Cats, dogs, and whether we really know them

What cats and dogs really think, and whether we can understand them, is one theme of a BU class that studies our favorite pets.

By Rich Barlow | BU Today

One is outwardly prim, but has a bent for aloofness and secrecy. The other is attention-getting, barks loudly, and won’t let go when it latches onto any bone. Both attract ardent devotees and detractors, all of whom wonder: What are those two thinking?

Wait — Holly Schaaf’s students aren’t reprising the Clinton-Trump election. In her Cats and Dogs writing seminar, she puts an academic lens on our canine and feline companions, viewed through science, art, and policy — what we know about them and what we think we know, but really don’t.

The latter point came up in a recent session that saw some two-legged Terriers (OK, BU may be biased in our preference) pondering literature depicting the inner minds of these creatures. The question from Schaaf (GRS’05,’14), a lecturer in the Arts & Sciences Writing Program, was whether animal cognition science enables such a glimpse into Mittens’ and Rover’s heads.

She led a class discussion of Tobermory (about a speaking cat who eavesdrops on people’s secrets) and the novel Sirius, whose titular canine is endowed with human intelligence. But the class also had read about cognition scholar Alexandra Horowitz, who doubts human language’s capacity to accurately convey another species’ take on the world.

“Most of you people signed up for this class because you have a relationship with one of these animals,” says Schaaf, eliciting opinions on whether we can truly get inside their heads. Juan Zapata (ENG’20) was dubious. He once had a poodle who was attached to his aunt, he says, but “there’d be days where you’d see her call him, and he didn’t want to come.”

Are you a cat person or a dog person?

Zapata describes his late dog as almost catlike. “He was very mysterious,” he says. “You couldn’t really train him.…He’d keep to himself a lot.” Zapata remains a dog man, because “I feel like you can connect with them a lot more.” The inscrutability of cats reinforced itself to him one night on a visit to a farm in his native Colombia. He awoke in the night and was heading to the bathroom, but froze when he saw a cat at his door.

“I just wouldn’t want to pass by,” he says. “With a cat…it’ll just automatically scratch you” without warning.

Experts disagree about which species is smarter, and studying the two objectively is harder than you’d think, Schaaf says. (She diplomatically professes to like both.) “There is so much more research on dogs than cats. Cats — it’s just so much harder, in terms of measuring their cognitive abilities, because you don’t know that they can’t do something just because they don’t.”

That flip of the middle claw at their human minders is why some people prefer dogs. (Up to 37 percent of US households have cats, while up to 47 percent have dogs, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.) But cats were domesticated by humans more recently, and Schaaf says the nature of their interaction with people may have played a part in their solitary attitude: “The jobs that dogs do tend to be collaborative with us,” such as sheepherding and hunting. “The cats are taking care of the rodents by themselves. They work alone.”

Schaaf’s class studies social constructions (ideas shaped by society’s values, rather than by their own nature) and the role they play in making us partial to cats or dogs. She may not change any minds about which rocks, but her pedagogical goal is getting students to think about how they develop their opinions. She conceived the course — she teaches a separate version for English-learning students — after getting requests from dog lovers and cat lovers who took another of her courses, Imagining Animal Minds.

In that class, Schaaf discusses research suggesting that 40 species of dogs in the Americas went extinct millions of years ago after cats outhunted them for prey. That caused one PBS special to observe that “from an evolutionary perspective at least, cats are better than dogs.”

But in her Cats and Dogs seminar, Schaaf doesn’t introduce such talk. Her goal is “challenging the binary” of one versus the other, a competition that she says “often caricatures both animals. I try to encourage students to complicate it by making the first paper about challenging social constructions of cats and dogs.” Her current students confirm that as academic topics go, she’s picked an especially accessible one.

“I like having something that I can relate to,” says Gracie Hannabach (CAS’20), who prefers dogs (she enjoys having her family’s two Samoyeds sleep with her). “My sister is a cat person, so she keeps trying to sway me. Cats are usually seen as more tranquil and more low-key.…I really like the energy and just happiness of big dogs, and that’s not her thing.”

Among the things the class has taught her is the intricacies of shelters with no-euthanasia policies. “No-kill shelters can actually kill 10 percent of the animals that are there while still holding their no-kill title,” Hannabach says. “I always thought I’d be a no-kill person. But researching it and looking into it and doing the readings” changed her mind, partly because “animals that are less healthy and struggling and don’t trust humans or are very sick — they don’t have to go through the stress of finding a new home or risk being hurt again.”

“This isn’t a class that you would be able to get in high school,” Zapata says. Dr. Doolittle may have been wrong about humans ever being able to talk to the animals, but we may be able to talk about our human issues through them, he says. “In class, we talk about how writers use animals’ voices as a way to voice themselves.”

Originally published at

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