The "Truth" About Cats and Dogs (Exploring Gender Theory in the Context of Pet Choice in Western Societies)

I began exploring the relationship between dogs, cats, and gender theory quite some time ago, when I was still a graduate student at Utah State University. Under the guidance of Dr. Lynne McNeill, I took an animal folklore class and wrote a paper on the role of the snake (a rather phallic symbol, obviously) in religiously-motivated gender politics in Western cultures. In researching this, I read a really interesting piece that Dr. McNeill had written on the genderization of both cats and dogs, and how, historically speaking, cats have been rather feminized (which I'll get into in a bit). This began, for me, a fascination with both dogs and cats and how preference for one or the other may tell us something about a person's views on sex and gender in Western societies.

I began this particular blog post years ago, back in the summer of 2014. I never did finish it, but I'd like to do so now (as such, the entire post will be a mix of things I wrote back in 2014, and things I'm adding to it now). Before I proceed, however, allow me to disclaim any use of the words "all," "always," or any rendition of the two. I never speak or write in absolute terms, so please keep in mind as you read that I'm not ever trying to refer to all people, all dogs, or all cats. That's useful to know in a post such as this.

During the 2013-2014 school year, I had my fifth grade students write an opinion essay on whether they preferred cats or dogs as pets (or just in general). This was going to be the start of an opinion essay on that topic. Interestingly, out of 28 students, only two chose cats -- and those two students, both females, found themselves, as a result, on the receiving end of jokes and comments designed to berate them for preferring cats.

I, of course, didn't allow any sort of ridiculing to continue occurring, but the situation itself was rather fascinating. What are the underlying factors that cause us to identify as "cat people" or "dog people" here in America? And what is it about being a "cat person" that can cause such revulsion from self-proclaimed "dog people?" (Honestly, I've never in my life seen "cat people" make fun of or berate "dog people" for their preference, but I've seen the reverse happen a number of times, including the time in my classroom.)

Before I continue, I'll throw out there that I appreciate animals of all types, but do consider myself to be a "cat person" when it comes to pets. I have cats (and always have), and, although I don't dislike dogs, I much prefer interactions with cats. That's what makes me a "cat person," I suppose.

Most other "cat people" I know feel the same way. That is, they may enjoy dogs (and other types of animals) but tend to prefer cats in their lives and homes. But here's the interesting thing ... many self-proclaimed "dog people" do not feel the same way about cats. Not all, but many "dog people" (#notalldogpeople) actually have an active dislike for cats. This ranges from mild dislike that stems from misconceptions about cats, to an extreme hate-on for cats that makes one wonder if these people were killed by wild cats in a past life (yes, I jest, but only in the basis of an honest foundation rooted in personal experience). Once again, I'm not attempting to speak in absolutes -- I know that there are people that prefer both cats and dogs, people who don't like either, and people who have preferences for one but don't necessarily hate the other. The tendency I've seen for "dog people" to hate cats comes from a sampling of my experiences.

The most common complaint against cats that I've heard is that they are, supposedly, aloof and do not interact well with people. It's been said that dogs will be active members of the family, while cats will treat you only as a servant to be occasionally tolerated. Honestly, if this happened to be true, why would there be so many people who love having cats in their lives? The truth is that cats can have very distinct personalities that are quite different than what you'd experience from a dog, but they are also very loyal, loving, and intimate pets. Yes, interaction usually has to be their idea, and, yes, there are times when they're going to want to be left alone. They're not as dependent as dogs, and can get along on their own if need be. But when part of a loving home, they will curl up on you, purr, "kiss" (lick) your tears away, snuggle you in bed, and play games with you (games that usually simulate hunting a smaller animal and ripping it to shreds, but still).

