Why Cats All Look Alike While Dogs Don’t
I know. I know. Cats do not all look alike.
So there are differences among them. But, they’re not that different from one another. They still all look like members of the same species.
But dogs… Geez…
Just look at these two:
Cat jobs versus dog jobs
Cats basically have two jobs:
- Be cute.
- Get rid of mice, rats, and other rodents.
They excel at both these tasks without needing to be prompted or shaped by humans. So we didn’t prompt nor shape them. As a result, domestic cats look much the same as their wild ancestor, the African wildcat:
Now compare the above two-item list for cats with the list of dog jobs:
- Guard property.
- Herd livestock.
- Participate in sports.
- Track prey or fugitives.
- Rescue people.
- Work as draft animals.
- Fight in wars.
- Assist people with disabilities.
- Be cute.
And within each of these jobs, there are often countless specializations.
One guard dog may just need to bark, as that’s more than enough to scare away those mischievous kids with their rolls of toilet paper and raw eggs. Another dog, meanwhile, may need to be equipped with a spiked collar and get into bloody fights with wolves to protect a flock of sheep.
Or consider herding dogs. One dog might be working with skittish sheep, another with cattle who are prone to kick and charge, and yet another with goats who like to climb.
As similar as these herding jobs are, they’re not quite the same. So a dog that’s ideal for herding one type of animal may be overwhelmed when facing another:
Dogs also have a long history of being bred for sports. And obviously a dog that’s been bred for racing is utterly inadequate for a blood sport such as bull-baiting:
A bulldog, in turn, is as suitable for a race as a walrus:
Now, when it comes to hunting, there’s probably the most specialization.
We have dogs that have been bred to kill animals that are large and powerful, like deer. We have dogs that have been bred to kill small and speedy animals, like rats. We have dogs that are supposed to go after animals that hide in warrens underground, like badgers, foxes, and rabbits. And we have dogs that have been bred to hunt birds, either on dry land, such as pheasants, or in wetlands, such as ducks.
So, as you can imagine, unless a dog has been specifically bred to hunt the mythical wolpertingers, it’s unlikely to handle all these animals equally well.
Furthermore, hunting dogs are not only distinguished by the type of game they chase. They also differ in how they hunt. So we have sighthounds, which hunt primarily by sight, and scent hounds, which hunt by… well, scent.
And that’s far from all. Most hunting dogs are not even supposed to attack prey. Pointing breeds should only tell a human the location of game, like some sort of four-legged arrow:
Retrievers, in turn, are supposed to stand back until an animal has been shot and then fetch it. Spaniels, meanwhile, were bred to get into dense growths of bushes and shrubs and flush out any creature hiding there. And treeing dogs were used to force climbing animals into trees so that a hunter could leisurely walk up to the tree, scan it, and then choose which animal to pluck from the branches with his rifle.*
* Quick side note: The expression “barking up the wrong tree” comes from treeing dogs who made a fool of themselves by, you guessed it, barking up the wrong tree.
Finally, some breeds were bred to accompany hunters riding on horseback while others just had to walk next to hunters moving about on foot.
Now, as if all that didn’t already provide enough incentives to shape and contort dogs into all sorts of breeds, we’ve also decided to use them as guide dogs; as search and rescue dogs (the most famous example being the St. Bernard, which was specifically bred for Alpine rescues); as war dogs (as far back as the seventh century BCE); and as draft animals.
Oh, and we shouldn’t neglect the saddest job of all: feeding people with their own meat.
Ever since dogs had first been domesticated, all the way back when we were still hunter-gatherers, people have been putting them to work. And since there were so many jobs they could do, people have been breeding them to amplify all sorts of traits, nudging them in different directions over the generations. The result is what we see today: highly specialized dog breeds that look vastly different from one another.
Cats, meanwhile, only became useful to humans once we settled and developed agriculture. It was only then that we began stockpiling grains and were suddenly confronted with rodent infestations that needed to be controlled. And for that job, cats, in their natural shape, were already ideal.
Cats, however, were unsuitable for pretty much any other job. They are solitary hunters and thus, unlike canines who hunt in packs, lack the instincts and desire to work with others. This made them harder to train and thus there was never a strong incentive to shape them into anything other than what they already are by nature.
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