There are several such arguments – The Beatles or Elvis, football or rugby, Mac or PC, EastEnders or Corrie. They’re not exactly opposites but can sometimes seem so. It’s possible to enjoy both of each pair but everyone would have their favourite of the two and wouldn’t have to think very hard if asked to name it.
The “cats or dogs” debate is right up there with these. The UK has about 12 million of each, so this can’t be settled just on numbers (as certainly the football/rugby one can). However, with those kind of adherents, they’re clearly on the same level of popularity as the other examples. Even more than with other three, some like (and own) both. This is the exception, though, and is usually a subject for remark.
There are, I admit, things in favour of dogs. They’re loyal, obedient, useful and (with one exception) trainable. They can find dead birds and injured skiers, guide blind people across streets, apprehend criminals, round up sheep and guard houses. Once adopted by an owner, the bond is hard to break and in many cases you come between the two at your peril. They were probably the first animals to be domesticated and have put their senses, their teeth and their claws at the disposal of humans ever since. All they want in return is a good long walk and two square meals a day and a kind word every now and then. Give them these and they’re yours for life.
What do cats offer in this vein? Absolutely nothing. You can’t train them. They don’t do anything useful except catch mice, which they normally leave on the bedroom carpet. They treat any home like a free hotel, departing sometimes for days or weeks at a time. They adopt new residences for no apparent reason. They spend much of the time asleep. They won’t scare off intruders, fetch balls or do tricks to order. If you’re looking for something that’s going to add value to your household, you can cross cats right off your list. A dog is like having a well trained servant: a cat more like a a permanent teenager. Fortunately, they are – unlike most teenagers – also supremely elegant and scrupulously clean.
On the debit side for dogs, they bite, bark and poo everywhere. Unless they’ve been groomed, they also often look like they’ve been sleeping in a ditch. Cats always look as if they’re about to go on stage at a major awards ceremony. And boy, do dogs stink. The only smell worse than a wet dog is a wet dog that’s been rolling in its excrement. Why do they want to do this? I don’t know. Is leaving it in the middle of the lawn not enough?
For all their millennia of co-existence with us, no one has ever trained a dog not to poo wherever it happens to be at the time (often just outside our house). If you get a kitten, it will already have been toilet trained by its mum. She won’t have taught it anything else, mind – apart, perhaps, from warning it not to learn anything else from humans – but this seems worth all of dogs’ trainable advantages combined.
Cats also don’t need supervision. We went to Australia for five weeks and asked friends to come in to feed the cats twice a day. We came back to find the house just as we had left it. Leave a dog in those circumstances and it would have eaten half the sofa before we’d checked in at Heathrow, while the place as a whole would have looked like a prison cell during the dirty protests in Northern Ireland. We’re dealing here with an animal so reliant on human company that, if deprived of it for even a few hours, it goes completely to pieces.
Neither relationship is equal, humans being the dominant partner with dogs and cats the dominant partner with humans. When she was a child, Penny had a sheepdog called Bella. One day she said “sit – stay” to the dog, went off to Newbury with her mum and came back several hours later to find Bella in exactly the same position. Say that to a cat and, if you get any reaction at all, it will probably look at you with eyes as remote as planets, turn round and stalk out of the room. Short of physical confinement, there’s no way a cat can be made to do or refrain from doing anything. Everything that happens is always exclusively on its terms. Rightly has it been said that dogs have owners but that cats have staff; also that dogs suspect they’re rather rubbish humans but cats know that humans are really rubbish cats.
Dogs are the serfs, villeins and squires of the medieval world, fulfilling their allotted role in society without complaint. Cats, however, are the “masterless men” who were then such figures of alarm and terror – admitting no lord, recognising no bond of loyalty, wandering where they wished and generally threatening to undermine the fabric of a societal structure to which they were indifferent.
