DES MOINES, Iowa -- Are you a proud cat person, or an unabashed fan of man's best friend?
Two recent studies about dog and cat behavior have reignited the age-old debate about which pet is better. One study suggests dogs can feel positive emotions, such as love, for their owners. The other suggests that cats get stressed when you pet them.
The results have animal lovers rallying behind their favorite domestic creatures.
In the first study, Emory University neuroeconomics professor Gregory Berns trained dogs to sit still in an MRI machine long enough for a brain scan. The scans showed that there was increased brain activity in dogs when they perceived a hand signal for food, smelled a familiar human, or saw an owner return to the room after stepping away.
"The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child," Berns wrote last week in the New York Times.
The pro-dog camp is cheering the study as new evidence that dogs can feel what humans feel. But cat lovers think felines got a bad rap in a study that looked at their stress levels.
Researchers from the University of Lincoln in the United Kingdom, the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil and the University of Veterinary Medicine in Austria examined the conditions in which cats produce stress hormones. One of their findings, published last week in the journal Physiology & Behavior, suggests that cats typically stress out when humans pet them.
The stress can be somewhat abated in a multi-cat household, where the felines that most dislike human touch can avoid it when there are other cats present that at least tolerate it.
"Also," said Daniel Mills, professor at the University of Lincoln, in a news release, "and I think very intriguingly, our data suggests that cats who tolerate, rather than enjoy or dislike being petted, seem to be the most stressed."
Some cat lovers flat out disagreed with the findings.
"I have never encountered a cat that didn't like to be petted or cuddled or held," said Valerie Cautrell, who has worked as a pet sitter and a volunteer at the Animal Rescue League of Iowa.
Cheri Brichetto, a volunteer at Furry Friends Refuge, a West Des Moines, Iowa, animal shelter, said she has encountered a diversity of responses among cats.
"If you go into the shelter in any of the rooms," Brichetto said, "there will be a cat that will run up to you and want to be petted, and there will be cats that sit on their perches, like, 'Yeah, whatev'."
Dana Danks, a doctor of veterinary medicine and animal behavior consultant in Slater, Iowa, cited the relative lack of research on cats.
That raises the question: Are cats are just misunderstood?
Danks said researchers have studied dogs for some time, but knowledge about cats has begun to emerge only in the last 10 to 20 years.
One important finding, Danks said, is that cats have only a short window within the first two to three weeks of life in which they can be socialized to enjoy touch.
"Cats also tend to be very capable of living on their own," said Danks.
Dogs, in contrast, have had a lot more practice getting used to humans.
"We have been manipulating dogs for at least 14,000 years," said Stanley Coren, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia who has written extensively on dogs and psychology. "We have been systematically creating an animal which responds to our communication."
Dogs became workers, hunting buddies and general companions over time. But cats, "came on the scene much later," Coren said.
"Human beings formed some kind of a bond with them, but what we're dealing with is the fact that the cat was never meant to have that empathy, to have that desire to have that contact with us," Coren said.
Dogs also have the equivalent capacity of a 2- to 3-year-old child, Coren said, while most cats understand about as much as an 18-month-old child, "so there's a huge difference in terms of their ability," which leads people to prefer one over the other.
For potential pet owners in the market for a new companion, Furry Friends director Britt Gagne suggests looking beyond the stereotypes associated with either species.
"If people are looking for an animal that they want to be really affectionate, don't write off that it's definitely not going to be a cat," said Gagne. "Making generalizations that dogs are all awesome and cats are all antisocial, I think that does a disservice to the many awesome cats that really do enjoy being with people."
Sharyn Jackson, The Des Moines Register
Gannett/Des Moines Register