A Dog’s Life

The Hidden Life of Dogs

by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
Houghton Mifflin, 148 pp., $18.95

Particularly Cats…and Rufus

by Doris Lessing
Knopf, 129 pp., $20.00

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas; drawing by David Levine

Although they may not always be aware of it, pet animals are caught between worlds—members of the family, in an emotional sense, but only in very rare cases having any of the responsibilities or rights of their human companions. However comfortable, or even privileged, their lives may seem, they are always vulnerable—not only to the caprice of their owners, but, if they are allowed to spend part of their time at liberty out of doors, to the random cruelty, spite, and greed of other people. If sold or abandoned, they may find relations with humankind abruptly altered, so that they end their days in a laboratory or a cage in a pound, not on a sofa. And their status is often equivocal. An accountant once advised me (incorrectly, as it turned out) that although the costs of moving books, furniture, and close relatives were tax deductible, the cost of moving cats was not.

Conversely, if pet cats and dogs are not quite human, they are not quite animals either. They have lost their wildness, and the reciprocal intensity of their relationships with people distinguishes them from most farmyard beasts. Of course some pets turn out to be capable of independent lives if their human support system disappears, and both cats and dogs can still interbreed with their nearest wild relatives. But many thousands of years of adaptation to the exigencies and opportunities of human companionship have produced psychological alterations perhaps as profound, if not as striking, as the physical differences between the chihuahua and the wolf.

Few people would bar a labrador retriever or a siamese cat from their homes, at least on grounds of temperamental unsuitability; and even fewer would admit a wolf or a European wild cat to similar intimacy. But this obvious reaction begs several more difficult questions. Domestic cats and dogs are complicated organisms, and their actions are far from merely instinctive or automatic. What qualities of temperament or personality account for their relatively accommodating dispositions? What explains the reciprocity of the relationships that many people enjoy with their cats and dogs? Has their protracted and intense experience of domestication made pets more intelligent and adaptive than their wild relatives, or less so? Do they have minds, and, if so, what is on them?

The answers to these questions depend very much on whom one asks. Since pet keeping has been widespread in the United States and other Western cultures for the last two centuries, a huge amount of information about the mental and emotional characteristics of cats and dogs has accumulated, based on the experience of their owners and keepers. This extensive but often unsystematic record of observation has been routinely disparaged or ignored by rival experts, usually biologists or comparative psychologists, whose authority derives from their scientific training. Almost without exception, people who have lived and worked with domestic animals assume that they…

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