It must be admitted that both are, in their different ways, really successful species, right up there with cockroaches and viruses. Unlike cows, sheep and pigs, they won’t get slaughtered or pillaged for their milk or fleece. They’re allowed the run of the house and get looked after when they’re ill. They’re not confined to cages, pens or tanks. Dogs, however, have to work for their corn. Cats don’t.
Unique amongst any species I’m aware of, they have found the knack of convincing us that we are getting pleasure from something that gives them far more. This is done by the purr, the miraculous noise they have developed for no other purpose apart from interacting with humans. Wild cats don’t do it. It’s all they give back when being stroked to an almost orgasmic pitch of excitement while we’re watching TV. So rarely do some cats, including ours, dish this out that it becomes all the more precious when it happens. In the art of playing hard to get, the cat has no peer.
You’ve also got to pay some mind to aesthetics if you’re going to let such creatures into your house. No one looking at a dachshund, a pug or a Yorkshire terrier could possibly claim that an evolutionary apex had been reached. The proportions between a dachshund’s length and legs are wrong, end of. (Some friends of my parents had one so long that when they took it for walks they had to strap a pair of those wheels that you put on suitcases round its midriff to stop its belly dragging along the Kensington pavements.) You look at some pugs out in public and it’s not immediately certain that the owners have put the lead round the correct end. As for Yorkshire terriers, more of them in a moment.
Dogs have allowed themselves to be moulded into all kinds of perverse shapes for god-knows-what human enjoyment. Some of them can barely walk, breathe or stand upright in a moderate wind. The old trope about dogs being like their owners is only possible because there are so many kinds of dog. In fact, the term “dog” is a bit useless. It encompasses everything from an animal that could fit in a jacket pocket to one with the proportions and temperament of a medium-sized bear.
The other thing about dogs is that they have absolutely no style. Have you ever seen a dog trying climb a tree? Pathetic doesn’t even come close. They are what their breeders or owners have decreed that they become, on various scales ranging from tangled fur ball to crazed sprinter, from nice-but-dim to totally empathetic or from coweringly abject to tear-your-throat-out. In all cases they are also the product of how effective their owners are. A cat is just a cat. It’s that simple and there’s nothing you can do about it.
If cat owners resembled their cats, we’d all look like Viv Richards or Audrey Hepburn. When you say “cat”, that’s what you get. With a few minor variations, there’s nothing to choose between any domestic breed and, aside from size, between them and their wild distant cousins. As with sharks, you’re looking at something absolutely perfectly built for what it’s designed to do. No improvement is possible. Owning a cat is like owning a Ferrari: owning a dog is like having something in your drive that’s part tricycle, part tank, part motor bike and part two-stroke lawnmower. If you don’t like it, however, it doesn’t matter – as long as you’ve got a couple of grand to drop there’ll be another model available soon, tailored perfectly for your unique and demanding lifestyle.
I think my own inclination in the matter is pretty clear by now. Let me close by giving you my earliest formative experience of dog handling. Then, perhaps, you’ll understand.
For many of my pre-teen years, summer holidays were spent in my uncle and aunt’s farm in a tiny village called Spreyton in Devon. I was a timid, solitary and bookish child, none of which characteristics endeared me to my alarming uncle George. I’m sure he was a lovely man but I rarely saw that side of him. George had a Yorkshire terrier called Rosie on whom he doted. I had never been brought up with dogs and gave Rosie a wide berth. I found George’s fawning on her embarrassing and her own teeth-bared acts of bravado whenever I was near her pathetic, alarming and inexplicable in roughly equal measure. Whenever George witnessed us not being matey he probably suspected me of wanting to cause her harm. All she probably wanted was a stroke and a kind word from a stranger. Mind you, so did I.
My aunt Patsy, my father’s sister, was an ethereally beautiful but slightly vague woman. One day she hit upon what must have seemed to her to have been the perfect way of integrating her shy seven-year-old nephew more fully into the life of the household. She asked me to take Rosie in one hand and a bowl of food in the other across the courtyard to the converted stable, off which George had what was called his business room. How could I refuse?
