Pet people often identify themselves as either “cat people” or “dog people,” depending on which species they more closely resemble. Cats are notoriously aloof, and dole out affection sparingly (and only to those who have earned it). Dogs, on the other hand, are famously affable, enthusiastically social creatures; it would be fair to say dogs tend to be extroverts while cats are typically introverts.
If dogs and cats are both domestic pets, how can their behaviors be so different? The answer is linked to how each species once survived in the wild; the behaviors we observe today have been programmed into our pets for generations. Let’s take a look at some of the most common cat and dog behaviors:
Though it may seem like nothing more than an expression of contentment, kneading actually serves a more practical purpose. Cats have scent glands in the soft pads on the bottoms of their paws, and when they knead some of their unique scent is released onto the surface being kneaded. That scent serves as a territorial marker for any unfamiliar cats that might come along and try to stake a claim.
Have you ever been awakened in the middle of the night to your cat launching a surprise attack on your feet? This behavior is instinct; cats are natural hunters. In the wild, cats spent the majority of their day hunting for food. They stalk their prey and pounce when the moment is right, but on average only successfully kill one out of ten times. With that poor track record, cats need a strong drive to hunt – otherwise they would give up in frustration and starve. With no real prey to hunt, your domestic cat still needs to express this natural behavior, hence the midnight attacks on your feet. Finding proper cat toys that give him or her the opportunity to hunt, pounce and “kill” things can help satisfy this instinct and reduce the unwanted behavior.
With all of the hunting and killing they did in the wild, it was important for cats to groom themselves regularly to clean their prey’s blood from their fur (the smell of blood could attract large predators who could then make a meal of the cat). This explains why the domestic house cat is still a fastidious groomer. When cats groom each other (or you), it is another way of marking territory – in this case, claiming someone as a member of their family by spreading their scent. Cats groom for health reasons as well. Their saliva contains enzymes, which helps clean wounds. Consistent grooming is a good sign that you have a healthy cat.
Being driven wild by a dog that won’t stop digging in your yard? Digging was an important behavior for your dog’s ancestors. Wild canines dug holes for protection, to cool their bodies on hot days and to make dens in which to whelp and raise their litters. Although dogs today lounge in air conditioned houses and typically have help from humans raising their litters, the behavior persists.
It’s no secret that dogs are pack animals who prefer to live in social groups. The reason for this is that cooperation among group members in the wild helped guarantee protection and a more consistent supply of food. Dogs could hunt together to bring down a large animal, and protect other members of the pack while they scavenged for prey. Remember the expression “safety in numbers?” This was also true for dogs’ canine ancestors – when they needed protection from a larger predator, they had an entire group behind them to help ensure their survival. To make sure you have a happy and healthy dog, spend and adequate amount of time with him or her.
In wild canines, guarding territory, people or property provided the obvious survival benefit of protecting resources, and it was a behavior they used a lot. Today, dogs still believe it is their job to guard things – your dog may deliver a sharp woof as a warning when the mailman approaches, or lift his lip and growl if you come too close to his bone. While it is a perfectly natural behavior, the trick is knowing which guarding behaviors are appropriate for your domestic dog (barking at the doorbell is fairly harmless) and which may need to be addressed by a professional (a dog who guards food, furniture or family members).
The truth about cats and dogs lies in their ancestors’ social structure and survival techniques. Understanding the instinctual behaviors of your pet – and how to manage behaviors you’d rather they leave in the past – can help deepen your relationship with your dog or cat and help better provide for their needs when they feel the call of the wild.
Article by Brittney McKay.