Cat people vs. dog people

Who is more annoying? Our intrepid reviewer plunges into the overflowing litter box of pet lit to find out.

By Laura Miller
Published August 29, 2002 7:14PM (EDT)

Of the questions that perplex humanity, some are eternal (What is the meaning of life? Do we have a spiritual essence that survives our material existence?) and some are ephemeral (Where is Osama bin Laden? Why does "Sex and the City" have a reputation for featuring fabulous clothes when most of the time poor Sarah Jessica Parker is dressed up like an organ grinder's monkey?). Still others are mundane, yet persistent. To the third category -- joining that perennial earth-scorcher, "Which is better, Mac or PC?" -- belongs the question at hand: Who are more annoying, cat people or dog people?

Only a noncombatant can judiciously address this one, and we often seem to be a vanishing breed; according to a 2001 survey by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, there are 68 million "owned dogs" and 73 million "owned cats" in the America. For the record, though, I should add that I like both dogs and cats and have lived with both, albeit not with either for years. When pressed to take sides, I've always leaned toward cats. I like the low-maintenance aspect of felines, and the fact that they don't smell -- or not much, as long as the litter box isn't allowed to fester. Plus, all things considered, they're prettier. Admittedly, these are girly preferences, but they aren't very strong ones; I'm always up for petting a friendly pooch, too.

At any rate, the cats and dogs strike me as innocent parties to the dispute; when cat people are ragging on canines, it soon becomes obvious that the true objects of their scorn are dog owners, not the dogs themselves, and vice versa. These are discussions in which neither reason nor temperance flourish, but I'll try to summarize the essential critiques of each side in an effort to get them efficiently out of the way.

Dog people profess to be baffled by the cat person's affection for an animal that provides so little active amusement: Cats will not frolic with you in the surf or fetch sticks or point with their noses at a bird for you to shoot. Because cats can't be trained to do the same sorts of tricks that dogs do, they are considered to be less intelligent, and because they are not by nature as social as dogs, they are seen as comparatively aloof or indifferent to humans. Dog people think cat people are suckers for doting on sneaky, selfish creatures that only pretend to like people in order to get food and other goodies and that will never, say, jump into a raging, flood-swollen river to rescue a small child at the risk of their own lives, as the faithful hound supposedly will.

Cat people heap contempt on dog people for actually thinking a dog's devotion counts for much. A dog's love for its owner is, cat people say, entirely instinctual, indiscriminate and often unearned by its object; you are not loved for yourself but for the position you assume in the dog's life -- anyone else would do as well. Therefore, dog owners must be so desperate for love as to be nearly undeserving of it. The willingness of dogs to learn tricks is a result not of their intelligence but of their dopey eagerness to please. That cats can't be bothered to sit or heel on command is, their partisans insist, a sign that they are more clever by half. Cats are also self-cleaning, slobber-free, handy when you've got a mouse problem and don't have to be walked.

You may notice -- particularly if you are neither a cat person nor a dog person -- that these arguments are boring. Through no choice of your own, you have heard them far too many times. They crop up around a dinner table or at a cocktail party, and the evening goes into a precipitous decline. But, I say, you don't know the half of it -- not that is, unless you are an editor.

Some people think that an editor's primary responsibility is, when needed, to correct a writer's spelling and grammar, to gently request that a neglected aspect of the writer's topic be more fully explored, to rearrange paragraphs and suggest transitions so artfully that the writer's point emerges as a gleaming and unassailable truth. All these things are so, and yet there is more. Much of our work goes unsung. I would argue, for example, that perhaps the editor's most uncelebrated task is to prevent writers from writing about their pets, or at the very least not to publish it when they do.

If this aspect of our sacred trust puzzles you, it is only because so many of us do our job so well. And so the public remains unaware of how often it's been saved from reading reams of fawning drivel about the noble doings of The Best Dog Ever or the droll antics of The World's Sweetest Kitty. Even writers of formidably austere sensibility are prone to penning this sort of piffle when the subject is their own beloved pet. As for what the sentimental ones come up with -- well, you just don't wanna know. Of course, we editors don't expect citations or to be praised for holding back the tidal wave of treacle that might otherwise roll forth and engulf the world's readers. That's not what we're about.

