Modern Life: Dog and Cat Version

In the last 30 to 40 years there have been great changes in how most owned dogs and cats live their lives in the United States. Those changes raise some important questions about the quality of life of modern cats and dogs.

Dogs first arrived in the United States some 9,000 years ago, and they lived and worked with Native Americans. More dogs arrived with European settlers beginning in the 1600s. Cats were brought over on ships with the earliest European explorers, so their history in the United States is measured in hundreds of years rather than thousands.

Up through the mid-1900s, the great majority of dogs and cats spent at least part of their time outdoors. This was partly tradition, since dogs and cats had always been allowed to roam. It was also partly practical, since flea control was sketchy and kitty litter had not been invented. Sterilization of dogs and cats was rare in the mid-1900s and earlier, so people had to deal with behaviors like marking, spraying, and caterwauling that made cats and dogs undesirable to have in the house full-time.

In the mid-1900s society underwent a revolution in the way people lived, with a move from farms and small towns to the suburbs and cities. During that time sterilization for pets remained rare, largely due to the belief that the surgeries were harmful to animals and the fact that (in the days before antibiotics and good anesthetics) the surgeries, especially spay surgery, were somewhat risky.

By the 1970s the population of dogs and cats had reached what was seen as crisis proportions – unsurprising given that cats and dogs were still typically free-roaming and unsterilized at that time. A movement began, supported by the traditional shelter industry and virtually all of the humane organizations, to get people to spay and neuter their pets and start keeping dogs on leash or otherwise under control. This movement was extremely successful, and from 1970 to 2000 we saw a rapid cultural change. By the year 2000 it was considered socially unacceptable in most neighborhoods for people to allow their dogs out to roam by themselves. Also by 2000, substantial majorities of pet owners had their cats and dogs sterilized. Free-roaming dogs and cats were no longer at crisis levels in most places.

The changes in where people live and the growing prohibitions on allowing dogs and cats to be free-roaming have resulted in major changes in how dogs, and to a lesser extent cats, live their lives. One hundred years ago dogs had a great deal more freedom than they have today. They could choose how they spent their time, what they did, and who they associated with. Many dogs had routines that they carried out on their own, such as patrolling the neighborhood, hanging out with their dog friends, rummaging in the garbage, or going to meet the kids coming home from school or their owners on the way home from work. The routine of most cats concentrated more on hunting than socializing, but cats too could go where they wanted and do what they wanted.

Today, responsible owners walk their dogs on leash and the dogs are only allowed to run free in a fenced yard or a dog park. Cat owners are urged to keep their cats entirely indoors, and pacify them by building elaborate cat play areas. In some ways what has happened to dogs and cats mirrors what has happened to children. Up until perhaps 30 or 40 years ago it was routine for parents to allow their children to roam the neighborhood unsupervised. Children as young as six were allowed to walk to school by themselves or with friends, and the only rule for play time was to come home in time for dinner. Today, of course, children are much more closely supervised, and the supervision is enforced by law. In Maryland the parents of two children, ages 10 and 6, were threatened with having their children taken away because the parents allowed the kids to walk home from a park by themselves in an upper-middle-class neighborhood. Even parents who disagree with the choices of the Maryland parents may be concerned that the close supervision of today’s children inhibits their ability to learn independence, social skills, good judgment, and problem-solving.

Similarly, with dogs and cats who live in a constantly controlled and supervised environment, their socialization skills, confidence, judgment, and independence can suffer. With dogs we can see this manifested as hostility to strangers, unpredictable behavior, separation anxiety, and an inability to understand social cues from other dogs, among other behavior problems. With cats kept indoors we can see stress and boredom.

There is no doubt that the modern, more confined life of dogs and cats is physically safer for them. With increasing population density and more and more cars in the environment, the danger of being killed or badly hurt by a car is a constant threat to free-roaming cats and dogs. There may be other benefits to confinement as well, such as a greater attachment between person and pet. But there is no doubt that dogs and cats have lost a great deal in losing their freedom. If I had to choose whether to live as a dog in 1915 or 2015, I would choose 1915 hands down, in spite of the possibility that my life might well be shorter.

Is there anything we can do to give dogs and cats back their freedom? With cats, I think the answer is yes. Cats who are sterilized and have had their shots should be allowed to roam free if they want, in my opinion. If a person’s home is simply too dangerous to allow a cat to roam due to vehicular traffic, interfering neighbors, or aggressive animal control, then a move to a more accommodating neighborhood may be in order. For dogs it is a much more difficult problem. Dog parks, dog beaches, and other places where dogs can roam free may help. Intensive socialization of the young dog with many different people and dogs, in many different environments, may help. If a dog has to be on leash, then the owner might want to take the dog on one or two long walks a day where the dog gets to lead and gets to decide where to go and what to do. Some doggie day care places do a great job and are like spas for dogs, but they can be expensive. I’m sure dog behavior experts could come up with many more suggestions.

Perhaps the most important thing is simply to recognize the problem. No Kill shelters today do a good job at matching dogs and cats to the temperament and lifestyle of their prospective owners. Simply preventing mismatches could go a long way toward ameliorating the problems of the modern lifestyle. And urban planning needs to begin to include better accommodations for pets. Ten years ago disaster management agencies simply ignored pets, but that changed after Katrina. If people today really value their pets as family members they will seek out neighborhoods where pets are welcome and where design considerations such as green space, walking trails and dog parks have been incorporated. Those things will help people too, and they should not be restricted only to wealthier neighborhoods.

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