We have spent more time than ever with our four-legged friends during COVID-19 lockdowns. But how do they see the world? And what are they really feeling?
When my father was young, a dog saved his life by leaping on a striking snake. Decades later, I watched our overfed ginger cat “mourn” Dad’s death, lying every day in the garage where he once worked, rubbing whiskers against his tools.
No one who has lived with a pet could deny they have feelings: affection, irritation, fear, perhaps even shame and jealousy, perhaps love. But is their behaviour always what it seems? Did my father’s dog, who was rather unfairly named Bimbo, pounce on the snake to protect him or was some wolfish hunting instinct surfacing at last? Did Max the cat really wonder where Dad had gone or had he just decided to annex the newly available garage?
Dogs and cats have been our companions for thousands of years and remain fiercely popular (almost half of Australians now have a dog, for example). Yet serious scientific questions about their inner lives have only been asked in recent decades. Why is it that a dog always seems to know when you’re sad? Are cats secretly plotting world domination? How did these two species evolve from the wild into our homes? How do you read their body language? And could they one day learn to talk to us?
Researcher and dog trainer Melissa Starling with Kivi the Finnish lapphund (left), Kestral the Portuguese podengo and Erik the Tall, a Swedish vallhund. Credit:Wolter Peeters
How did cats and dogs become cats and dogs?
A prehistoric puppy thawed from Siberia’s icy permafrost could solve the mystery of how wolves first became man’s best friend. "Dogor" is remarkably well-preserved, just two months old when he died 18,000 years ago, but still with teeth, fur, even whiskers intact. And yet, whenever scientists test his DNA to find out his species, they are stumped.
“We don’t [know] yet whether Dogor is a dog or a wolf or a bit of both,” says David Stanton, one of the researchers still testing the pup more than two years after his discovery. Could Dogor be the missing link between wolf and dog? Today the debate is far from settled but most researchers agree pooches evolved from wolves sometime between 15,000 and 32,000 years ago.
Dogs are the wolves that came in to sit by the campfire, who learnt to work with our ancestors for food, helping them hunt and manage other animals, offering protection and now, increasingly in the modern world, companionship. They evolved at our side, they can read our facial expressions. Even their patented “puppy dog eyes” offer an evolutionary advantage – for dogs, life has become not so much the survival of the fittest but of the cutest.
“We’re wired to respond to them, too,” says Melissa Starling, who both trains and researches dogs at the University of Sydney and has her own lively brood at home. “We have no defence against puppy dog eyes.”
Still, dogs today remain 99 per cent wolf (even pugs). The tiny changes in their DNA affect the digestive system, the brain and their rate of physical development (which helps explain the big differences between breeds). Essentially, dogs are well-mannered wolves who can eat grains.
“Dogor”, a perfectly preserved 18,000-year-old pup unearthed from the ice of the Siberian permafrost, could hold the secrets of the first dogs.Credit:Centre for Palaeogenetics/Twitter
But dogs are not prized as man’s best friend everywhere. In some cultures, they are eaten or considered impure.
Cats, too, face their fair share of prejudice. (Just ask my black rescue cat Nox.) And, while both cats and dogs have been carried out of shelters in huge numbers as we weather COVID-19 lockdowns at home, pets are still routinely abandoned to live as strays in the shadows of our cities and towns.
Unlike dogs, cats are not social by nature, coming from a long, proud line of solitary felines including tigers and leopards. How then have we tamed these wildcats into wearing collars and posing for Instagram photos?
It seems it was largely their idea.
When agriculture began some 10,000 years ago, the grain attracted rats and mice, which eventually attracted smaller wildcats. Our ancestors quite liked this pest control service and so left out treats to encourage the cats to stay. DNA evidence now shows that domestication has helped cats take over the world – shipped out from their original home in the Middle East to just about every continent on earth.
Yet cats have not been selectively bred to the same degree as dogs. Even today, they are still considered only semi-domesticated – the lion in your living room. Within a few generations in the wild, house cats can revert back to larger, fiercer animals, the feral cats that now wreak such a toll on our wildlife. (This might account for all those mysterious sightings of “panthers” and “leopards” in remote corners of Australia.)
Nox the cat doesn’t like being rushed when he’s out walking with his owner, reporter Sherryn Groch. Credit:Luis Ascui
Do cats and dogs love us?
Any wild animal might become “tamer” if handled by humans from a young age. And, as our urban sprawl keeps on sprawling, there are even early signs that other animals such as coyotes might be growing more familiar with us. But cats and dogs are different. While they still need to be around humans early to grow up “normal” (that is, well-behaved), it’s not just nurture at play. Thousands of years by our side has created some serious chemistry too.
Both species have been recorded getting a boost in oxytocin – the hormone released when we’re in love or bonding – while being patted by their owners. Dogs seem to get a bigger hit of this “molecule d’amour” than cats. Indeed, both dogs and their owners can produce it just by staring into each other’s eyes (this does not happen between wolves and humans). When US neuroscientist Gregory Berns began training dogs to lie still in noisy MRI machines, he found another promising sign of affection: the reward centre in a dog’s brain lights up more powerfully in the presence of its owner’s scent compared to when it’s sniffing other humans or dogs.
