In his new book, Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs, David Grimm, an award-winning journalist and editor at Science magazine, explores the long history of the relationship between humans and their favorite four-legged friends. From ancient Egypt to today, Grimm shows how pets have played different roles in society and how their status is entering new territory — one in which they are becoming more than just beloved companions, something akin to “people” themselves.
Every pet owner wonders what’s going on their pet’s head. What did you learn about the internal life of our pets in the course of writing your book?
Marc Bekoff [professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado], for example, has found that when dogs play they have all sorts of rules and signals. If a dog breaks those rules, it will be ostracized. He proposed this idea that dogs actually have concepts of morality and justice. Other researchers have shown that dogs might be capable of abstract thought and things like empathy. So we are really discovering that not only are they smarter than we thought, but they also have emotionally complex minds.
To what extent do our pets learn emotion from us?
If cats don’t interact with a human within the first eight weeks of their life, they basically become wild animals. And there is really no coming back from that — they will assume they are wild animals will act that way for the rest of their lives. But if they do have that interaction in the first few months, then they become pets that sleep on your bed and do all the other great stuff that cats do. I think that suggests that they do get something from that human interaction that changes them.
Do pets really have feelings toward their owners, or are they just looking for food?
Researchers like Gregory Burns, who has conducted MRI studies, are really starting to get a peek into the brains of dogs and what they’re thinking. I don’t know if we will ever be able to prove that these animals love us in the same way that we love them, but that evidence will come anecdotally. I feel bad saying that as a scientist because you always want more data. But if you ask any pet owner if their pet loves them, 100% will say, “Yes.” And it’s not just a gut feeling — there are a number of different things we can point to that support that. But I’m not sure science is going to definitively answer that question.