Why Are Dogs Studied More Often Than Cats?

dog study

Story at-a-glance -

  • There are fewer than half the number of studies on cats as there are on dogs in the medical journal database PubMed
  • Practical factors, like the expanse of genetic diversity found in the 400 dog breeds, which is much greater than that found in the 40 cat breeds, may play a role in dogs’ relative research monopoly
  • There’s also societal bias that cats are untrainable and therefore unsuitable for behavioral research; in reality, research suggests cats can be taught using many of the same principles used to teach dogs
  • Dogs are often used in studies of canine and human cancers, but some experts believe cats are better suited for studying certain types of cancer, such as lymphomas and oral cancers

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Dogs and cats are not only intricately entwined in many humans’ lives but they also have much to teach us. This is especially true of dogs, which are the subject of the vast majority of research studies compared to cats … or is it? James Gorman, a science writer for The New York Times, posed this question recently, asking why scientists seemingly love to study dogs but often ignore cats.1

He spoke with Elinor K. Karlsson, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMMS), who launched a citizen science research project called Darwin's Dogs, which aims to combine the genetic data from many dogs and look for changes in DNA that relate to particular behaviors. She believes societal bias may be to blame.

“The research has lagged behind in cats. I think they’re taken less seriously than dogs, probably to do with societal biases … Non-cat people tend to laugh at the idea of studying behavioral genetics in cats, and the animal training world complains that people tend to dismiss cats as untrainable,” she said.2 According to Gorman’s loosely constructed research on the topic, there are fewer than half the number of studies on cats as there are on dogs in the medical journal database PubMed.

Most of the researchers he spoke to also agreed that cats are often left out in the realm of research. It could also be due to practical factors, like the expanse of genetic diversity found in the 400 dog breeds, which is much greater than that found in the 40 cat breeds, Karlsson pointed out.

Are Dogs Really Better for Studying Human Diseases?

Dogs and humans have more than 80 percent genetic similarity and, when viewed under a microscope, a dog’s tumor is indistinguishable from a human’s.3 Even the genetic mutations that may be a result of abnormal cellular respiration and turn on oncogenes that trigger cancer are often the same in dogs and people. Taken together, this makes dogs an ideal model for studying cancer in humans, and “man’s best friend” has made significant contributions to furthering human knowledge of this disease.

However, it may be a misconception that cats couldn’t be equally beneficial in this area, both benefitting from the research-centered treatments and furthering the study of human cancers at the same time. “I have a vet in my group who thinks that many of the cancers in cats may actually be better models for human cancer, but there has been almost no research into them,” Karlsson said.4

Gorman also spoke with researchers who believed cats could provide valuable insights into lymphomas, which are common in felines, as well as oral cancers, which are similar to those in humans. It’s possible that the oral cancers could have a link to environmental toxins, which cats pick up regularly when they groom themselves.

Are Cats Untrainable?

One of the prevailing themes of why more research studies aren’t centered on cats relates to their “untrainability”. Yet, this, too, may be more of a myth than science. In one of the rarer studies that have been conducted on felines, researchers from Oregon State University revealed that cats can be taught using many of the same principles used to teach dogs, although providing the right incentives is key.5

The study was actually similar to one done on dogs in the ‘90s, aiming to determine which type of interaction cats preferred — food, toys, scents or human social interaction. “We’re trying to catch up,” the study’s co-author Oregon State University’s Kristyn Vitale Shreve told National Geographic.6 Perhaps surprising to many, most of the cats preferred interacting with humans over the other choices.

Research Into Cat Behavior Could Further the Human-Cat Bond

Understanding more about cat behavior is important, as it’s been found that many cat owners misread or misunderstand their cats’ cues, especially in comparison to dog owners, who tend to know more about their pet’s behavior.7 That being said, it’s a misconception that cats are never the subject of research. In fact, a five-year Swedish study began in 2017 that’s aimed at revealing more about human-cat communication.8

Similarly, a recent study published in PLOS One admitted that “Little is known about the cat’s need for human contact, although it is generally believed that cats are more independent pets than e.g. dogs.”

The researchers found, however, that cats and owners spent more time interacting with each other after they’d been apart for longer periods, “implying that the owner is an important part of the cat’s social environment.”9 More studies like these could help to dispel the notion that cats are aloof, untrainable and uninterested in forming tight bonds with their owners compared to dogs.

In addition, cats have been invaluable in furthering HIV research, in part because feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) is very similar to HIV in humans, as well as could provide a superior model for studying polycystic kidney disease. Unfortunately, funding for cat research is harder to come by than that for dogs.10 If you’re a cat owner who’s feeling left out, here’s a way you can get your favorite feline in on the action while learning more about your pet.

Various citizen science projects are available for cats, including this cat personality survey, which aims to reveal more about cats, their behaviors and personalities and their relationships with their owners.

So far, researchers have uncovered the “feline five” personality types — neuroticism, extraversion, dominance, impulsiveness and agreeableness11 — and you can determine where your cat fits in. Ultimately, by taking the time to study and understand our four-legged companions, we can learn more about dogs, cats and humans all at the same time.

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