Another interesting note about the "cats don't love you" argument is that people who make said argument rarely define what they mean by "love" and "affection." As Greg Stevens points out in his article (and don't judge me for the title, please, as I didn't write it), Dog Lovers are Co-Dependent and Terrible at Relationships, "dog people" seem to take attributes normally seen in dogs (such as the tendency to show overwhelming levels of excitement when a person comes home) and attach them as qualifications for "love" and "affection" in pets. Stevens writes that, in the real world, there are many ways in which people (and other species) show various levels of love and affection for others, and they are not all displayed by such crushing levels of dependence. The point is that, so what if a cat doesn't come to you when you call it, or come rushing home to meet you at the door (some cats do, I know, but that isn't the point)? Who cares? Who gets to decide that if a pet doesn't act in these specific ways (attached to human interpretations, I might add), it means they don't love you (or that, if they do these things, that they do love you)? This line if thinking is a bit narrow (if you'd like to continue reading about that particular analysis, however, go ahead and click on the above link to read Stevens' actual article).

But, you know, I digress. I could defend the loving nature of cats all day long, but that's not what this post is about. What I want to explore is why there seems such an active hate-on for cats in America (while, at the same time, it's almost a crime to criticize dogs in the same way), why dogs are often considered superior pets, and whether it has anything to do with the gender binaries we've created in our culture.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and speak purely from experience for a moment. People who actively hate cats tend to be conservative people who believe in gender roles and expectations, and who see dogs (particularly big dogs, which I'll get into in a moment) as symbols for masculinity. These people (again, in my experience), also view cats as symbols for femininity, and reject cats with the same virulent passion that they reject most other socially feminine representations (think, for example, of the ways in which some men reject floral patterns, the color pink, or long hair on men as though these things had the power to destroy society itself). In much the same way as the aforementioned examples, dogs (again, usually large ones) tend to get a pass for the proverbial "man card," while cats do not.

And much of the time, it's not just that these people don't prefer cats, or just enjoy dogs more. Many of these people downright hate cats -- hate them, with the fiery passion of a thousand suns. I've heard people brag about kicking cats or harming cats because their hatred of them was so profound. And this is what I find interesting (because, again, I have yet to meet a "cat person" who actively despises dogs, and I know our society wouldn't react to that as nonchalantly as we tend to react to cat hatred).

I'll add here that there actually have been studies done on the differences between "cat people" and "dog people," and the results tend to be the same. One study, done at the University of Florida, suggests that cat people tend to be more "solitary, impersonal, serious, and nonconformist," whereas dog people tend to be more "grounded, ... outgoing, sociable ... and group-oriented" (really, though, this is not surprising, given the nature of what dogs and cats, themselves, are like). Another study points to cat people being more intelligent than dog people (sorry, couldn't help but throw that one in there, especially since it caused an argument with an ex-boyfriend once upon a time), but also more neurotic. Interestingly (or not), though, studies have also shown that "dog people" tend to be more conservative, and "cat people" tend to be more liberal (and further, that liberals tend to be more welcoming of dogs than conservatives are of cats).

So why does all of this matter? Well, in my opinion, the biggest issue here is that conservatives (far more often than liberals) believe in gender roles and expectations, and with that comes a disdain for women's social, political, and economic equality with men. We see this on many levels, even in some of our politicians today. Even though many people aren't blatantly open about their loathing of gender equality, some are, and associating ideas definitely exist below the surface of our society. I've known, for example, men who quit jobs because their boss was a female and they couldn't handle that (these men, granted, were already senior citizens, so the idea of a female boss was new to them). I've known men who honestly believe the dissolution of all marriages begins with independent women. I've also known men who believe that the downfall of our society can be traced back to women no longer having to marry and make babies. These people exist, whether we acknowledge that or not, but my point is that these are often the types of people who also tend to absolutely hate cats.

The connection I'm drawing on here is that cat hatred can usually be found in people who also hold conservative views regarding gender equality. I'm going to speculate on what, in my opinion, all of this means. I think, in short, there is a link between a dislike of independent women and a dislike of independent pets.

To expand on this, let's look at some of the most common attributes that both dogs and cats present. Dogs are known for being extremely loyal. As I mentioned before, their enthusiastic excitement when their people are around is usually interpreted as unconditional, unending love. When done correctly, dogs can be trained to do be very obedient and do (or not do) almost whatever is asked of them. Dogs will acquiesce to what their humans want of them rather easily, and for an animal, that is no small thing. They have a long history of being "man's best friend," hunting partners, and overall assets to people's lives. In short, it's easy to dominate a dog and feel in control of and highly secure in one's relationship with a dog.

