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Doing some research into the truth about cats and dogs

Q. Are you among the more than half of Americans who own a dog or cat? So, do you think there really are “dog people” and “cat people”?

A. This idea certainly pervades popular culture, and a new breed of researchers has begun to look at human-pet interactions, says Ruth Searle in “New Scientist” magazine. Using an online platform, Sam Gosling and colleagues at the University of Texas recruited some 4,500 self-identified cat or dog persons and rated them on five key dimensions of personality. “Compared to cat people, dog people tend to be more extroverted, agreeable, conscientious, less neurotic and open.” Self-confessed cat people are more likely to say they disliked structure and agendas, took less interest in others, and were more adventurous and unconventional — “something you might not expect of more neurotic, introverted types,” Searle adds.

It may be that we construct stereotypes about certain animals and then choose a pet that matches how we see ourselves. Cats are often associated with femininity, dogs with masculinity, and, in fact, “research reveals that women are more likely to be cat lovers while men are more likely to favour dogs.”

As Gosling puts it, “Given the tight psychological connections between people and their pets, it’s likely that dogs and cats are suited to different human personalities.”

Q. Dogs undoubtedly have social smarts, understanding when you point at things and even following your gaze. They also recognize emotion in your face and will respond to their names. But what about cats?

A. Not much research has been done on cats, since they’re difficult to work with, notes David Grimm in “Science” magazine. Cats simply refuse to cooperate with research protocols, losing interest and struggling to escape. “If you want results on one cat,” says cognitive ethologist Ádám Miklósi, “you have to test three.”

Yet with patience and resourcefulness, progress has been made on understanding feline social cognition. Some cats perform as well as dogs at following people’s pointing and gaze and many recognize their names; some can even distinguish their owners’ voices from those of strangers. Cats generally prefer interacting with people rather than with food and toys and spend more time with people who pay attention to them. “If you take a well-socialized, calm cat, I think it’s going to perform similarly to a dog,” says Miklósi.

Unlike dogs, “… cats descend from anti-social ancestors, and humans have spent far less time aggressively molding them into companions,” says Grimm. “So researchers thought cats couldn’t possibly share our brain waves the way dogs do.” Yet scientific confirmation of cat smarts probably won’t surprise cat owners.

Q. “There’s matter and there’s anti-matter, and something similar works with words too,” says wordsmith Anu Garg. Do you know the meanings of these less common antonyms: “dysphemism,” “eustress,” “nocebo” and “excarnation”?

A. The opposite of “euphemism” is “dysphemism” (from Greek “dys” for “bad”), that is, substituting a harsher, offensive term for a more neutral one, such as “death tax” for “estate tax,” says Garg on his “A.Word.A.Day” website. “Eustress” (“distress” opposite) is a beneficial form of stress, as, for example, excitement at an upcoming wedding. Generally, “eustress,” or mild stress, is thought to foster motivation and spur action. Not a “placebo” (“I will please”), a “nocebo” is a substance that, though harmless, produces harmful effects in someone who believes it is harmful.

Finally, “excarnation” has two meanings: “the supposed separation of the soul from the body at death” and “the removing of flesh, especially from a corpse before burial.” Notes Garg, “The Parsi (Zoroastrian) community in India is concerned about the lack of vultures needed for excarnation.”

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