The Ethology of Cat and Dog Loyalty
When we discuss loyalty in cats and dogs, we must keep in mind that we are comparing apples to oranges. The two species have very different instincts, different evolutionary histories, and different ecological niches. Further, humans have selectively bred for different characteristics in these animals, which further distorts how we perceive their loyalty to us. In order to have a full exploration of the question of loyalty, we must understand that cats and dogs are loyal but in very different ways.
Domestic dogs and cats come from two very different wild ancestors. Domestic dogs are derived from wolves, which were the top predator in most of Eurasia and North America. They had little to fear from any animal. Further, wolves maintain vast home ranges, which are hundreds of square miles in size. They might as well be considered semi-nomadic, for they travel such great distances in search of prey. When wolves disperse from their natal packs, they often travel hundreds of miles until they come across suitable territory of their own.
The wolves that evolved into dogs attached to humans very early on. Different dates of this early attachment have been postulated, ranging from 15,000 to 135,000 years ago. Dogs were with people before just about anything else. They were there before there were farms, cities, cows, sheep, and nation-states. They were with us when we were hunter-gatherer nomads.
Because wolves live in family groups, they attach more strongly to each other than they do to places. When they lived with nomadic hunter-gatherer, they attached to their family groups. These proto-dogs evolved to bond with people. Those that could not, simply left and joined the wild wolves.
Cats, on the other hand, are a more recent addition to our lives. Cats may have been domesticated as early as 9500 B.C. A cat was found buried near a human grave in Cyprus. However, keeping pets is well-known among many hunter-gatherer cultures, and it is possible that this cat was an unusual pet. The first truly significant attempt to domesticate the cat was in the Fertile Crescent, which is the first place to have agriculture. The date for this domestication was around 10,000 years ago, which roughly corresponds with the beginnings of agriculture. Those early granaries attracted rats and mice, which the cats ate. The cats were then tolerated because of their rodent killing prowess.
The African wildcat, which ranges into the Fertile Crescent, is thought of as a solitary animal, although like most wild cats, the daughters and sisters often share territories or have significantly overlapping territories. Tigresses, which live in a similar way, have been seen sharing kills with their daughters and sisters. Male wildcats are driven from their mothers territory by the top male cat, which patrols the females' territories. These males are constantly under threat from being overthrown. Challengers come from newly maturing young males in other territories. When the resident male is overthrown, the challenger goes through and kills any offspring of his predecessor. This is done in order to bring the females into season.
Because the African wildcat is so small, it had a lot more to fear in its environment. This fear of large predators explains why cats prefer to have high places to hide. Cats fear many things.
The evolutionary history of both wildcats and wolves set a entirely different set of instinct in their domestic descendants. However, another factor also changed how they bond to people. This factor is known as selective breeding. While the first modern selective breeding can be traced the English Agricultural Revolution and the work of Robert Bakewell in the eighteenth century, man always selectively bred his dogs. Selective breeding in cats, though, was a much more haphazard affair until recently.
We know that dogs can bond really strongly with people. This tendency to bond exists in the wild wolf, but most wolves will not bond with people if not socialized to our species. Dogs, however, seem to be naturals at bonding with us.
We have selectively bred dogs to be a more like us. Experiments have shown that dogs are better at reading our body language than chimpanzee and wolves are. This ability exists in puppies under the age of two months, so we know dogs have innate people reading abilities.
We have bred dogs to be extremely easy to instrumentally condition. We can train dogs to do almost anything, and some breeds are very good at learning verbal cues and whistles. If you watch a retriever trial at the advanced stages or a herding trial for border collies, you will see dogs that are very good at taking direction from people.
All of these abilities enhance the dog's natural ability to bond with people. Dogs consider people part of their family group, and in their wild state, family bonds are very important. Wolves that live in family groups can hunt larger prey and protect their hunting grounds from intruders.
Most cats were largely semi-domesticated farm animals until the Industrial Revolution and democratization created a growing middle class. Then it became acceptable for Western people to keep cats as pets, and not barn animals that keep the mice and rats under control.
In Thailand and Persia, certain varieties of cats were kept as true pets as we know them today. These are the forerunners of the Siamese and Persian cats.
Cats, though, have not really undergone the same pressures of selective breeding that dogs have. Cats have had only useful one purpose in their long history with us. They keep the rats and mice from eating and contaminating all our grain.
However, the same pressures that made dogs tame have also affected cats. Domestic cats are much more social than their wild ancestors. Domestic queens often nurse their kittens together. Feral colonies of domestic cats form large colonies, something that wildcats do not do.
Domestic cats can also bond with people. Their relationship with us is a bit different from that of dogs. Dogs bond with us as members of the same family. Cats bond with us in the same way that they bond with their mothers. After all, in the wild, female cats usually set up territories close to their mothers.
Because cats are already much more social than wildcats, they tend to remain bonded in this mother-kitten relationship for their entire lives. This behavior is seen in the feral cat colonies, where mothers and daughters live very closely together.
Dogs and cats are very different animals. Each has its own way of bonding to people. For us to say that one species is better than the other in this aspect is a bit short-sighted. Each animal must be appreciated on its own terms. It is only when we allow ourselves to see cats and dogs a very different animals that we truly can appreciate the love and loyalty they both give us.