Columns » Gene Lyons

Cats and dogs

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I've always been leery of people who dislike animals. To my wife and me, a house without dog hair in the corners and a cat perched on the windowsill is as barren as a highway rest stop. We're down to three dogs and two cats, the smallest menagerie we've had for years.

Anyway, if you're a clean freak, you're a freak. Full stop. I'm also uneasy with people who call domestic animals "fur babies." It's insulting to their dignity. Also, individuals who call themselves exclusively "dog people" or "cat people" simply lack imaginative sympathy.

Readers are hereby instructed to adopt these views as their own.

Me, I also like living among cows and horses, and I miss mine terribly since we've moved back to town. Recently I visited the farm where Stella the cow lives now. When I called, she left the herd and ambled to the gate. I'm sure she was hoping the guy who'd fed her for eight years had returned with a bucket of grain, but though I didn't, she let me scratch her ears. Stella was never much for petting, so it was a small honor.

Anyway, those are my qualifications for commenting about an article purporting to measure the intelligence of dogs and cats by counting the neurons in the "gray matter" of their brains. Published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroanatomy, the study by Vanderbilt University Professor Suzana Herculano-Houzel found that "dogs have about 530 million cortical neurons while cats have about 250 million."

Ergo dogs are roughly twice as smart as cats. Or, in the words of the professor (who self-identifies as "100 percent a dog person"), "our findings mean to me that dogs have the biological capability of doing much more complex and flexible things with their lives than cats can."

True, you don't see many cats herding sheep; seeing-eye cats are rare. But then we didn't adopt our two orange tabbies Albert and Martin for their SAT scores. Also, after I broke several ribs in a fall from a horse last year, it was Albert who turned himself from an outdoor to an indoor cat and sat by me for weeks. The dogs appeared not to notice.

Herculano-Houzel believes that the "absolute number of neurons an animal has, especially in the cerebral cortex, determines the richness of their internal mental state."

If true, this would solve a mystery that has puzzled philosophers from ancient Egypt to the crazy cat lady down the block: What exactly are cats thinking about when they sit with their eyes half-closed, looking all smug and inscrutable?

Basically nothing, because they're just too dumb.

However, this definition of animal intelligence strikes me as both reductive and presumptuous. It would also come as a surprise to Albert, who finds outwitting dogs — particularly Daisy the basset hound — not much of a strain.

At age 12 weeks, Albert was introduced to our aggressive Great Pyrenees/Anatolian mix Maggie. She shoved her muzzle in his face, and — an unusual fellow from the start — he jumped on her head.

Maggie thought it was the best thing that ever happened, and adopted him for life. Years later, they remain devoted. Albert grew up well protected. We called him "The Orange Dog," because of the company he kept and because he came running when called — sometimes from a quarter mile away.

However, he also killed every mouse in the barn, and the neighbors' too. In Little Rock he hunts rats. I don't know about the richness of Albert's internal mental state, but he's extremely good at being a cat.

Here in town, both cats frequently accompany me and the big dogs on our afternoon walk through the woods behind the School for the Blind — sprinting ahead, lurking in the tall grass, pouncing and rubbing around our legs.

Martin's more of a homebody. We call him "The Sleep Aide."

Then there's Jesse, a Great Pyrenees — large livestock-protecting dogs bred for centuries to exercise independent judgment and courage. So they're hard to train. They don't retrieve, herd, trail game or point birds. Maybe they come when you call, maybe not if they're busy. People they like in their aloof way; children they love.

Just don't mess with anything they're guarding.

On a country outing, my wife once inadvertently walked between a mama cow and her newborn calf. She lowered her head and charged. It may have been a bluff, but we'll never know. Jesse was on her in a flash. That cow wanted no part of him. It was over before I knew it started.

Sometimes, see, only a big dog will do.

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