I am David Grimm, author of Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs. The book explores the past, present, and future of our relationship with our companion animals. From probing the feline mind to giving dogs their own lawyers, ask me anything.
We’ll spend $60 billion on our companion animals this year. More than half of us would rather be trapped on a desert island with our cat or dog than with a human companion. And in the last couple of decades, pets have earned the right to inherit money, be rescued from natural disasters, and even be given their own lawyers in some cases. How did we get to this point, and what happens next?
That’s what I explore in my new, critically acclaimed book, Citizen Canine, out in paperback today. An awarding-winning journalist at Science, I trace the journey of dogs and cats from wild animals to family members, exploring how our relationship with them has changed over thousands of years and what the future may hold. The book covers a variety of topics—everything from how our pets think, to how much we should spend on veterinary care, to whether cats and dogs should have legal rights. From science to history to law, I know just about everything there is to know about dogs and cats. Ask me anything!
Thank you all for your great questions! Be sure to check out the book, now out in paperback!
Do you think that we get more from pets or they get more from us either physically or emotionally?
Great question. Honestly, I think it’s a pretty even exchange. Pets get to be on permanent vacation and have their every whim and need catered to (at least the lucky ones), and we get companions that provide unconditional love. Pets may also provide us with health benefits like lower anxiety and blood pressure. I think we both make out like bandits!
What is the country in the world that is the most advanced in terms of cats and dogs’ legal rights and why?
I believe other countries have classified animals as “sentient beings”, while they’re still “property” in the U.S. But I haven’t heard of cases of dogs getting lawyers or federal laws impelling rescue agencies to save cats and dogs outside of the U.S.
Cats or dogs?
Ha! Well I’m a cat person, but I love dogs too. I think we get different things from each pet. Dogs are faithful companions who become like our children. Cats let us bring a bit of the wild into our homes–they allow us to caress the tiger, as someone once said–but they are also “love sponges”, as Ernest Hemmingway called them. Why chose? Get both! 🙂
What is your views on the hostility some cultures are facing for eating animals that other cultures consider pets?
Good question. I do think there’s some hypocrisy in giving other cultures a hard time for killing dogs and cats, when we kill chickens and cows. (and i’m saying this as someone who’s not a vegetarian… although i’m trying).
My family likes to adopt shelter rescue animals when it’s time for a new family pet. The pet’s demeanor often changes from sad and defeated to playful and engaged. Sometimes we swear they are “thankful” for us because after they settle in to new surroundings they are often overly affectionate and submissive. Is that human projection, or can cats and dogs truly express complex emotions about their change? What are some intriguing ways that our pets have come to be more attuned to being human companions and not simply human property?
Dogs have lived with us for up to 30,000 years; cats, about 10,000. I think in this time they have evolved to become more attuned to our emotions. In fact, a recent study (http://news.sciencemag.org/brain-behavior/2015/04/how-dogs-stole-our-hearts) showed that dogs activate the same hormonal response in us that human infants do. So I do think both animals are capable of complex emotions.
What do you think should be done about breed standards that are propagating unhealthy traits for aesthetic reasons? There is so much scientific literature that points out the genetic basis of things like brachycephalic syndrome, yet nothing seems to change with the (majority of) breeders.
I’m not a huge fan of breeding. I think we should appreciate dogs (and cats) for what they are, not for what we can turn them into. I’d also like to see more people adopting pets than buying them from breeders. More than 3 million unwanted cats and dogs are killed in U.S. shelters every year.
Why do humans give their affection to cats and dogs and not pigs or cows?
Great question. There are millions of animals on earth, and dozens of domesticated animals. Yet we’ve largely singled out just two–cats and dogs–to be our family members. I think it may have something to do with the adaptability of cats and dogs, and the fact that they think a lot like we do. As a result, it’s easier for us to form emotional bonds with them.
Do you think primates should have more rights/legal protection than our pets?
That’s a timely question. As you may know, the Nonhuman Rights Project, headed by animal lawyer Steve Wise, is pushing for chimpanzee “personhood” in new york. (http://news.sciencemag.org/plants-animals/2015/04/judge-s-ruling-grants-legal-right-research-chimps) Wise argues that chimps (and dolphins and elephants) are so cognitively advanced that they should be granted some human-like rights. But others argue that we should reserve rights for animals that we already treat like people–i.e. dogs and cats. And we’ve certainly seen dogs and cats get more rights (if you want to call them that) than chimps: dogs have gotten lawyers in 3 recent court cases, pets can inherit money, and felony anticruelty laws tend to be harshest for those who abuse dogs and cats.
And then there are those, of course, who say no animals should have rights.
Why does my cat ALWAYS have to go to the bathroom with me. If I don’t let her in, she flips her shit like there is some sort of “Potty Party” that she’s going to miss out on. Then she wants to be petted while I’m trying to poo. It’s an odd way to live man. Why does she DO that? Jellybean plotting evil.
Wow, I’ve never heard of that. When our cats were kittens, they wouldn’t go to the bathroom unless we were watching them–which is kind of the opposite of your situation. She’s probably just taking advantage of a time where you’re forced to keep petting her because you’re, um, stuck. 🙂
All the neighborhood cats shit in my moms garden. She is not that mobile so she cant do anything about it. How do I train these cats to take a dump somewhere else?
I would talk to the owners. We let our cats outside, but try to keep them from excreting anywhere they shouldn’t. We should be responsible for our cats outdoors like we are for our dogs outdoors.
Why does it seem like everything we know about cats is based on rumor and innuendo but there’s a new study on dog brains every week?
