Emotional Health

Do Cats Rule the World?

Illustration: C.A. Martin

But we remain their helpless slaves. Subject to debilitating illnesses, like feline leukemia, cats’ treatments are financed by their devoted owners at great expense. And some people, with seriously grave allergies and asthma, persist in keeping cats as pets despite the health risks they pose.

Does this make sense? Love rarely makes sense. “The heart wants what it wants…” There is a theory of love that suggests that we choose our love objects (unconsciously) in an attempt to repair an old injury. Following this thinking, cat lovers may be attracted by their cat’s remote attitude. The attempted repair is of an injury caused by a remote love (a parent, usually), thinking (again, unconsciously), that they will successfully “seduce” this remote creature into loving her.

Often the cat (or boyfriend, husband, etc.) will give just enough to keep you hoping. Sometimes they give, sometimes they don’t, and the more unpredictable the stronger the pull. Psychologists have found that this pattern, called “intermittent reinforcement” (think slot machines) is among the most powerful hooks that exist.

Dogs, on the other hand, are easy. No problem there. A treat here, a pat there, and you’re in. We dog fanciers delight in the constant reinforcement of the wagging tail, the loving gaze, the sense that we are No. 1, unconditionally, in this creature’s eyes. Our dogs display remarkable traits, we find, including (but not limited to) loyalty, sensitivity to our emotions, and intelligence.

Not only do dogs provide the sense of being loved, they are clearly delighted by our company, and thus provide a sense of being needed. Any dog owner knows that after even a brief departure, your pet will greet you as if you have been gone for weeks.

Cat owners say they too take great pleasure from making their cats happy, even if it is more challenging. Finding the sweet spot, whether a toy, a treat, or a certain kind of scratching that brings on the contented sound of purring is deeply satisfying. Humans, who have themselves been bred to live in groups, are prone to want to please others, and what better challenge than a cat?

Tucker, the cat expert, says we should not treat a cat the way we would a dog, or expect things from cats that are not in their nature:

“Resist the urge to simply cuddle your cat with reckless abandon. Instead, consider this creature at arm’s length, study it. Skip the kitty co-nap and wake up to your cat’s magnificent natural history. Respect the fact that no animal has come further under its own power to meet us where we are.”

In any event, human’s love of their pets has deep roots. Last year, scientists discovered an ancient cemetery near Siberia’s Lake Baikal where 5,000- to 8,000-year-old dogs were buried right alongside their humans. Clive Wynne, who is a researcher of dog-human interaction, says “You get dog burials, which show there was a lot of care and attention paid to the burial and they include grave goods [valuable items placed in the grave for use in the afterlife], which really seems like there was a strong indication of affection.”

This suggests ancient humans might not be surprised by our love of pets, though they may be startled at what lengths we go to. Theories that pet ownership goes hand in hand with prosperity are somewhat belied by the fact that many low-income people keep pets despite the serious financial strain it can be to keep them healthy. They give us something we need, whether it is a reflection of ourselves, unconditional love, or the chance to care for another creature, and the power of this bond is mighty.

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  • hillsmom April 6, 2017 at 11:09 am

    Of course I read this to Gussie =^..^= . She said it was obviously written by a dog person. Then she turned around three times and went back to sleep…