Which Make Better Pets – Cats or Dogs?

cat and dog
Cat and Dog, Petteri Sulonen, Flickr

How do cats and dogs compare on various measures of usefulness, popularity, bonding, cost of care, tractability, and environmental friendliness? The following studies and statistics provide answers to these questions.

Shared History with Humans – Dogs Were Domesticated First

Researchers have traced the origin of the dog to the domestication of wolves in China between 11,500 and 16,300 years ago. However, they suggest that dogs were probably used as food sources rather than companions initially (Pang et al., 2009).

Cats were first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent at least 9,500 years ago, most likely because their rodent-catching abilities were beneficial for protecting stored food (Driscoll et al., 2007).

Bonding – Dogs Are Easier to Study than Cats

Dogs appear to bond with their owners much like human babies, showing happiness and courage in strange situations when their “parents” are present, and distress when a parent leaves. Putting dogs through the “strange situation test,” animal researcher Adam Miklósi of Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, Hungary, found that they behaved much in the same way as securely attached human babies would. Although Miklósi suspects that cats bond in a similar way, he was unable to persuade them to cooperate for the test because they found the laboratory setting too distressing (Douglas, 2009).

Popularity – Cats Have Surpassed Dogs as the Most Popular Pets

In recent years, cats have become the number one pet in many areas where dogs once predominated. Statistics provided by the Humane Society of the United States indicate that there are approximately 93.6 million owned cats compared to just 77.5 million owned dogs in the U.S., and according to the International Federation for Animal Health Europe, there are 60 million owned cats and 56 million owned dogs throughout Europe.

Although ownership statistics give some indication of how much cats and dogs are liked, cats are far more convenient, and many people who find cats and dogs equally appealing may choose cats over dogs simply because they don’t have time to walk a dog every day, can’t afford to pay the higher food and veterinary costs that dogs require, or live in small apartments that are not conducive to dog ownership. For these reasons, ownership statistics don’t necessarily indicate that cats are liked by more people than dogs.

Tractability – Dogs Are Easier to Control and Teach

The question of whether tractability is positively or negatively correlated with intelligence is up for debate. However, few would argue that most dogs are far more biddable and generally cooperative than most cats, learning human rules more easily and showing a greater motivation to obey them.

Animals such as dolphins, chimpanzees, and cats usually learn by emulating other individuals, whereas dogs learn more like human infants, through direct teaching. Cats can be taught using rewards in much the same way as dogs, but this requires more patience on the part of the trainer, as cats are less motivated to please (Douglas, 2009).

Cost Cats Are Less Expensive than Dogs

According to the ASPCA, cat ownership costs approximately $1,174 for the first year if you get a kitten (this includes food, insurance, spay/neuter surgery, shots and other routine medical care, treats, cat litter, and purchase of necessary equipment such as a scratch post). First-year costs are substantially lower if you adopt an adult cat that has already had spay-neuter surgery and vaccinations, and annual costs should be approximately $809 after the first year if the cat has no major health issues. However, they will vary substantially based on the type of food and litter provided.

By comparison, a small dog costs about $1,471 for the first year, a medium-sized dog $1,779, and a large dog $2,008, and dogs will usually cost much more than cats in subsequent years as well. Regular day-to-day expenses such as food, health insurance, and medical check-ups as well as one-time expenses such as spay-neuter surgeries and emergency medical care tend to be higher for dogs, so both the initial year and lifelong care are nearly always more expensive.

Usefulness – Dogs Can Fulfill More Functions

Dogs can do a lot of useful things for people, including drug and bomb sniffing, guiding the blind, pulling sleds, and finding avalanche victims. Both dogs and cats can provide their owners with significant health benefits, but dogs have the added benefit of forcing their owners to go outside and get some exercise (Douglas, 2009).

Cats have been used along with dogs as therapy animals, and cats have proven particularly therapeutic in prisons. However, the greatest historical use for cats has been rodent control. While this job was critical to our survival in the past because cats protected our food stores and reduced the spread of rodent-borne diseases, it is rarely required in modern times because people tend to use other methods such as traps or poisons (which unfortunately kill many other animals as well, particularly birds).

Eco-Friendliness – Cats Are Greener Pets Than Dogs

Studies of wildlife disturbance and predation, as well as statistics on the ecological footprints for North America’s most popular pets, indicate that cats are more environmentally friendly than dogs. For more information on this, see Environmental Impacts of Cats and Dogs.

Cats Versus Dogs: Which Is the Better Pet? (A Summary of Scores)

Winner of each round:

    • Shared History: Dogs
    • Bonding: Inconclusive
    • Popularity: Cats
    • Tractability: Dogs
    • Cost: Cats
    • Usefulness: Dogs
    • Eco-Friendliness: Cats
    • Outcome: Tie

For more cat articles, see the main Cats page. For more dog articles, see the main Dogs page.


    • ASPCA. (n.d.). “Pet Owernship Costs.” ASPCA.org.
    • Douglas, K. (9 December 2009). “Dogs vs. Cats: The Great Pet Showdown.” New Scientist.
    • Driscoll et al. (2007). “The Near Eastern Origin of Cat Domestication.” Science, 27(317): 519-523.
    • Humane Society of the United States. (30 December 2009). “U.S. Pet Ownership Statistics.” HumaneSociety.org.
    • International Federation for Animal Health Europe. (n.d.). “About Pets.” IFAHEurope.org.
    • Pang et al. (2009). “MTDNA Data Indicate a Single Origin for Dogs South of Yangtze River, Less Than 16,300 Years Ago, from Numerous Wolves.” Molecular Biology and Evolution, 26(12): 2849-2864.

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