Picking up Rosie was unsettling: compared to the lithe, muscled cats I was used to this was like holding a bag of dried twigs. Very carefully, I crossed the yard and got to the door. With the dog wriggling in one hand and the bowl unsteadily grasped in the other, I was a hand short. I tried to improvise. The door finally swung open. There was a slight lip in the floor which I hadn’t prepared for.
I was hoping to achieve this alarming task without drawing attention to myself. The next few seconds put paid to that.
There were four noises, which followed each other at roughly one-second intervals. The first was Rosie falling from my grip and collapsing on the floor with a strange thud-crack-plop that I’d never heard before. The second was a brain-fusing shriek from her, way out proportion to her size. The third was the sharp crash as the bowl smashed on the flagstoned floor.
The fourth, which rapidly replaced the other three in my attention, was of the side door being thrown open to reveal uncle George. He roared at me, all his fears about my dog-malice now fully confirmed. Crunching the broken bowl and spilled dog food underfoot he bent down and clasped Rosie to his bosom. To my even greater alarm, it appeared to me that whereas she had previously had four legs, she now only had three. Where had the other one gone? What had I done? The roaring continued until Patsy appeared and scooped me away.
Well, I was in disgrace for the rest of the holiday. Rosie’s front leg had not, as I had feared, snapped off but had been dislocated. So tiny was the dog, my mother told me later, that a matchstick had been used as a splint. This cemented in my mind the fact that dogs were absurd. Some might need a matchstick for a dislocated limb, others a sturdy cricket stump. Either way, I wanted nothing to do with them.
Some years later, I witnessed my mother being pulled off a moped by an Alsatian (not a sentence you read every day). This was in France, where owners tended to keep guard dogs chained up all the time: if the chain broke, they would go at anyone they saw like a torpedo.
I’ve had dealings with several dogs since, of course. Many have bitten me, looked as if they were going to bite me, killed one of our chickens, defecated on our drive or tried to lick me. I find all of these more or less equally repulsive. It’s true that I meet them in a spirit of armed neutrality and so don’t give them an even chance. Above all, I find them alarming and always feel uneasy when I’m in close proximity to one. I’m not its master so all bets are off as to how it’s going to behave. Potentially, I’m just an enemy. I’m certainly not a friend. The essential thing about cats is that they don’t give a damn one way or the other.
Applying all this to myself, I reluctantly have to admit that I’m more of a dog than a cat. I’m loyal and fairly compliant and obedient. I understand the need for hierarchies and processes. I respond well to praise and am apt to cower if whacked with a rolled up newspaper. I have plenty of self-doubt and can, as long as I accept their logic, generally accept clear instructions. I need regular exercise and hearty meals. I am, in short, fairly socialised. Unlike dogs, I’m also fully house-trained.
The part of me that I most admire, however, is feline. I’ve never been part of a close pack, like so many of my friends have been or are. I hope I don’t always accept received wisdom at face value. Above all, I enjoy and often relish my own company. Intensely solitary experiences like swimming, writing stories and composing and recording songs on my own make me come alive in a way that most co-operative activities can never accomplish. Then, I see myself as The Cat the Walked by Itself in Rudyard Kipling’s Just So story: after having either rejected or perverted to its own ends the deals of co-habitation proposed by the clever woman, the clever man and the clever dog, the cat then announces himself to be his own master, waving his wild wild tail and walking by his wild lone.
Perhaps that’s why I like to be surrounded by them. After all, I see the dog-like part of me every day in the mirror, when I’m doing the laundry or when I’m putting out the bins at their allotted time. The cat-like part is more elusive and precious and so needs role models. When the cats are out, doing whatever mysterious and generally crepuscular things cats do, they provide it by their absence. Then I often feel it’s the time to vanish up my room, pen or plectrum in hand, and swish my wild and lone tail as best I can.