by Mark English
What do our attitudes to cats and dogs tell us about ourselves? (If anything.)
I’m not a psychologist and generally try to avoid the amateur psychologizing that these sorts of questions tend to encourage. But sketching out some preliminary thoughts on the general matter of attitudes towards cats and dogs and the binary thinking which is so often involved in this area seems worthwhile. It also gives me a pretext to talk about a few interesting cases and to give links to some diverting material on a couple of them (in particular, an anonymous young woman who describes a near-death experience and a brief profile of the art critic, Brian Sewell).
In general terms you could class individuals as cat-lovers, dog-lovers, cat-and-dog-lovers, or lovers of neither cats nor dogs (that is, in terms of either/or, both/and or neither/nor).
In the neither/nor camp would be those who had never had a positive experience of either animal, and maybe are just not interested in pets or have negative attitudes towards them. A Chinese girl I knew was definitely neither/nor. She was frightened of dogs and was spooked by cats. She moved in with a male friend of mine who had a lovely dark brown cat called Maxine. The girl was not only spooked by but jealous of Maxine. The cat had to go.
The both/and camp is slightly more complex and varied. Animal lovers. Many are very reasonable people. Others might be fanatics, imposing an either/or (binary) choice at a super-ordinate level; favoring, in other words, non-human animals over human ones.
But binary (either/or) thinking seems to apply very naturally at the level of cats and dogs, such that there is a widespread assumption that there are cat people and there are dog people, and that behind this distinction lies something objective, something that goes beyond arbitrary preferences and reflects our deeper natures. This is where the temptation to amateur psychologizing comes in, which I am going to resist. But clearly dogs and cats themselves inhabit quite separate moral universes.
Gene Weingarten is not the most popular fellow round these parts , but let me quote from a piece he wrote earlier this year on a crucial difference between cats and dogs, from a social-interaction-with-humans (i.e. from a psychological or if you like ‘moral’) point of view. He is talking about a stray kitten he adopted:
I haven’t yet learned how to discipline him effectively, because unlike dogs, who accept punishment with appropriate shame and learn from their errors, cats do not seem to grasp the concept of personal responsibility or atonement. Barnaby does not regard getting yelled at, or being put on timeout, as an occasion for attitudinal adjustment. If anything, he regards it as an opportunity for reprisal. 
Weingarten is highlighting here a fundamental difference between cats and dogs, in terms of their behavior. Dogs are eager to please their human overlords. Cats please themselves.
Recognizing this, it’s not implausible to think that our preferring one to the other might say something important about us. I won’t try to flesh this out here, except to say that a good many people (myself included) are tempted to play this game and to see themselves as tending to the feline or alternatively to the canine end of an imagined feline/canine axis.
Of course, this is just one example of the binary thinking upon which so much human thinking and behavior is based. The same type of thinking also lies behind all those “there are two kinds of people” sayings, some of which can be quite witty and apparently insightful. (For example, the interestingly self-referential proposition that there are two kinds of people, those who divide people into two categories and those who don’t.)
But, of course, this kind of thinking (based on unconscious, ‘quick and dirty’ brain functions, rather than on conscious reflection) is notoriously crude and inadequate to represent the real nuances and complexities of the social world. In the end, it probably tells us more about how our brains are designed, generically speaking, than about the world in general.
Many philosophers and psychologists have written about binary thinking. Even linguists. In fact it may be that all thinking is binary at some fundamental level. But binary thinking at the level of human judgments is problematic to say the least. That’s really all I want to say about the broader question here. My main focus is on our attitudes to cats and dogs which just happen, in many cases, to exemplify this curious general tendency to make binary judgments.
Some of us have this affliction worse than others. I am a pretty bad case, always wanting instinctively to take sides – on anything it is possible to take sides on. For me, all this drawing of lines is about orientation, a kind of mapping of logical space: me, not me; and, beyond that, good and bad forever, ad infinitum. Of course, my critical sense kicks in too – some if not all of the time.
