Are you a cat or dog person?

You can't ask me that! Continuing her series tackling socially unacceptable questions, Christine Manby looks at how we judge people by their pet preferences

Christine Manby
Monday 21 May 2018 16:38 BST
Illustrations by Tom Ford
Illustrations by Tom Ford

Forget all those diktats regarding not talking about religion, politics or money. If you really want a quiet life then the question you must avoid at all costs is: “Do you prefer cats or dogs?” Everyone has an opinion on it and there are those who will defend their opinion with violence. Or at least with a campaign of social media shaming that puts anyone who disagrees with them on a par with serial killers.

“If you don’t like kittens, then you probably eat babies.”

“Won’t share my cute puppy video? You sympathise with Hitler.”

Actually, no. Hitler really liked dogs.

Anyway, you get the picture. Cats versus dogs is an emotional battle that divides people like no other. There’s a definite sense that there are cat people and there are dog people and never the twain shall meet.

Statistics for 2017 and 2018 show that nearly half the UK population lives with a pet. A further breakdown shows that most of those people – some 26 per cent – have a dog. Cats come in second at 18 per cent (though you wouldn’t guess that if you lived on my street, where cats easily outnumber people). Meanwhile rabbits make third place with a mere 2 per cent of the national pet total, which is a shame because if they’re anything like their pets, rabbit people are probably quite good fun. If a little twitchy.

We choose our pets for the human qualities we see in their behaviour, hoping perhaps they reflect the way we like to believe others see us. Dog lovers truly appreciate the way their animals are so determined to be part of the team. Dogs are friendly and enthusiastic. They know when you’re happy or sad and if you’re sad they’ll do their best to make you happy again (like Twiglet the Jack Russell comfort dog who was so busy helping anxious Cambridge undergraduates, she had a “nervous reaction” of her own). They’re people-pleasers. They seem to understand a joke. In his book, Man Meets Dog, Nobel prize-winning ethnologist Karl Lorenz claimed that dogs actually laugh by grinning and making a panting noise when in the company of people they like.

Meanwhile, say dog people, cats are all about themselves. They’re aloof. They’re disdainful. They’ll move in with the couple next door if you buy the wrong sort of cat food. They’re loyal to places not people. Larry the Downing Street cat has been there longer than any recent prime minister. Cats are all about being fed gourmet morsels and sleeping on newly washed cashmere. As the quote goes: “Dogs have owners. Cats have slaves.”

But that’s what cat owners love about them. They like that you have to work for a cat’s affection. Dogs are too clingy, too easily impressed. Even Hitler’s dogs thought he was great after all. To win the love of a cat, you need to be special. You can’t make a cat laugh by squeezing a squeaky ball. Although cat people often claim that feline poker face hides a serious sense of humour. I suppose it helps if you can see the funny side to finding a half-dead mouse at the end of the bed.

Cats are sleek and chic, intelligent and not easily fooled. They have undeniable elegance and grace. They always land on their feet. A cat’s purr is worth a thousand tail wags. But a dancing dog could be worth ten million pounds. Take Pudsey, 2012 winner of Britain’s Got Talent, who subsequently earned a fortune from performances, books and films.

And dogs will go to war for you, like Bing, the alsatian collie cross who parachuted with the 13th Battalion, 6th Airborne Division on D-Day. Or Mali, the Belgian Malinois, assigned to the Special Boat Service in Afghanistan, who during an eight-hour assault on a Taliban position in 2012, indicated the locations of enemy fighters, despite being injured by grenade explosions. Both were awarded the Dickin Medal for gallantry, the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross. Thirty-three dogs have won the medal since the end of the Second World War. More pigeons have been awarded the Dickin Medal than cats (32 to one).

Dogs will defend you to the death and they’ll even remain loyal to you afterwards. Greyfriars Bobby, a Skye terrier, guarded his master’s grave in Edinburgh for fourteen years. Can you imagine a cat doing that? Ever heard of a cat parachuting in behind enemy lines?

Well, no, say cat people. Because cats aren’t stupid. Bing the D-Day hero dog only jumped because he was tempted out of the plane with a piece of meat.

The one tale I could find about cats being parachuted in to save the day regards Operation Cat Drop, in which the Royal Air Force delivered cats by parachute to a remote village in Sarawak, Borneo, to help tackle a raging rodent problem. Alas it’s a shaggy dog story.

However there have been cat war heroes. In 1854, during the Crimean War, Crimean Tom, sometimes known as Sevastopol Tom, rescued starving British and French troops by leading them to food caches hidden by the Russian soldiers. The British took him back to England. Upon his death he was stuffed (badly) and can now be found on display in London’s National Army Museum. He looks rather alarmed.

That single feline Dickin Medal recipient was called Simon. The black and white cat, who had the rank of able seaman, received his medal posthumously in 1949 for having served on HMS Amethyst during the “Yangtse Incident”, in which the Royal Navy ship was trapped on the Yangtse River for three months during the Chinese Civil War. Apparently Simon kept the ship’s food stores rat-free despite having been wounded by a shell blast.

And while it may be a long time before we see a cat win Britain’s Got Talent and make its owner a cool 10 mil, for some owners, having a cat has already proved to be priceless. Missy, a tabby from Newcastle, detected her owner Angela Tinning’s cancer by pawing at her chest, prompting Ms Tinning to get herself checked out. Ms Tinning told the BBC: ”I felt fine and I honestly don’t think I would have bothered if she hadn’t drawn my attention to it. If it weren’t for her, my story could be very different today. She is my little hero.”

Likewise, Wendy Humphreys of Wroughton credited her 10-month-old cat Fidge with saving her life. Ms Humphreys saw a doctor after Fidge sat on her right breast every night for two weeks. A scan revealed a malignant tumour.

And in Bakersfield, California, another tabby, called Tara, saved the life of her owners’ four-year-old son. When a dog pulled Jeremy Triantafilo from his bicycle, Tara body-slammed the dog out of the way before circling back to guard the child. The daring rescue was caught on CCTV and became a worldwide sensation. Tara was subsequently awarded the Cat Fanciers’ Association inaugural Cat Hero Award. It was well deserved.

There’s no doubt that each animal has its place both in history and in modern society. The cat’s self-sufficiency makes it the perfect pet for someone who works long hours. Meanwhile dogs encourage us to improve our sedentary lifestyles. Both provide valuable companionship in an unfriendly world.

So what is the correct answer to this thorniest of thorny questions? Cats or dogs? Dare I give you my view?

It’s dogs. Obviously. Because while I’ve lived with and loved both cats and dogs, I have never seen a dog clean its arse on the kitchen table.

*Ducks below parapet and goes straight into hiding…*

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