Off the Leash Off the Leash

Dog versus cat: Which pet is better?

One veterinarian examines this age-old question among pet lovers.

By Vetstreet Apr 22, 2013 5:49PM

By Dr. Marty Becker

I’m often asked if I’m a “dog person” or a “cat person,” and as a veterinarian, I have to say I haven’t any preference.

On our Almost Heaven Ranch in northern Idaho, in fact, the score is dead even: four dogs, four cats.

Photo: Are dogs or cats better pets? / Kristian Sekulic But I don’t see cats and dogs as being the same. They need different things from me as a veterinarian, and they behave very differently from each other. For example, the tendency of cats to hide their illness is one reason why they don’t go to the veterinarian as often as they should; their unhappiness at leaving their home is another.

Just for fun, I decided to think about how dogs and cats differ in terms of a competition. If we had pet Olympics, would dogs take home the most gold, or would cats?

Rate the competitors

To determine which is the "better" pet, let's see how cats and dogs stack up in five categories: vision, smell, speed, endurance and intelligence.

Vision. Cats win this one. Both animals are predators, which means their visual acumen stresses movement over detail. Neither cats nor dogs are going to read the type on road signs, and their color vision isn’t as strong as ours, but a quick movement will get noticed even if it’s minor. But give the gold to the cats for their ability to see in far less light. When the mousies come out to play at dusk, the cats are ready for them. A twitch of a whisker or a tiny movement in the leaves can be seen in near-darkness.

Smell. Dogs even the score with their sense of smell. There’s a reason you don’t see drug-sniffing cats, and it’s not just because cats aren’t exactly amenable to clocking in for a 9-to-5 shift at the police station. While cats have a better sense of smell than humans do — really, we’re pretty worthless in the nose department — the canine sense of smell is nothing short of astonishing. Most dogs have a face that’s really nothing but nose, and their ability to detect and distinguish odors is around four times better than a cat’s.

Speed. Cats are natural sprinters, coiling and uncoiling their spines to blast off after prey or away from predators. For about the length of a suburban backyard, a cat can outrun and outjump a dog and can get over the fence before a dog can catch him. But that dash is going to take everything the cat has; he needs to rest after. Dogs such as greyhounds can maintain speeds of 40 mph for a pretty good distance and can catch up to and pass a cat pretty quickly. Have to give this one to the dogs, by a nose.

Bing: Cat recovering from act of animal cruelty

Endurance. Dogs are natural marathoners, and a fit dog such as a working sled dog can cover ground at a trot for hours. The only endurance sport a cat would win is napping, since the overwhelming majority of the feline day planner is filled with a single notation: “Zzzzzzzzzz.” That’s not a dig on cats, though: When they need to hunt for food they don’t waste any time. They find, they kill, they eat -- and they nap.

Intelligence. Cat lovers can argue very effectively that cats are smart enough to get people to feed and care for them with little more than purring in return. Measured that way, it’s hard to argue that dogs are smarter. But then you start listing all the jobs dogs have been trained to do, from smelling malignant tumors to taking down criminals, from finding and fetching birds to running an intricate agility course at top speed. And then there’s the matter of language recognition: Many dogs know more than 100 words, and a few know almost twice that many. Cats? If they know more than the words you use to call them for dinner, they’re not saying. Winner: dogs.

The only thing that matters is love

By human standards, a dog is “better,” but that doesn’t really matter at all. We love our cats, and they love us, and it’s a relationship that works well on both sides. The same is true of dogs, of course. And as a veterinarian, I don’t really care which pet is “better” as long as I can help make them “better,” as in keep each one healthy for a long life as a well-loved companion.

More from Vetstreet:
Cats versus dogs: 6 differences and 7 similarities
6 myths about cats and dogs
Morris the cat: Remember America’s first famous feline?
5 things you didn't know about cats and dogs
How old is your pet in people years?