Great question! I wrote a piece for Slate on this very issue last year (http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2014/04/cat_intelligence_and_cognition_are_cats_smarter_than_dogs.html)
There are about a dozen labs around the world studying the canine mind, but almost no one is studying cats. For my book, I scoured the world to find someone–anyone–who studies the feline mind, and all I came up with was one scientist in Italy who usually studies fish, but who did one experiment (on counting ability) in cats. Fish, he told me, are easier to work with than cats.
And that’s the crux of the problem: dogs don’t mind being in a lab and doing tricks for experiments–heck, they love it. But cats don’t want to be anywhere near a lab. So unfortunately, that’s preventing us from knowing much about how their minds work. But hopefully advances in scientific techniques (like MRI imaging) may eventually help us shed light on the feline mind.
I have a cat that insists on rubbing her face on our faces. What does this mean with a cat?
The cat is marking you as his/her own. Be honored!
What would you say about a pitbull in a Manhattan apartment?
I think we should love our pets, but also respect their needs. A big dog needs big space, and if it lives in a small apartment it should at least be allowed to go outside a few times a day.
What are your thoughts on dog owners who
flaunt flout leash laws because their dog is “perfectly behaved” or similar sentiment?
We have that problem in our neighborhood. The issue is that these owners don’t know how their dogs are going to react to cats or children, and I’ve been involved in situations where dogs lunged at both (my cats and my toddlers). So I think all dogs owners should err on the side of caution and leash their pets.
I’m gonna be asking this girl out and she’s a cat person while I’m a dog person and I know you don’t have a crystal ball ….do you think it can work based on our preferred companions?
Absolutely. I don’t think cat people and dogs people are as different as the stereotypes suggest. In fact, many households have both pets. What you have in common is your love for animals. I think that should take you pretty far. 🙂
Some have said, after studying the history of canid domestication, that without dogs civilization would not have come so far so fast. For example, the selfless pack animal will hunt and gather food, and then share it. What are you thoughts on the validity of such a statement?
Yes, some have said that we wouldn’t be here without dogs. I think there’s some truth to that, as dogs made us more successful hunters and herders. They may have even helped us out-compete Neandertals, according to some theories. But cats may have also made us what we are today, by protecting our grain stores and protecting us from disease.
So, what do you think about the Yulin Dog Festival?
It’s obviously horrific for those of us who love animals to see them treated this way. If you oppose the festival, there are many animal welfare groups trying to stop it. I encourage you to support those organizations.
I haven’t been following this as much in the past few years, but you’re an expert! What is some of the newest, most interesting and groundbreaking research on dog and cat evolution and domestication that you’re aware of?
Well, I hate to be self-serving (actually, I don’t really–that’s why i’m here!), but I’ve rounded all of it up in my book. Check it out!
Is there anything so new that it didn’t make it into your book?
Yea, check out this story I wrote on dog domestication http://davidhgrimm.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Dawn-of-the-Dog.pdf
and this one on cat evolution
Do dogs feel and express guilt? I read once that they didn’t, but I know better.
Good question. I talk about this in my book. A study that came out a few years ago suggested that the “guilty look” given by dogs isn’t a true expression of guilt. But that doesn’t mean dogs don’t feel guilt–we just haven’t found a good way to measure it.
Do you agree killing street dogs? Is there any other way?
Yes, spay/neuter. Some groups are also working on an injectable contraceptive: http://www.acc-d.org/
I’m actually studying the child – animal bond for my Masters degree and looking at how companion animals can help foster empathy and prosociality. There are many recent studies suggesting a link between having animals in the home and a greater understanding and respect of animals. What do you think about this evolving area of research?
Thanks for your question. Yes, I do think that having pets increases our empathy for all creatures. I think one of the reason we’re so pro-animal welfare in this country is because of our cats and dogs!
What’s the best argument you’ve every heard in favor of denying domesticated animals more rights?
At least for cats and dogs: that it would make pet ownership more onerous and thus scare people away from adoption.
At Christmas my brother unfortunately had to give his cats away due to him moving back home with my parents. Do you think they will still miss and remember him?
I wish there weren’t so many stories like this–people giving up pets that have grown attached to them. Yes, I do think our pets miss us. For my book, I visited a jail in Colorado where the inmates spoke of their cats and dogs snuggling into their old clothing while they were behind bars. I think we should absolutely try to avoid abandoning our pets if at all possible.
This is a sort of weird ontological debate about cats that me and my brother have been having for a while. Do cats know they’re cats? Do they think of humans as big cats, or of themselves as little people? In what ways does this sense of being affect their behavior?
I think John Bradshaw discusses this in his recent book, Cat Sense. But bottom line: Cats don’t see us a big cats. They see as as big, unpredictable apes. But they’re mostly cool with it.
What are you opinions on Cesar Millan’s advice on being the pack leader to help maintain order in a house? I have a big german shepard and his advices did help me but I was wondering if there are 2nd opinions about this method.
I don’t have strong feelings, but some people have said that dogs are no more like wolves than we’re like chimpanzees. Dogs have lived with us for somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000 years. That’s a long time for co-evolution!
Do cats have “packs” like dogs?
Feral cats sometimes hang out in large groups. But dogs are definitely more of a pack animal.
Do you feel that thousands of dollars are better spent on keeping a cat alive, than instead saving many, many human lives with that money?
I think we all spend our money on things that are important to us, whether it be big screen TVs, or vacations, or our pets. I don’t think we should feel guilty about saving a life, whether it be animal or human.
Morgan Freeman, aka God, told me (& everyone else) on his Through the Wormhole show, that cats are the one species that domesticated themselves. Is this true?
Yes, cats domesticated themselves. At least that’s what scientists think. They came into early farming villages to hunt rodents, and realized if they were well behaved humans would keep them around.
Interestingly, dogs may have also domesticated themselves. Some wolves, it’s thought, got more food by cozying up to hunting-gathereing humans. Later, we domesticated dogs further by breeding them for specific tasks.