Why are cats and dogs so different?

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Whether you own a Fluffy (a cat) or a Fido (a dog), or both, you know that cats and dogs are very different pets. And really, why is that? Why will Fido howl and scratch your door when you leave, yet Fluffy completely ignores it? And why does Fluffy survey like a king looking down on a kingdom, while Fido just sleeps at your feet? Those answers, believe it or not, are in the biology of these fascinating animals.

Wild relatives

Let's start with dogs' and cats' wild relatives. Both the domestic dog and cat descend from wild counterparts, and, of course, they both have wild cousins still on the loose in the world today. Dogs in the wild, like wolves, foxes, and coyotes, are pack animals – they live in groups, and each individual dog relies on the other members of the pack to ensure its survival. Dogs hunt prey together, claim territory together, sleep outside in groups together and even help each other raise their young.

Like many animals that live in groups, a dog pack has a social hierarchy with an alpha male and female (generally the breeding pair), who lead the group.

Wild cats, on the other hand, are solitary. Once grown, a cat will leave its mother and live on its own, only coming in to contact with other cats to breed or fight (generally over territory). Therefore, a cat has to rely on itself for survival – hunting alone, scouting territory alone, etc.

How wild applies to Fluffy and Fido

So, obviously, wild cats and wild dogs have very different social structures, which have carried over into their domestic counterparts. Domestic dogs are pack animals like their wild cousins, and you, as the owner, are your dog's alpha. Your dogs need you to survive, which is why they become so attached, following you around everywhere, and why they become so stressed when you leave.

Your role as the alpha is also why, interestingly enough, your dog behaves in certain ways around you. Does Fido ever roll on to his back and expose his belly to you? That is a sign of submission; Fido is acknowledging you as the alpha. Does he watch you closely when you eat? As the alpha, you are entitled to the first pick from a pack's "kill." Fido is waiting for you to finish so he can have his part.

It probably goes without saying, then, that domestic cats are solitary animals like their wild cousins, and that is why they often appear ambivalent or apathetic. It is not that your cat does not love you, it's just that your cat can take care of himself.

However, it is important to note that solitary does not mean anti-social. Cats in the wild can and do live together, but they do not rely on each other to meet their survival needs (the only exception being lions). Furthermore, cats will co-exist only if there is no competition for resources. Once food, water or mates start running scarce, the claws literally come out, and one cat will be sent on his way to find his own territory.

Do not cross that territorial line

Speaking of which, both cats and dogs are territorial, which is why Fluffy surveys her surroundings from the top of the bookshelf and Fido barks every time someone knocks on the door. Because Fluffy is solitary, it is up to her to defend her own territory, so she keeps an eye on everything to make sure all stays appropriate. And then she will sneak attack any perceived threat because, as a sole hunter, she needs stealth on her side to bring her prey down.

Fido, on the other hand, will defend his territory in partnership with the other members of his pack, so he barks to notify them of the impending danger.

Other wild behaviors

Other behaviors we can attribute to wild relatives? How many times has Fido dropped and rolled around in something outside? That particular action is called a scent roll, and it is a way for Fido to bring a new smell back to the pack. Since dogs rely almost exclusively on their sense of smell, it is important to share new scents with the group.

And why, oh why, does Fluffy bring you the dead mouse she caught? It is a present, as many have stipulated previously, but keep in mind that Fluffy really wants to show off. Hunting is not easy. In fact, a cat fails in a chase more times than it succeeds. Therefore, when it does bring a prey down, it is a moment to celebrate. And because Fluffy does love you, she wants you to share in the celebration.

So, the next time you come home to find that Fido destroyed half your living room, or to find that Fluffy still has not moved from the spot she was sleeping in when you left (cats can sleep up to 17 hours a day!), you will know these behaviors are stemming from the biology of their wild relatives.

Article sources

A Brief History of House Cats
David Zax
Published in Smithsonian Magazine, June 2007

Domestic Cat, Felis Catus
National Geographic

Differences Between Cats and Dogs
Banfield Pet Hospital

Dog History: How and Why Dogs Were Domesticated
K. Kris Hirst
Published on About Education, June 2016

Wolf Ecology and Behavior
Western Wildlife Outreach

Fact Sheet: Tiger
Defenders of Wildlife

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