So, not surprisingly, at various times, I have felt the desire to decide whether I was basically a dog person or a cat person (always maintaining, I hope, a certain critical distance and seeing these commitments both as somewhat trivial and as provisional and prone to change over time).
I won’t bore you with my personal history of family pets. The short version is that there was a much-loved and ever-loyal Scottish Terrier when I was an infant; and then a disaster of a Cairn Terrier, which we children thought we loved but whom in retrospect we would probably have been happier and better off without. Lesson: think thrice before buying your children a dog.
Students of psychology may recall a famous case of a girl and her pony which exemplifies a very common pattern of thinking. The girl thought she loved her pony, because every girl loves her pony, but when she grew older and looked back at that time, she realized that she hadn’t really loved it at all and in fact hadn’t even liked the ill-tempered and evil-smelling beast. The lesson here is that we often don’t know our own minds.
Well, Gamma was a “smelly pony” of a dog, and I drifted catwards over time, pushed by both personal and literary influences.
A significant personal influence were some much-loved, elderly neighbors, the Hoffmans. Frank bought a Siamese cat. If Dorothy was jealous, she never showed it. The cat would regularly get stuck on the roof and Frank had cobbled together this contraption involving a basket, a long stick and a length of twine, which he would use to get the cat down. Both Frank and the cat really loved this rigmarole. Dorothy just rolled her eyes.
And then there was the influence of T.S. Eliot, definitely a cat person (see Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats). He was also a serious poet and critic, of course. As a young man, he wrote a PhD dissertation on the Idealist philosopher F.H. Bradley.
This last fact is rather odd, because Bradley was an extreme case of an anti-cat man. In fact, he used to wander around the grounds of Merton College (Oxford) late at night with a rifle – shooting cats.
Whether or not Bradley was a dog man, I am not sure, but he certainly understood dog people. Take these remarks from a section of chapter XXVI of his daunting and difficult magnum opus Appearance and Reality, dealing with the human desire for life after death and the inconsistencies of the standard (Christian) view:
No one can have been so fortunate as never to have felt the grief of parting, or so inhuman as not to have longed for another meeting after death… One feels that a personal immortality would not be very personal, if it implied a mutilation of our affections. There are those too who would not sit down among the angels, till they had recovered their dog.
That Bradley was on to something here is indisputable, and neatly confirmed by two very different instances which came to my attention recently.
One case involved a party girl, who had a near death experience (yes, at a party). She is not the type of girl who would normally speak publicly about such matters, but felt she had an important message to convey and so made a YouTube video on the experience. She speaks concisely and well but goes off on a bit of a religious tangent at the end. Such experiences are quite interesting to hear about, though I personally do not see them as pointing to the likelihood of a life after death.
For present purposes I would draw your attention to the segment (about 7 or 8 minutes in) in which she is describing seeing her life in review, people she knew, etc.. “And then my dog popped out,” she says, wide-eyed, her open hands raised.  The dog is a central feature of this experience and, obviously, of her life. It (the actual dog, that is) was nearby as she recorded the talk – she is distracted briefly as she hears it drinking water.
And finally there is the case of the English art critic, Brian Sewell, who died last September. Sewell had very strong (and not altogether popular) opinions on art and other matters and didn’t hold back in expressing them. He was well described [by Clive Anderson] as “a man intent on keeping his Christmas card list nice and short.”
A few years ago Sewell was asked by an interviewer about old age and death. “I am philosophical about old age,” he replied. “As for whether I fear death – I shan’t know until it’s there. All I really want is to wake up and find that every one of my 17 dogs, past and present, is round my bed. Then I shall know that I’m dead, but happily so.” 
Mentioning these thoughts of dogs after death may sound a bit arch or flippant. But the prevalence of such thoughts says something significant about the nature of some people’s commitments to their pets. These relationships can matter just as much or even more than human relationships, it seems.
I don’t envisage waking up after death, but if I did, I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing again some of the people I have known. And also, perhaps, a certain cat (long gone), whom I have not talked about here but who lies behind my interest in the topic of this essay.