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Cats or dogs? Chris Packham and Liz Bonnin go head-to-head...

Is a pooch or a puss the perfect pet? The two presenters are on different sides of the basket when it comes to furry friends

Published: Thursday, 4th February 2016 at 3:04 pm

Chris Packham: Team Dogs


My twelve-year-old miniature poodles Itchy and Scratchy are the centre of my universe. They're he most important organisms on the planet. I have a partner, Charlotte, and a stepdaughter, Megan. They’ve each come to realise the dogs are slightly ahead of them.

I’ve lost two dogs – 14-year-old Max died of old age, and one-year-old Fish was run over in front me and died in my arms. I don’t think you ever get over these things. Fish’s death especially impressed on me the need to ensure my dogs are happy every day of their lives – and also that they never go near a road.

Both cats and dogs have the potential to damage our wildlife – why do we allow dogs on to nature reserves, for example? It’s anathema to me. And cat owners can help by keeping their pets indoors at night.

Making the programme, it was remarkable to see the experiment on how the pleasure centres of a dog’s brain are stimulated by praise. The greatest reward you can give your dog is praise; it strengthens the bond. Dogs have been domesticated for longer than cats, and have adapted their behaviour more to the way we live with them.

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We also conducted another experiment, to monitor my own dogs’ anxiety when I go out, and it was pretty uncomfortable to see – their heart rates and stress levels go through the roof, and they sit by the door whining and howling. I was so surprised by their distress that since then I’ve left them on their own only twice. Part of the problem is that we’re so dog-ist in the UK – you can’t generally take them into shops or restaurants. When I’m in France, no one gets het up at all, and why would they? The dogs sit under the table. No problem.

Dogs are better suited to me as companions, as I like to share a more complete relationship than you can get with a cat. My relationship with my dogs is entirely giving, honest and truthful. They never lie to me or let me down. They might pee on my carpet, but so what? The happiness they bring me is unparalleled – I call them my “joy grenades”. They sleep on my bed, we share our food and eat off the same plate. I am with them all the time. My principal ambition in life is to make them happy.

Liz Bonnin: Team Cats

I find cats more fascinating than dogs as personalities, because of their hereditary past. They haven’t been domesticated for as long, and they’re solitary animals, so when they interact with you it’s more meaningful because it’s so much on their terms.

When they show affection, it comes from a place that’s more interesting than with a dog, because dogs respond to praise. I’m fascinated that a cat, which doesn’t need praise, wants to interact with me at all. That mystique is the bonus you get from cats that you don’t get with dogs.

Given the choice, I would definitely have a cat – but right now much of my life is spent on an aeroplane, so I can’t. I need to change career! I had cats when I was growing up, and I need a cat in my life again now.

In my early 20s I had a cat called Chalki, a wonderful little individual who was hit by a car. It’s only when you lose an animal that you realise how important they are to you, and that they are absolutely part of the family. Losing one is pretty upsetting.

I’m an animal lover, but I’ve always been obsessed with cats more than any other species. I studied big cats for my degree – I’m so intrigued by the way solitary animals survive. Some tigers live in the most punishing habitats, and they do it without the help of a pack, or even other individuals. Domestic cats are only halfway through their domestication, so they retain many of the traits I found so enthralling when I was studying tigers. And of course, apart from that, they’re such beautiful creatures.

Making the programme I was surprised to have it proved that cats are capable of behaviours we tend to attribute only to dogs. A lot of us presume cats can’t understand what their owners are saying, and that they aren’t finely attuned to our facial expressions – unlike dogs, who have been bred for these things and who want to please us. We’ve spent decades researching dogs, whereas research into cats is pretty new. We’re finding that, even though they’re solitary animals, they’re incredibly good at adapting and learning to read our features. They’ve learnt how to communicate with us – they hardly ever meow to each other, only to humans. They never needed to evolve those traits, so for me they’re more remarkable for having done it.

I also now know that cats do respond to human affection, by producing oxytocin (a hormone that plays a role in social bonding). We just hadn’t looked for it in cats before. It was fantastic to see a positive result when we did the experiment, which simply monitored cats being cuddled by their owners.

It just reinforced my feelings for cats. We know how intelligent dogs are. But I wanted to find out more about cats’ capacity for similarly intelligent behaviours. Of course I could have a dog – ideally I’d have two dogs and three cats. I love both animals, but cats are so much more extraordinary. It’s amazing that they live among us.


Cats v Dogs is on tonight at 8pm on BBC2


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