Cats, as most people know, are quite different. Cats are known for being aloof toward people, even their owners, and generally only showing affection when it's their idea to do so. They are wildly independent, and can survive on their own in ways that family dogs cannot. Cats cannot usually be trained to adhere to every instruction that comes from a human (though, in reality, cats have been trained to do awesome things, including using and flushing a toilet rather than a litter box). It is not easy to control a cat, and those who need constant, consistent affection and adoration from a pet in order to feel secure about that friendship might not get that from a cat.

So far, what I've identified is that "dog people" who hate cats tend to also be conservatives who don't fully believe in gender equality, and also that the qualities said people tend to like in dogs include obedience and "unconditional love," whereas the qualities they tend to hate in cats include indifference and independence.

What I find very interesting is that those qualities mentioned regarding dogs are also the qualities that men who don't believe in gender equality tend to look for in women (obedience, adoration, and unconditional love). The qualities they hate in cats are, you guessed it, also qualities they end to hate in women.

Any supposed connection between a disdain for cats and disdain for women dates pretty far back, in my opinion. European witch hunts, for example, tended to focus on targeting women (yes, there were men who were killed for witchcraft, too, but it was overwhelmingly women who were targeted and eventually executed). Witchcraft, historically and culturally speaking, has always been seen as a deviant alternative to patriarchal cultures and religions (throughout history, it was thought that witches worshiped the Christian devil; modern-day witches, however, identify a female goddess that they revere). During the times of the European witch hunts (and even here in America), along with the many humans that were killed for witchcraft, there were also many cats that were caught, tortured, and/or killed. This happened because people used to believed that witches could transfigure themselves into cats (so a cat wandering around on someone's property might be mistakenly identified as a witch in disguise). For a very long time, cats were thought to be witches' familiars, too (which is why black cats are still often associated with Halloween, superstition, and bad luck). Unlike other domesticated animals, cats were very difficult to control, and were sometimes thought of as dangerous ... just like uncontrollable women.

Socially deviant women, historically, have been outcast from society (or, as mentioned above, tortured or executed for witchcraft). This happened to women who didn't marry, women who didn't (or couldn't) bear children, and even women who were considered ugly. It happened to women who dared to take on roles traditionally reserved for men (think Joan of Arc), and women who in any way stepped out of the gender role prescribed for them. For centuries, these women have been associated with cats, who are also considered "deviant" in terms of the idea that men are supposed to rule over and control all animals. (As an interesting aside, people have looked to the Genesis story in the Bible as evidence that men were supposed to be in charge of the land, of all animals, and, of course, women).

Another interesting aside is that people who tend to identify as dog lovers in gendered ways usually prefer large dogs. I knew someone once who was so biased in his preference for big dogs over small ones, that he would insist that small dogs weren't really dogs at all, but "rats." He'd point out a small dog and say, "Oh, look, it's a rat." I'm not even kidding -- his identity as a dog person was so wrapped up in the size of the animal that he had a hard time even classifying small dogs as real canines, and needed to come up with an insulting way to identify those small dogs.

But I digress. I think there is a reason for large dog preference, too (at least as it relates to gender issues and identities). Large dogs are sometimes called "man dogs" (yes, I've heard them referred to as such). I think, in terms of gendered relationships with animals, some men prefer the requisite obedience and unconditional love of a large dog because it's evidence that he has been able to dominate such a large (sometimes frightening) animal. For these men, it may mean more to them that they can show the world that a big, tough-looking animal (who might bark at or chase others, depending on the dog and how well trained it is) still answers to them, respects them, and, of course, loves them. I think it meets a desire cultivated by ideas pertaining to masculinity in our culture.

So, in short, I think it's possible that we still see remnants of gendered ideas regarding animals in our modern societies and cultures (particularly patriarchal ones). It's no secret that cats are considered to be feminine. And conservative people who believe in maintaining traditional gender roles very often describe themselves as "dog people," often with large "man dogs," and often denounce the idea that cats can be as good a pet choice as dogs. Contrast this with the fact that socially liberal people (and, yes, single women) tend to prefer cats.

Regardless of what all of this may (or may not) mean, I think that to insist there isn't a link between pet preference and gendered ideas would be to overlook a very interesting cultural narrative.

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