Twenty-five years ago, Jeffrey Masson, a former psychoanalyst from California, wrote his first bestselling book on animals When Elephants Weep and found himself accused of that great intellectual sin: anthropomorphising (attributing human traits to animals or objects). But, today, most scientists agree that animals can have complex, even profound emotions.
Masson himself believes dogs are now better at loving than people are. “Just as you can’t be as content as a cat, no one will ever love you like your dog,” he says. “They love purely.”
He recalls a tiny puppy he rescued from a car crash when he was studying in India. The pair became inseparable until it was time for Masson to return home to the States. He found the dog, which he’d named Puppy, a loving new family and had the tearful goodbye. But, the next day as he was farewelling a professor at his university, there came a sudden banging and scratching at the door. “It was Puppy. I still can’t understand it. Someone even swore later they had seen Puppy hop on and off a bus to the university.”
A cat named Tardar Sauce, but known to the internet as Grumpy Cat, became famous for her signature frown, though her owners swore she was actually a sweet girl.
With cats, love is a little more complicated. They are famously independent, even aloof at times. They require wooing, chin scratches, multiple openings of tin cans. And even then it’s hard to ignore that cold look of disdain from the top of the bookshelf while doing your morning yoga routine.
“Cats are so graceful, everything they do is aesthetically pleasing,” says Masson. “Of course, not everything we do is pleasing to them … But they choose us, they’re capable of deep affection. If you’ve ever shared a bed with a cat, you’ll know. They really settle in, they purr.”
Still, cats are not necessarily faithful. One of Masson’s own once migrated next door. “And my neighbour didn’t even like cats [at first].”
The fickleness of cats is why many scientists are still loathe to study them in the lab. To test one cat, you need three, they will say, as the other two will likely withdraw consent halfway through. “They are notoriously difficult,” says Federico Rossano, who works with animals of all shapes and sizes as director of the Comparative Cognition Lab at the University of California. “We saw a huge boost in research into dogs starting from the '90s but we haven’t seen the same with cats. But when they do participate, they can give us great results, even match the dogs sometimes.”
At the University of Oregon, Kristyn Vitale and Monique Udell have run groundbreaking experiments showing that cats display the same signs of attachment to their owners as dogs. Even more astounding, they’ve shown that cats prefer interacting with people over toys and, yes, food, and will seek out humans who pay attention to them.
Because domestication has made cats and dogs reliant on us, both species live in a kind of permanent juvenile mindset, Vitale says, where we become almost a surrogate mother. It’s why you see cats purring and “kneading” with their paws – the same behaviours kittens usually grow out of.
Sherryn’s other rescue cat Ziggy heads off on an evening stroll.Credit:CREDIT: SHERRYN GROCH
How do cats and dogs perceive the world?
Humans tend to see the world first – dogs smell it. For dogs (and to a lesser extent cats), smell is the primary sense – and the world is one aromatic buffet of informative scents. The nose of a dog is at least 10,000 times more powerful than your own – it can sniff out storms before a whisper of rain is on the air, find cancer cells in our blood, or catch a familiar scent up to 20 kilometres away. We have bred dogs to help us hunt and now we train them for more modern jobs such as sniffing out bombs, drugs, even COVID. Squads of coronavirus-sniffing canines, for example, are already being trialled in some airports around the world (but don’t expect a pooch to replace the eye-watering Q-tip test any time soon).
“Smell is such a minor sense for us it’s hard to appreciate what the world is like for them,” Starling says. When a dog stops on a walk, it’s a little like checking social media, they will often sniff around to see who else has been there and leave behind a “post” of their own.
I don’t have a backyard and so I don’t have a dog at the moment. Perhaps as a cry for help, I have instead started taking my two cats for walks – on leads. Most days we make it to the end of the street before turning for home. After a brief standoff, they usually waddle back, pausing perhaps to solicit some extra pats or cast one synchronised glare at the grey cat over the road.
Masson assures me I haven’t gone mad. He confesses he used to take his six cats for walks to the beach when he lived on the coast of New Zealand. They’d stroll down in the dead of night when no one else was around. The family dog would come too and the chickens and rabbit would sometimes follow. “It was some of the happiest times of my life,” Masson says. “The cats would race off and then hide and leap out and scare the dog. They loved it!”
Artist Nickolay Lamm consulted with vets to design this cat’s eye view of the world (below). Cats have much better night vision than a human (above). Credit:NICKOLAY LAMM
To my surprise, so do mine. They meow at the back door. They drag out their harnesses. They throw their little heads back in the breeze and flop in the grass, eyes closed, purring. They even let me lead them, sort of, if I ask really nicely. Their ears are constantly moving, triangulating sounds.