Unfortunately, however, we do sometimes nod. Or worse. For, just as millions of people inexplicably forked out their hard-earned cash for Robert James Waller's "The Bridges of Madison County," so are there many potential consumers of magazines and book products devoted to the slack-jawed adoration of pets. And editors need to make a living like everyone else. Hence, the three books that provide the pretext for this essay.

The first, "The Feline Mystique" by Clea Simon, purports to take as its subject the relationship between women and cats. The evidence to support this purportation consists of the usual factoids about ancient Egypt (they worshipped cats, you know) and T.S. Eliot, who was precisely the man I was thinking of when I mentioned writers of "austere sensibility" above. And then there is the inevitable reference to Colette (I read a few cat books in my preteen years, and they all go on about Colette). Mostly, though, this book concerns Simon, a journalist, her friends and various women she interviewed on the subject of their love for their cats.

If you could boil down the central message of "The Feline Mystique" to one sentence, it would read something like this: "I was a single woman with a cat and I know people say awful things about that, but I landed a man anyway, so neener neener neener." While, being single myself, I have some sympathy with Simon's frustration at finding herself part of a stigmatized group, the truth is that all this fretting over negative images and what people are probably saying about you behind your back is a mug's game. Writing a whole book to refute such notions -- unless you're going to dish up some serious data along the lines of Susan Faludi's "Backlash" -- strikes me as a prodigious waste of energy.

However, Simon is not one to let a grievance slide. At one point in "The Feline Mystique" she relates at some length a quarrel she had with a woman with whom she briefly shared a rental house 17 years ago. It was an argument over the proper use of the house's sewing room. Simon sees a subtext in which the dour, rigid, "unattached" roommate, tormented by "simmering jealousy" over Simon's giddy social life, lashed out at both the author and her new kitten -- and furthermore, the roommate's own pet was an "extremely neurotic cat, overweight to the point of unhealthiness and unfriendly to anyone who was not her one person." This statement is tempered by a disclaimer about Simon's own "bias" in the matter (on the principle, I suppose, that it's actually charmingly forthright to be petty if you also kinda cop to it at the same time), but the real shock is that Simon even remembers this spat, let alone in such detail, let alone with the conviction that it's worth writing down.

"The Feline Mystique" goes on in this vein -- meandering, defensive, self-regarding, affected (no one in this book lingers at a breakfast table when they can "tarry" instead, or sees a cat at the end of a hall when they can "espy" it) and wholly untroubled by any understanding of the difference between what is interesting and what is not, a discrimination that is more or less the stock in trade of good writers. There are many anecdotes and interviews with other cat-loving women, but these tend to be the kind of people who say things like, "To me, a baby would be a cat substitute," and think it witty and rather daring -- along the lines of a T-shirt with "Chocoholic" printed on it. Anyone no-nonsense and intriguing, such as the tiger wrangler for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum Bailey Circus, gets a mere two pages before we're back to autobiographical stuff like "my kitty is no tiger ... but he is fierce," followed by a fond story about how Simon's cat, Cyrus, once growled at the vet.

It is easier, though, to be hard on "The Feline Mystique" -- and by extension, cat lovers -- for its overweening tedium when you are relatively fresh to the task of pet-related reading. By the time you get through a book like "Dog Culture: Writers on the Character of Canines," you realize that, on the topic of their cats or dogs, almost everyone tends to say the same things over and over again. Most of the contributors to this anthology (edited by Ken Foster, a Salon contributor) are talented and genuinely funny. Foster himself even has the good sense to be sheepish about the book's premise, explaining that he initially asked contributors to "write about aspects of the dog world, but to avoid writing about their own dog. The last thing I wanted was a collection of otherwise intelligent people droning on and on about how their dog was different, more special than all the rest." Fat chance, Ken; that's like inviting an alcoholic to a wine tasting and expecting him to spit it out.

