Loving Loyalty

It’s not what you know but who you know.

Cynics say that when choosing associates we pretend to care about many things, but we mainly care about loyalty.  Support comes from our apparently caring more for famously-loyal dogs than for lovable-but-aloof cats:

You’d think from the numbers that cats are "man’s best friend." … [U.S.] cats outnumber dogs by more than 10 million (82 million to 72 million). And, no question, kitties have legions of fans.  But here’s the dirty little secret: Cats are more often neglected than dogs, more often relinquished to shelters than dogs and less often taken to veterinarians than dogs. …

"I hate cats" mail outnumbers the dog hate mail about 50 to 1. … Increasingly more cats are given up at shelters than their canine cousins. … An estimated 30% of those dogs who land in shelters eventually are reclaimed. Of the lost cats who find themselves in a shelter, a meager 2% to 5% are ever identified by their owners. …

Vet visits for pet cats have fallen 11% since 2001 … with more than a third of all cats never visiting a veterinarian in 2006 (compared with 17% of dogs who didn’t see a vet). … Morris Animal Foundation, a nonprofit funder of pet and wildlife health studies, is spending nearly three times as much on canine health initiatives as on cat health research.

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  • Aaron

    Then there’s the variant that elevates blackmail:
    It’s not what you know. It’s not even who you know. It what you know about who you know.

  • What’s suprising from how you report the data is that care for cats seems to be decreasing in USA. Is there any speculation for that? Have demographic changes been ruled out? Does it correlate strongly with any other social changes?

  • Well, *duh*. People only love cats in the first place because they caught that virus/bacteria/whatever that makes you like cats, which most Americans have, and which is already scientifically proven to make mice run toward cats rather than away, but which I can’t find a link for at the moment and which has nothing to do with my tendency to make my sentences incredibly long.

  • Z. M. Davis

    Silas, I think you’re referring to Toxoplasma gondii. There is evidence suggesting behavioral effects on humans, but I can’t find anything about actually increasing attraction to cats. (Although it does seem to make mice more outgoing, as you note, and it’s often contracted from cats.) Sorry if you were half-joking and I’m taking you too literally.

  • Ben Jones

    I once read that dogs come when you call, and cats just tell you to leave a message.

  • Lara Foster

    My cat comes when I call her… if she’s not otherwise engaged with the drapes…
    I have always been psychotically fond of cats. They have very human-like faces, extreme elegance and grace, strong wills, excellent problem-solving abilities, and a deep capacity for affection, pleasure, and contentment. They are highly evolved intelligences, which (unlike dogs), are still close enough to their wild brethren to survive without human intervention. They don’t *need* us the way long-genetically manipulated neologized freak retardo-wolves do…

    I have a Siberian forest cat, which is polydactyl, hypoallergenic (10% allergen), and known to be intensely loyal. Though siberians can be recognized in Russian art dating back hundreds of years, they were only given official status as a breed in the 1980s. Their characteristic features- thick coat, neck ruff, super-fluffy tail, huge paws, and large muscular build are all adaptations to life in deep woods of Siberia. They are the genetic ancestors of all forest cats, including Persians, Angoras, Norwiegen forest cats, and even the Maine Coon. Unlike most cat species, forest cats have a matriarchal social structure in which females (usually sisters) stay together in groups of 2-4 to hunt prey and raise kittens together. I theorize that this social structure is a recent evolution, since the Siberian line came from cats originally domesticated in Egypt and re-released into the wild, where they re-evolved for a thousand years or more. Since humans would be ‘unnaturally’ selecting for more social cats in the first place, it would make sense that we would invent social cats. Also of note is the frigid climate and large size of prey (these 20 pound beasts bring down rabbits and weasels), which might also have been factors in wolf social evolution, but again that is a just-so story…

  • Lara Foster

    Also- on cats and bacteria-
    I wouldn’t be totally shocked if cats *did* harbor some bacteria that made humans like them. It would make sense for the species, especially since one of the current theories of cat domestication involves cats coming to humans and not humans capturing cats. The just-so story goes something like: After man started harvesting and storing large amounts of grain, infestations of rhodents became a problem, and started attracting cats. Since the cats killed the rhodents, man didn’t mind and started feeding the cats to keep them around…

    Granted, Charlemagne boasted owning 12 tamed cheetahs, which were *much* better hunters than the hunting dogs at the time, but in spite of great efforts and a lot of rolled heads, his court was entirely unsuccessful at breeding them. Turns out that the Cheetah ‘mating dance’ involves the male chasing the female for four days over hundreds of miles of terrain before she’ll submit to his advances. This is why there are so few cheetahs in the world today.

