A pet can be a great addition to your life. Whether you have a dog, cat, fish, bird, or even an exotic animal like a snake, many people enjoy interacting with them on a daily basis. These relationships often go beyond just companionship, as some people choose their pets based on specific qualities that make them unique and special.
But what exactly makes pets so “cute”? It turns out there are many similarities among these furry friends and also differences. In this article, we’ll explore what sets pets apart from other species, including humans.
It may surprise you that there are actually more than 4,000 types of mammals alive today. But when it comes to domesticated animals like cats and dogs, only about 200 species exist. This means that most animals are not considered pets, despite having certain characteristics that might seem cute.
“Some people think that if something has fur, it must be a good companion,” says Dr. Lorna Finkelstein, professor of psychology at The University of Nottingham. “However, most of these creatures would rather live alone than with us.”
The reason for this isn’t entirely clear, but it could relate to the fact that pets don’t always need human help to survive (and sometimes require veterinary care). For example, cats hunt for food independent of any human intervention, while dogs depend upon their owner to find sustenance.
Another difference worth considering is size. Most pets are smaller than adults, which likely contributes to why they get such a bad rap for being lazy couch potatoes.
“Cats are much better looking than dogs, both physically and mentally,” says Finkelstein. “They are less dependent on us and are far less likely to behave badly. We tend to expect too much from our dogs, who are very socialized to interact with us, whereas cats do not need us in the same way.”
So why do people choose to own both dogs and cats? One common misconception is that owning a pet provides mental health benefits akin to therapy sessions. However, studies show that pet ownership doesn’t necessarily provide psychological relief for those suffering from depression or anxiety disorders.
In fact, research shows that people who experience positive feelings after spending time with their pets are more prone to develop negative emotions later, such as jealousy toward the animal. So instead of using pets as a substitute for therapy, experts recommend seeking professional assistance.
On the other hand, pet ownership does offer another benefit: bonding with family members. “All my life I’ve had a dog and never thought twice about it,” says author and journalist Annabel Park. “I feel like she’s part of the family… She helps me unwind at the end of each day and reminds me of all the wonderful moments we spent together during the day.”
Pet ownership can also increase your overall happiness level. A 2013 study published in the journal Psychological Science found that participants reported greater satisfaction with their lives after interacting with either a pet or a person.
“People who owned a dog were happier than those who didn’t,” said co-author Dr. Joshua Brown, associate professor of psychology at Stanford University. “We saw no significant effect for interaction with a human partner. Our results suggest that simply living in close proximity with a pet can lead to increased well-being.”
As for cats, they probably don’t share the same connection with their owners. Studies show that although cats do prefer human attention over that of dogs, they are generally less interested in forming strong bonds with humans.
Interestingly, though, some people do bond closely with their cats, especially older generations. Research suggests that this might stem from a deeper sense of responsibility that older people typically exhibit toward their pets versus younger ones.
When you see two unfamiliar animals standing side-by-side, it’s natural to assume that they’re related and therefore look similar. But when comparing cats to dogs, that assumption isn’t true.
“When you look at dogs and cats next to each other, it becomes obvious that they are indeed quite dissimilar,” says Finkelstein. “Dogs have bigger heads and longer bodies, while cats are shorter and slimmer.”
That said, it’s possible to tell which type of animal you have based on features like body shape, tail length, and ears.
If you’re trying to figure out whether you have a dog or a cat, start by examining their faces. Dogs’ muzzle is wider compared to that of cats, and dogs’ noses are flat, while cats’ nostrils stick up. Next, check out their tails. Dogs usually have bushy, thick tails, while cats have thin, curved tails. Finally, examine their ears. While dogs have erect ear tufts, cats have rounded ears.
Since dogs and cats vary widely in terms of appearance, it’s best to take a physical specimen into consideration before making any assumptions. If you still aren’t sure, try calling the shelter where you got your pet to ask questions about distinguishing features.
While dogs and cats may differ greatly in terms of appearance, it turns out that they also vary in personality. And yes, these differences are real. For example, according to researchers at Cornell University, dogs display four basic personality traits: friendliness/affability, boldness, aggressiveness, and neophobia (fear of novelty). Meanwhile, cats display three main personality traits: sociability, activity and exploration, and caution.
“Our findings demonstrate that dogs and cats differ in their approach to risk-taking, novel situations, and social interactions with strangers,” write the authors of the study, published in June 2017 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Although dogs are known to be loyal and protective towards their owners, cats are notorious for playing dirty tricks on them.
For instance, cats will steal food right out of their mouths without batting an eye, leaving behind nothing but crumbs. Some cat lovers say this habit is meant to punish the master for feeding them scraps.
Other instances include scratching furniture, chewing holes through electrical cords, knocking down lamps, clawing at doors, and hiding small objects under floorboards. As a result, cat owners sometimes resort to locking up their cats indoors at night in order to keep them safe from harm.
Not surprisingly, dogs are more tolerant of their owners’ bad habits than cats are. According to a 2007 study conducted by the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, Austria, dogs showed little reaction to their owners smoking cigarettes nearby. On the other hand, cats reacted strongly to their owners’ tobacco use.
Meanwhile, both cats and dogs are sensitive to loud noises. Although cats are notoriously silent creatures, even they react negatively to loud sounds, such as thunderstorms or fireworks.
Finally, dogs are generally more active than cats. “Walking around the neighborhood was something that my dog did every morning. My cat preferred sitting in a corner somewhere and staring at me,” says journalist Annabel Park.
According to a 2015 survey, 70 percent of U.S. households have at least one pet, and almost half of Americans claim to spend nearly $500 per year on their pets.
One popular theory is that animals become more human-like once they’re domesticated. After all, dogs are descendants of wolves, who lived wild in packs until humans started domesticating them thousands of years ago. Cats evolved from African lions, who also lived in groups, but formed solitary clans.
This idea goes back to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, which proposes that organisms adapt to changing environments by developing new abilities. Because dogs and cats now live alongside humans, they should possess traits that allow them to successfully compete with their wolf ancestors.
“Darwin believed that ‘it [humans] act on impulse when influenced by instinct,’ meaning that animals are able to adapt to human society by behaving intelligently,” explains Finkelstein. “By doing this, they gain access to resources provided by humans that they couldn’t otherwise obtain.”
To test this hypothesis, Finkelstein conducted experiments involving dogs and cats. Her team used a method called counterbalancing, in which subjects perform a series of tasks in random orders. Subjects then receive rewards for completing each task.
According to her findings, both dogs and cats exhibited high levels of intelligence, learning quickly to complete simple puzzles and solve problems. However, since they lacked the ability to recognize abstract concepts, they performed worse than non-trained control subjects at understanding words denoting color, the height of the object, and shapes.
“Domesticated animals are capable of complex cognitive functions comparable to those seen in humans,” conclude the authors of the aforementioned study, published in 2010 in Animal Cognition. Still, although dogs and cats are smart, they don’t process language in the same ways as humans.