"Dog Culture" opens with one of its strongest essays, René Steinke's matter-of-fact account of how her initial disgust over her boyfriend's dog's eating habits (Coco chowed down on, among other things, a used tampon, birthday candles and "his own orange vomit"), morphed into affection as "day after day, the work of caring for Coco made me care about him." But, like many of the pieces in the book -- and much writing about pets, especially dogs -- it succumbs to a pedagogical imperative; dogs, it seems, are forever dispensing Lessons. You might think that most dogs are not gainfully employed, but in fact they are continuously occupied in teaching people how to embrace appetite, live in the moment, suffer in dignity, let go. And all for the price of a bowl of kibble -- they really ought to think about a union, or better yet, a development position at the Lifetime Channel.

Sometimes the perimeters of the Canine Campus expand to encompass an individual's entire life. That's the case with dog trainer Suzanne Clothier, who has written "Bones Would Rain From the Sky: Deepening Our Relationships With Dogs." As a professional, Clothier might be expected to have absorbed more than the odd inspirational homily from her dogs (and other animals -- she lives on a farm), and so she has; this book lays out her philosophy of life as it manifests in her training methods. Or, at least, I think it does, for while I am in utter awe of Clothier as a moral being, as a writer she leaves something to be desired.

Clothier holds that it's possible to achieve a rapport with dogs so that their obedience can be obtained with a minimum of coercion and with no cruel or abusive treatment at all. It's an approach that requires almost infinite patience. Unfortunately, her approach to writing requires almost as much of the same, only on the part of her reader. She will take one of her admirable ideas, round up all the worst words that can be applied to it -- abstractions, clichés, psychobabble, New Ageisms, managerial euphemisms -- then proceed to rearrange these words in every possible configuration for pages.

The result is lots of sentences like this: "Only through what we learn in our most profound relationships can we find the completeness in ourselves." Even Clothier's anecdotes -- which mostly involve confrontations with troublesome dogs and her indefatigable efforts to understand what's bothering the creatures -- have a tendency to dissolve into a terminal vagueness (did the dog ever stop snapping?) that will probably frustrate anyone hoping to use the book as a guide. Alas, good writing is essentially a brutal, Darwinian enterprise, in which many tender young sentences are invited onto the page only to be coldly eliminated in the final draft. (It is no surprise that one of the profession's most hallowed maxims is "Kill your darlings.") Clothier is simply too generous, decent and kind for such ugly work.

If writing about cats is always in danger of sliding into narcissistic preciosity, the peril in dog writing is bathos. No one, it seems, can write very much about dogs without getting into man's inhumanity to animal, and while I don't doubt that all such stories (and worse) are true and I am as horrified by cruelty as the next person, there's something creepy about the retailing of such anecdotes and the voluptuous outrage they provoke. To her credit, Clothier seldom stoops to such melodrama. She is forever reminding her readers not to sentimentalize or idealize dogs, to remember that "this is not an end point, a place to rest in safety, free from the complications and grief that may attend our human relationships." All through "Bones Would Rain From the Sky," despite bouts of exasperation at the author's leaden prose, I was unfailingly impressed with Clothier's humility and her tireless determination to use her authority over these creatures wisely, to recognize their devotion as a responsibility and not just a gift.

I doubt that any cat book has a chapter on "leadership," as "Bones Would Rain From the Sky" does. Like us, dogs are fundamentally social animals and hard-wired for hierarchy. Cats, by contrast, are solitary by nature, and therefore, as Stephen Budiansky pointed out in the June 2002 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, all of their social behavior is learned. I suspect this is why, while most human-dog bonds are fairly similar, there seems to be so much variety in cat owners' relationships to their pets -- every cat is a custom job. A cat may develop a personality that complements its owner's, but every dog speaks to every human being's need to be part of a pack; like us, they're political. Perhaps it's inevitable that anyone who spends a lifetime contemplating her relationships with dogs, as Clothier does, will keep returning to the same scouring quandaries that characterize our relationships to each other: how to listen, how to use the power we have justly, what we have a right to ask from others. Of course, most dog people don't seem to bother with this and are content instead to dote and regress. Still, the potential is there and so, I think, the canine contingent has the edge. Just don't make me read about it ever again.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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