Peter Hough

Peter Hough
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Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Domesticated cats and dogs are social parasites

When I was studying for my psychology degree as a mature student, there was one lecture which stuck in my mind. The subject matter was grief, how it affects people, and what coping strategies could be employed to mitigate it.

The lecturer turned the subject matter towards our anthropomorphism of animals - how we interpret their behaviour in human terms. To kick off the debate he came out with the following statement:

"Domesticated cats and dogs are social parasites."

This wasn't an emotional reaction on his part but a bald statement of facts.

Is this a social parasite?
Over generations, he explained, cats and dogs had learned how to manipulate our emotional response towards them, so we will give them the life of Riley, and all they have to do is eat and sleep. They have learned to do this by behaving like kittens and puppies for the whole of their lives. They worked out that if they roll over so we can tickle their stomachs, miaow and whimper, it will elicit a parental response.

And you see it with pet lovers. The pets become their children, and cats and dogs are more than happy to play along for the benefits they get in return.

I've seen this with my own cat. When she wants feeding, she rolls over and miaows like the little kitten she isn't. I tickle her stomach then go and open a can of food. Cat's happy, I'm happy, but according to my lecturer it's all based on a lie! She doesn't really love me, she's just manipulating me for what she can get. I'm sure that if I was to disappear today the cat wouldn't give a hoot - as long as there was someone else to step into my shoes.

Thinking about all this reminded me of a book of linked short stories by Ray Bradbury called The Martian Chronicles. The book is concerned about the human settlement of Mars. In one of the stories, an elderly couple have come to the red planet to escape the death of their son, Tom, many years before. They are startled one night to see their teenage son standing outside in a thunderstorm. This is one of the few surviving martians who can read human minds and shape-shift.

The couple accept the martian into their home, and in exchange he takes on the role of their much loved son.

I'm sure my cat can read my mind, but she hasn't mastered how to shape-shift yet.

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