A dog's dinner of an idea

Felipe Fernández-Armesto is sceptical about claims cat-owners are smarter

February 18, 2010

Graduates prefer cats. According to press reports of research at the University of Bristol, households with graduates are 36 per cent more likely to have cats than their academically uninstructed counterparts. Most reports attribute the difference to discrepant brain power. “Clever people are more likely to own cats than dogs,” says the Press Association version of the findings. The newspapers have diffused the same message. Jane Murray, who led the research, is credited with a rival explanation: “It could be related to longer working hours”, which leave graduates with less time to care for pets than the implicitly idle dog-lovers.

I like cats. If I find one at my feet I will tickle its ears. But the companionship of dogs is so obviously better - my dogs’ moral commitment to the family is so strong, their selflessness in guarding and defending us so resolute, their love for my children so moving, their anxiety to help so touching, their interest in communicating so intense, their generosity in sharing their rites and games with humans so full-hearted - that I cannot bring myself to think that my affection for them and my partiality towards them, compared with cats, are among my cerebral deficiencies.

Nor does Murray’s reported explanation appeal to me. The idea that graduates work harder than other people is laughable. It recalls the ghastly bourgeois prejudices reflected in the old music-hall song about the work-shy lumpenproletariat: “I lies back on me pillow/And reads me Daily Mirro’/And waits till the work comes round.”

Most people have to work hard to pay their way in life, but graduates typically have privileged access to relatively flexible working hours.

The real difference between cat-lovers and dog-lovers has nothing to do with income, education or habits of work. It is, I suspect, a matter of morals. Dog-lovers are good. Cat-lovers are morally indifferent or actively evil. The sort of people who like to have dead mice offered to them in sacrifice prefer cats. I can’t imagine a labradoodle or westie as a witch’s familiar. If you want to make Blofeld’s ethics plain, don’t put a Jack Russell or a fox terrier in his lap. Batman would never have to save us from Dogwoman. Dogs are the choice of the socially, humanly well adjusted: people who like people like dogs, because you meet other dog-lovers when you take your pet for walks. You engage in conversation with all sorts and conditions. You broaden your horizons, diversify your values. Many Manhattan romances start at dog-walking hour in Central Park. Hundreds of dog-walking clubs have sprung up all over Britain among people who socialise with chains and leads in hand, with no rattle or redolence of sexual impropriety. Dogs demand responsible ownership: I could not have a cat, because I would worry constantly about his or her welfare when my pet was out of the house. Cat-lovers have power without responsibility. We know whose prerogative that is.

Of course, there are exceptions. I have friends against whose good character I have no worse evidence than their preference for cats (although I have my suspicions). There are people who keep dogs to brutalise and abuse, or to feed their nasty taste for fighting. There are antisocial psychotics who share sad, hate-filled, violent lives with dogs: my dachshund and I meet them on the towpath, where they defy good manners and park rules by riding their bikes, and endanger the public by letting pitbulls or tosas off their leads. There are dog-owners who bully their pets into sycophancy; typically, however, dogs, if properly treated, retain self-mastery and collaborate with people out of love, not cowardice or mere physical dependency. The pleasure my dog takes in my pleasure is exactly commensurate with the pleasure I take in his. Like my students and my children, with whom I also try to cultivate a relationship of affection, he will disobey me when he thinks I am wrong.

Dogs and good people are drawn to each other, because they share a sense of duty that overrides egotism and value others above themselves. Dogs serve the blind and deaf, work with the police and armed services for the good of society, help the afflicted, reduce blood pressure, make excellent hospital visitors, sacrifice themselves out of loyalty and devotion, and weep at their loved ones’ gravesides. Cats rarely, if ever, do anything so selfless. Both species are useful in selected kinds of pest control, but you can’t rely on cats to show forbearance at a human command, such as dogs evince when they retrieve a hunter’s prey or run vermin to earth. Cats are creepy, secretive and nocturnal. Dogs bounce and lollop unfeignedly under the honest light of day. Cats are almost silent, as if they had something to hide. Dogs are noisy without stridency, with the bluff heartiness of an untroubled conscience. Like attracts like, and cat-owners invite the inference that they share the solitary habits and evasive characteristics of their pets.

The logic is inescapable. Graduates prefer cats. So graduates must be worse people than their less over-educated counterparts. Universities must be nurseries of immorality. So Lord Mandelson must be quite right to cut funding. But then he’s a confirmed dog-person, as Bobby the golden retriever will attest: maybe my theory needs rethinking …

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