By Mike Reiter
Polk County Naturalist
A few years back, a friend of mine was over at our house and after being greeted by Miller, our cat, commented on how stupid cats appear when they are compared intellectually to dogs. The term stupid really never seemed to apply to the cats. We sometimes referred to Miller as our “pointy eared dog”. Cats are different, yes, but really not any less intelligent. Several years ago, I had given a presentation about cats at a Twin City Nature Center. The Center asked me to give a talk on cats. My first thought was “how could anyone talk an hour about cats?” After spending several hours doing research on the internet, I realized that the personality of the cat compared to our “best friend” the dog was due to a variety of factors both genetic and social.
Over the course of human history, man has domesticated fewer than 10 pet animal species. Cats are perceived as aloof and self-serving. Dogs, on the other hand, would give their life for their master. Some of this can be explained by the fact that dogs are pack animals and rely on the individuals in the pack acting as one. Each animal in the pack has a place in the pack as a pecking order (to throw a “chicken” analogy into the mix). The human family who adopts a dog actually allows the dog to join their pack. Depending on how the dog is viewed by the family determines the position in the human pack the dog occupies. Sometimes the owners have a higher status than their pets, others times not.
Cats are solitary animals and usually live and act alone. Cats can trace their domestication back to the Caffre wildcat from the Nile River Valley only 4500-5000 years ago. Dogs are descended from wolves and have had over 20,000 years to become humanized. Cats are also true carnivores and have high protein and fat requirements in their diets. They have shortened digestive tracts and need minerals and vitamins supplied by eating the entire prey (or proper cat food) while the dogs aren’t true carnivores and will eat whatever humans eat and like it. My dogs always eat the table scraps first and if still hungry finish up on dry dog food. When cats are sick or stressed, wasting occurs due to body protein utilization over dietary utilization. I have seen this happen numerous times in old aged cats. They have a huge protein hunger but still lose body muscle mass through catabolism. Cats have superior water conservation over dogs and void more concentrated urine. Cats have retractable claws, can grasp things with their paws, have a nictitating membranes and the ability for pupil dilatation. Cats can also purr which is a sound emitted by vocal folds. Purring can mean pleasure or displeasure depending on the mood of the cat. Some cats have a euphoric response to catnip but only about half of the domesticated cat population exhibit this response. Cats can have two litters per year and feral cats live on the average two years while house cats can exceed 20 years of life. Cats learn socialization by the 2nd week of life in human households. Male cats seem to be more personable than female cats when neutered and spayed cats are calmer than their fully equipped counterparts. Cats like hiding places, have a fascination with movement that imitates rodent motor activity and will play with their food or present captured animals to their keepers. I hesitate to use the term owner. They also have a kneading reflex upon relaxation that mimics the motion a kitten has on its mother to stimulate milk expression upon feeding. Wild type cats make very poor pets. Cats certainly have different characteristics than dogs.
One final message to cat keepers – try always to keep your cat in the house at all times. It is estimated that there are 100,000,000 cats in the United States and as an absolute minimum are responsible for more than 300 million songbirds lost. Estimates range in Wisconsin of 47 million up to 139 million songbirds killed each year. Spay or neuter your cat. Keep your cat well fed, de-claw them and use bells on their collars. Also protect bird feeding and nesting areas from cats. Cats will be cats and dogs will be dogs. Appreciate them for what they are.