Cat people really are different from dog people, it turns out, according to a study that really was conducted and, presumably, really did receive some kind of funding. Specifically: dog people are more extrovert and agreeable; cat people are more neurotic, but also more open to new experiences. As a cat person, though currently petless, I accept that trade-off. To live with a cat is to invite challenge and growth; not for us those shaggy sycophants, paid for their flattery with Winalot. This is one of the more straightforward findings of "anthrozoology", the study of human-animal relations, but as the psychologist Hal Herzog makes clear in his brilliantly titled book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, that's about as straightforward as it gets. The overriding conclusion of anthrozoology, though usually expressed in more scholarly terms, is this: people are really weird about animals. "The only consistency in the way humans think about animals," he writes, quoting a colleague, "is inconsistency."
That's most evident, of course, in the way we treat our dogs as quasi-humans while blithely consuming pigs and cows – or in the fact that, in 1933, the Nazis enacted animal-protection legislation that even by today's standards seems startlingly humane. Restricting the discussion to pet-keeping, however, you might imagine things would be clearer – everyone knows pets make us happier and healthier. Who'd argue with that? Well, a fair few anthrozoologists, in fact. (Which is rather awkward and irritating of them. They must be cat people.) Herzog notes that pet ownership has been shown to correlate with better survival in coronary patients and lower levels of depression among the elderly; then again, a Warwick University study found no effect on loneliness in adults, while a Finnish one found pet owners got less exercise and were more susceptible to kidney disease, arthritis and more. Studies of "therapy animals" are similarly ambiguous: dogs seem to bring psychological benefits, dolphins don't.
Yet pet owners, in surveys, are emphatic that their pets make them happier, which recalls the philosophical conundrum presented by studies on the happiness-reducing effects of parenting: if you believe something makes you happier, surely in some sense, by definition, it does. The general truth seems to be that pets fulfil us to the degree that we anthropomorphise them; if we convince ourselves that relations with them are as rewarding as those with humans, they can be. In other words, it's all about us. Herzog cites one study showing that interacting with a dog reduced loneliness in nursing-home patients, but there was a catch: those who interacted with a robotic dog showed the same improvements. Half of British dog owners, meanwhile, say their pets feel shame and guilt, yet cleverly constructed research found that dogs look "guilty" only when owners believe they've misbehaved, and respond accordingly, whether or not they really have.
Yet to say that our relationships with pets are all in our heads isn't necessarily to denigrate them. Isn't the same true, ultimately, about our relationships with humans, too? There's even an argument that animals' lack of language enriches the interaction, freeing it from the complexities and confusion of thought, leaving only wordless clarity. As the spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle puts it: "I have lived with several Zen masters – all of them cats."