Nature | Editorial

Out of the bag

The preference for either cats or dogs affects science more than you might think.

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The much-discussed difference between pet cats and dogs was neatly summarized by the late British journalist Christopher Hitchens. “Owners of dogs will have noticed that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they will think you are god,” Hitchens observed. “Whereas owners of cats are compelled to realize that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they draw the conclusion that they are god.”

Many see the apparent conflict between the attitudes of the two animals mirrored in the personalities of those who choose to own one or the other. Cat owners, it is claimed, are more neurotic and open with their emotions. Dog people are more disciplined and outgoing (and not just for long, muddy walks). Science has little conclusive to say on the matter, but accident statistics do: a 2010 study of non-fatal injuries in the United States found that more than seven times as many people were likely to hurt themselves in falls caused by dogs as by cats. (Cat owners are allowed a feeling of smug superiority here, because the actions of dog owners were as much to blame for the accidents in many cases as the animals themselves.)

As we discuss in a News story on page 252, the differences between dog folks and cat people extend all the way up to senior scientists, including some at the US National Institutes of Health, at least according to feline researchers. Work on cats has been overlooked for years, they complain, partly because “there were more powerful people interested in dogs”. The complete dog genome was sequenced a decade ago, and has produced hundreds of genes linked to canine traits and diseases, but a high-quality version of the first cat genome was published only last year.

Now, the cat lobby is trying to catch up, and feline fanciers everywhere have their chance to help. Just US$7,500 will pay for a single cat’s genome to be sequenced, and the funders — pet owners, breeders, pet-food companies — get to choose the breed or even the individual animal. Together, the project organizers hope that comparisons between dozens of these separate genomes will shed more light on cat diseases and genetic mutations that may drive similar conditions in humans — just as they have already for dogs.

Indeed, as scientists know, cats and dogs have more in common than it might seem. Cats and dogs do not even have to fight like, well, cat and dog. Plenty of people own both animals, and research on these households offers some advice: get the cat first, and get both while they are young.

Don’t fancy either? Then take inspiration from Winston Churchill. “I am fond of pigs,” he said. “Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.”

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