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Photo: Kristian Sekulic

Jul 12, 2013 11:12AM
   Gotta say Dogs would win this paws dpwn. Though cats are my second fav animal :3 along with rabbits ^.^
Apr 28, 2013 9:42PM
Intelligence is an elusive concept.  It depends on what skills you want to measure.
Apr 25, 2013 11:01PM
I lived in a small apt. and had 2 cats. Alberta was a small female and very timid. She liked to lay in the front window overlooking the street. Smokey was a big male who liked to pick on her and play pranks. The weather got cold and I shut the windows so she couldn't get in the window anymore.  I watched Smokey chase her from in the bedroom into the living room as she headed for her spot in the window. When she jumped for the window sill he sat down and watched her bounce off the glass  of the closed window . Then he just turned away and walked off.  Don't tell me cats don't have a sense of humor.
Apr 25, 2013 10:21PM
Dogs are loyal ,forgiving, your best friend even if you treat them badly.  Cats are more independent and are definitely more able to take care of themselves.  Therefore i would think that any cat that that chooses to be your companion must love you for yourself and not just because you feed them.{ Even though they can show you where the food is kept if you shoud have forgotten} 
Apr 25, 2013 9:23PM

I have Cats (3) of them! I've had Dogs also but My Cats beat Dogs in many different ways...one Guy was saying how You never see anyone walking a Cat well I walk one of Mine on a Leash because She Loves Trees and simply won't stay out of them and it's impossible to get Her to come down until She decides to...I have another Cat His Name is Friendly as He is a Friendly Cat and I have another Named Jason, He's a Big Black Attack Cat/He weighs in at around (12) Pounds...I've had Him since He was a Baby and He's a real Lover at least to Me but not to Others...I love them all but Jason is My pick or Favorite...And if You want to get Hurt or Maybe Killed try to Hurt Him in anyway and You'll be Praying to God for someone to pull Me off of You. He is My Baby and I don't Love anything even Life itself more than I love Him...His Mother Midnight died a few Months ago I still Cry sometimes when I think about Her but I have Her Son Jason and I Love Him as much if not more than Her...I know that You probaly think I'm CRAZY because I said that I would Kill You over My Cat but He is like My Child and if You want to get Hurt just mess with someones Child and see how that works out for You... 


Apr 25, 2013 8:54PM

That comment about dogs not being able to open doors is untrue.  I have owned several dogs who can open sliding glass doors, turn door knobs, open latch gates and one who could unlatch and open the window! However,what I have noticed is that dogs most times will try to do as expected especially if they have had any kind of training for instance, I have one dog who is "by the book" If she is outside and I open the door she will not step inside until she is invited in, her sister will come and go as she pleases unless I tell her to stop.  The one that is by the book, (a mastiff) will stand up brace her paw on the frame and use the other to pull open the door much like a human but she will not come inside because she wasnt invited. She will just stick her nose in and watch what is going on.  Many of us have seen the "guilty" dog face.  You get home and instantly know the dog did something because they have the "guilty" face.  Dogs are not dumb, they just want to please you.  Cats expect you to please them and could care less about your rules.  However, I have to say they are easier to look after, cats take care of themselves.  And speaking of looking after, years ago when my first child was born, I had a dog that decided he was her responsibility.  She followed him everywhere, slept in his room. When he started crawling she would corral him in one room by laying across a doorway that he was attempting to scoot out of then move to the next doorway when his direction changed. When he began walking she would do it by standing in his way and refusing to move. Very funny for us and very frustrating for him.  Dogs are smart!

Apr 25, 2013 8:33PM
Apr 25, 2013 8:33PM
You really cannot compare the two.  It really comes down to life style for me.  I have had both and currently only have two dogs.  I prefer dogs because I can take them with me everywhere, mountain biking, hiking, swimming, running etc.  Really can't do that with a cat, however Cats are far more independent which some people find to be more appealing than the constant attention of a dog.  Either way they offer us all the things we want the most, unconditional love! enjoy your pets!
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