a lot of the same characteristics. Cats were bred simply to catch mice and rats so that humans didn’t have to do it, where dogs were bred to hunt with humans. This is likely why cats are so difficult to train in comparison to dogs, they haven’t been bred to see humans as the ones in charge like dogs have, and have always been expected to work independently.
There’s also a bit of a difference in how long both animals have been domesticated. Dogs were domesticated 35,000 years ago, while cats were domesticated 10,000 years ago, so dogs have also been domesticated for a longer time. There’s also the fact that from the start both creatures behaved differently. Wolves and therefore dogs are pack animals, while cats are solitary animals, meaning dogs are always more inclined to go with the group while cats are always more inclined to be individually minded.
After a while, both came to be seen as pets. They are both beneficial to humans. Dogs can be trained to do all sorts of things to help humans, as guide dogs and rescue dogs. Both dogs and cats have been known to understand sign language.
Both cats and dogs are more vocal than their closest wild relatives, wild cats and wolves respectively. Dogs bark and cats meow a lot, and that’s because of spending a lot of time around humans. It’s often to get our attention.
One experiment in the programme was on humans. Groups of volunteers were tested by all being told they had to sing a song in front of a panel of judges which would be filmed for TV. (This is where ‘Hound Dog’ made an appearance. The cat song was ‘What’s New Pussycat?’). One third was given a puppy, one third was given a kitten and one third was given nothing, as they were the control group. The control group showed an increase in heart rate and blood pressure after being told they had to sing. But the increase in heart rate wasn’t as high with those that were given a kitten or puppy, and for those given a kitten or puppy their blood pressure actually decreased. They found that the groups who were given a puppy or kitten were less stressed than the ones without.
We can’t tell what dogs and cats are thinking, but the programme showed tests on whether dogs and cats produce oxytocin, a bonding hormone, when with their owners and it was found that yes they do, dogs slightlty more than cats, but both do feel a bond to their owners.
There was something of a “preaching to the coverted” aspect to this programme. It didn’t really reveal anything hugely surprising. If you’ve owned or even just been around cats and dogs, you notice how differently they behave. The programme itself even concludes that while you can say cats or dogs fare better in certain areas, ultimately it’s subjective. As they said, there are dog people and cat people, so it’s whichever pet suits the person. The rivalry was mostly not meant to be taken seriously. We got some clips of cute animal videos which everyone likes to see, such as dogs skateboarding and surfing, and a cat coming into its owners house through a snow drift. Hardly the most groundbreaking documentary ever, but it was OK.