    Also of note is that cats have co-evolved a bacterium that lives in their saliva and helps cause small animals go into shock upon being bit. This is why cat-bites go necrotic and get infected so easily. If a cat bites you, wash it out *immediately*.

    So yeah- if there is a kitty-luv bacterium, I was probably infected as an infant when my parents cat sat on my head.

  • michael vassar

    I share Silus’s suspicion actually. May not be true, but too entertaining to discard in any event and seems to really fit some facts.

  • I third the genius of Silus post, regardless of its veracity as applies to humans. Like Greg Bears’ excellent novel Vitals foretells, it would be especially amusing if the flow and ebb of most human preferences (or even ideas and philosophies) were shown to be reducible to various bacterial or other infections.

  • Alan

    “Cynics say that when choosing associates we pretend to care about many things, but we mainly care about loyalty.”

    Interesting choice of word. Our word “cynic” comes from the same etymological root as that for dog, in Latin, canis familiaris. I think the original idea was that cynics (unlike in our current understanding) simply defied social convention and lived unstructured lives, much the way packs of dogs did. The loyalty aspect of some members of canis familiaris may be due to a long history of coevolution with humans.

    We do use the term “dog” in a pejorative manner, such as in saying that a project “turned into a dog,” or “he refers only his dog cases,” or “this place is going to the dogs,” or “I wouldn’t feed that to my dog.” We also use a simile “sick as a dog,” and “working like a dog.” Some less than flattering categorical statements take the form of “all X are dogs.”

    We don’t seem to have as many pejorative phrases pertaining to cats, because I posit, we’re not as emotionally engaged with them as with canines. We can refer to certain behavior as “catty,” or “getting in a cat fight,” but aside from that, nothing much comes readily to mind. On balance, based on our language, I think we have much more Could it be that the behavior of dogs and our coevolution with them cause us to feel more sympathy with dogs, which allows us to be both more judgmental of them as well as to extoll the anthopomorphic virtue of loyalty?

  • Phil

    Why would that be cynical, that we love people (and animals) who love us back? Isn’t that just human nature?

    I don’t understand why this finding is at all significant, that we prefer to associate with those who have an emotional bond with us.

  • Andy Wood

    I agree with Phil. Contrast a work environment where your colleagues are your friends, with one where you’re obliged to interact from behind a guarded veneer of professionalism. Provided lives aren’t at stake, it’s difficult for me to imagine any work-related aims that I’d rather have served than the aim of enjoying my time there.

  • Andy,
    Are you by any chance the Andy Wood of the Harvard Law School/Berman Center’s Global Power Strategy Society (or something like that)? If so, I enjoyed the speech you gave at Google (via youtube).

  • Cats from some breeds get very attached to individual people. Siamese cats, for example, are known for this. It would be interesting to see if those breeds get more care than others.

  • @Alan

    I was always taught that the Cynics were called “kune” or “kunikos” – the dog or dog-like philosophers – out of contempt for their views, which were then considered impious, and their shameless behavior, which was always considered rude. The Cynics didn’t just have an unconventional lifestyle, they intentionally set out to shock and offend, as I was taught.

    Diogenes of Sinope for example actually is said to have barked at those he disagreed with to mock them. Not very OB.

    However, some have argued that the “dog” may also derive from a place name, a place where they were known to congregate and teach: http://www.iep.utm.edu/c/cynics.htm#H1

  • I think part of the situation is that cats are just more independent. Most people I know with a cat let them roam a fair distance away from the house, in some cases all day long – I know a relative’s cat who sometimes slept outside. Dogs tend to stay more inside or in the yard, either on a leash or just by their own will. That’d make them less likely to lose, and I think it’d also be easier for the owner to notice if the dog is sick than for a cat. Dogs stay closer.

  • curtadams

    Could be a lot of things besides loyalty – that’s hardly the only difference between dogs and cats. If I had to pick a single cause, I’d pick sociability over loyalty.

  • I was half-joking about Toxo (thanks for the name, Z. M.). However, it is something to think about in understanding why people today love cats. Whatever the true effect, it does result in mice at least not running away from cats, and given that it comes from cats, can be considered a positive adaptation.

    Given that most Americans have Toxo, and love cats, it’s not much of a leap to suggest that the Toxo is one of the things causing so many to love cats. Think about it.

    And the name’s Silas, not Silus, but the pronunciation is the same either way I guess. Long live the schwa! 😛

  • Erich

    Wouldn’t loyalty be one of the driving interests towards building a friendly AI?

  • Jason Malloy

    I would actually guess this has more to do with size bias. That is people generally value larger animals over smaller animals, which is apparent from the endangered and extinct animals which get the most attention and sympathy.

    I would be interested in seeing the statistics for large dog breeds vs. small dog breeds. Do small dog stats look more like cats?

  • Quid pro quo. That is it.