A cat's hearing is even better than a dog's (perfect for catching every stealthy opening of the pantry door) but both animals can pick up much higher frequencies than humans. They don’t see in the rich spectrum of colour that we enjoy but that doesn’t mean they’re completely colourblind; the world is painted in mostly blues and yellows for cats and dogs, possibly even ultraviolet. And their night vision is far superior thanks to a reflective layer behind the eye that helps catch even the faintest glimmer of light (and gives them that distinctive green eyeshine.)
But what about that trick a cat has of (almost) always landing on its feet? Thanks to a bendy spine and a renowned sense of balance, cats really can walk away from many hair-raising falls – in fact, shorter drops from one or two stories can often do them more harm if they don’t have time to twist into the right position mid-air. (On longer falls, cats will even “parachute” down for much of the descent by spreading all four paws wide. Just don’t try this at home.)
A cat’s vision (simulated in the bottom half) can struggle with focus very close and far away (but their whiskers help them navigate tight spaces).Credit:Nickolay Lamm
Can pets teach us things, and sense our feelings?
It had been a sweet but unlucky puppy named Harvey who prepared me for the suddenness of death, the chest-splitting pain. I was eight when he died. For many children, Masson says, the death of a beloved pet will be their first experience of grief. “The good thing is people don’t really say ‘It’s just a dog’ anymore. Pets help teach children empathy, too.”
And they can do more than that. At the end of his mother’s life, Masson would take his dog Benjy into her nursing home and watch him lift the shadow of dementia from her eyes. As a reporter, I’ve seen it too, the therapeutic power of an animal, not just in aged care but in schools among children with a history of trauma. They’d tell me the moment they reached out their hands to touch the therapy dog, they instantly calmed down, as if the dog was a kind of talisman.
“Dogs want to be near us,” Starling says. But, while she agrees most pooches know when the humans around them are sad, and many will try to fix it, she notes sometimes, in coming over, they are really seeking comfort themselves.
“They’re saying, ‘This is stressing me out. I need some pats.’ They’re like children in a lot of ways. Some dogs make excellent therapy dogs, just like some people make great counsellors. Some can’t handle it.”
Starling, whose own dog Erik the Tall is being treated for clinical anxiety, calls canines "social acrobats". "They can handle a lot of situations and live in harmony with lots of other species. But they put up with things humans do too, even when their body language tells me they don’t really like it.”
A wagging tail is not always the sign of a happy dog – if it’s high and stiff, the dog could be agitated. “That’s when I look at the face. If there’s tension there, if they’re making jerky glances around. And then, if they suddenly close their mouth, that’s a problem. Often, what happens next is quite dramatic.”
Likewise for felines, and their famously inscrutable “resting cat face”: slow, sleepy blinks can actually function like a smile. And “chattering” at a bird could be a sign of frustrated hunting instinct – and a need for more play.
But what if our pets could just tell us what they wanted?
Primates might be closer to humans in DNA (and brainpower) but researchers say cats and dogs are much better at understanding us, and that means they might also be better at communicating. In 2018, speech pathologist Christina Hunger began teaching her young blue heeler Stella to “talk” using the same interactive soundboard she deploys to help young children master language (tapping a button on the board will play a recorded phrase).
Above: Estelle the dog delights her owner by pressing the “Love you” button. Source: TheyCanTalk.org
Copycat “talking dogs” have since flooded the internet. A Sheepadoodle named Bunny may have even achieved some kind of self-awareness. In one viral TikTok video, Bunny appears to tap the button to play the phrase ’Who” “This” before staring at herself in the mirror.
Rossano is now studying Bunny and 1650 other dogs learning to “speak” with the soundboards at home – as well as 85 obliging cats and three curious horses.
“We’re trying to work out if the [animals] are tapping the button because they’ve been trained to do it, because they get a reward or attention, or because they really understand,” Rossano says. “Videos on Instagram can be edited. What we’re looking for is if they start showing flexibility the way a toddler would, using a word like ‘where’ to ask for the location of different things.”
While Rossano is making no big claims until the data is in (“it may just be wishful thinking”), if the animals do pass the test it could transform our relationship to them. “Dogs seem particularly well suited to this [given] they’re already so co-operative with humans. But you see pigs act almost like dogs if raised with people … Maybe pigs could [speak] too, how then would we treat them?”
Above: The feline participants in Rossano’s study, “They Can Talk”, are particularly fond of the “more” “treats” buttons on the soundboard. Source: TheyCanTalk.org
So far, Rossano says the canines in the study have outstripped his expectations, at times asking for help if in pain or even speaking for other dogs in the house the way an older sibling would.
“I thought the humans would be leading the conversations, instead we see the dogs initiating it. And interestingly most of their owners say they seem less frustrated now, they’re barking less. It's kind of like a toddler screaming if they're not being understood.”
Melissa Starling’s dogs: Kestral (centre) is descended from dogs bred to chase rabbits out of warrens so finds and squeeze through holes in fences without slowing down “like there’s a map in her head”.Credit:Wolter Peeters
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