June 21, 2014

Are veterinarians biased against cats?

We cloak professional healers in an aura of sanctity, as though they were guardian angels and miracle workers. But they are fallible human beings with their own set of motivations, in addition to wanting to help patients.

The most disturbing example must be the veterinarians, who turn out to be biased against an entire class of their patients — the cats.

Here are the results of a survey of vets and vet technicians. The majority express no preference for either, but that's just giving them the easy fence-sitting answer. Psychological studies show that people who own both dogs and cats are more like dog people than cat people. Push them in a real-life setting, and they'd more likely come down in favor of dog patients. Of those who do express a preference, the vets are 2 to 1 in favor of their dog patients, and the vet techs are even more biased at 3 to 1.

Here are even more extensive statistics, painting the same basic picture of preferences, but also revealing how these manifest themselves in the hospitals and clinics themselves.

The two main reasons seem to be that dogs give cues that are easier for humans to read, and they aren't as fiesty. Dogs are more closely adapted to interacting with people, but I still wonder how much the greater difficulty of "reading" cats is due to the vet not being a cat lover in the first place. To each their own in their private life, but this is like a pediatrician who doesn't care for kids.

Aside from the bias against cats in itself, dog people also tend to be more liberal, in the sense of having less respect for purity and sanctity (click on the "pets" tag below to review earlier posts on this topic). I expect they're more likely to callously favor euthanasia, whereas cat people would set a higher threshold for putting a pet down.

And given the greater influence that the vet has in this decision — not being as easily persuadable as a panic-stricken pet owner — this likely results in more pets (canine and feline) having their lives taken than there should be.

Part of the belief in "healers as angels" is that we shouldn't research and choose which hospital and which doctor we should bring our loved one to. Aren't all angels equally angelic? In the case of taking care of cats, though, you ought to check into these things beforehand, to at least make sure you'll be seeing a cat person with the proper respect for life, and not a dog-loving mercy killer.


  1. Jonathan Haidt has a dataset on pet preferences and what kinds of answers people give to his moral factors tests. When I first contacted him he offered to examine your hypothesis on purity/sanctity vs authority the next time he dug into the data, but later on said he was too busy to get into it this year. Because conservatives have a strong preference for dogs, my prior is that all the "conservative" moral factors are positively correlated with being a dog person.

  2. "Because conservatives have a strong preference for dogs,"

    Yes, but their preference is more for the independent, feral breed of dogs. Liberals are more likely to favor small dogs.

  3. It just occurred to me that because the general population is more into dogs than cats, it shouldn't be surprising that vets do as well. I don't know how the proportions compare though. That would be in keeping with people who own both preferring dogs.

    Curtis, I suspect you're right. Smaller dogs seem more suited for cities, larger dogs often need more space to run free (although I've heard Great Danes are incredibly lazy and can just lay around an apartment). A counter-example though: My sister fits the urban liberal lawyer stereotype, but she has a considerably larger dog (Rottweiler mix from a shelter) than the ones my conservative dad uses for bird-hunting. Admittedly, he used to use larger dogs (although I'd say his Brittany wasn't as big as the Rot-mix) but when he got older figured smaller dogs would be easier to handle.

    At any rate, Curtis doesn't seem to be making an argument that on the whole dog people are more "liberal" on any of Haidt's moral factors.

  4. "Liberals are more likely to favor small dogs."

    Men don't really seems to like small dogs very much. Women do (not just a stereotype, backed up by data, as per various retarded articles linking declining birth rates to increased popularity). Such women are young, but don't seem particularly liberal biased.

    http://cdn.thebarkpost.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/smalldoggraph-600x337.png - Change in dog size ownership, with big increases in the number of tiny dogs since 1999.

  5. "because the general population is more into dogs than cats, it shouldn't be surprising that vets do as well."

    The general population doesn't like hanging around kids all day long. But what would we do if most elementary school teachers, daycare workers, and pediatricians preferred working with adults rather than annoying little children?

  6. Psych instruments won't tell us anything we don't already know in this case -- that dog people have shown through their behavior a far greater tendency toward profaning, corrupting, warping, and humiliating their pets. Clipping ears, docking tails, "de-barking," selective breeding to engineer abominations of nature, dressing them up like ridiculous fashion accessories, sending them to yoga, acupuncture, etc.

    What a psych test would show is whether this pattern is localized within the domain of treatment of companion animals, companions of any species, or is even more domain-general.

    It wouldn't be hard to find out the beliefs and behaviors of dog vs. cat people when it comes to a clear test case of liberal vs. conservative morality, regarding sanctity and purity of life. What are their views and their real-life tendencies when it comes to euthanasia, for instance? (Whether for animals or humans too.)

    Even if both were going to euthanize a pet, who gets more broken up, doubts that what they did was the right thing to do, and begs God or at least the animal's spirit for forgiveness afterward?

    I've been reading through articles and comment threads for these things, and dog people are more callous and rationalizing about such things than cat people are.

  7. People who prefer dogs for working, hauling, defending the property, and other functional jobs are not pet owners. In such cases the animal is a device, much like a car, alarm system, or vacuum cleaner. They get about as attached to their animals as a car owner does to their car -- not totally distant, but not treating them as moral equals either.

    Hence the long practice of putting such animals down when their expected utility into the future would not be worth the investment in maintenance and repair, a la sending a clunker off to the junkyard rather than "spend too much" to fix 'er up.

    As people have made the transition toward viewing and treating animals as companions, dog owners have kept much of this earlier mindset and behavioral style. It's not a pet to them, but an animate lifestyle-enhancing machine. Once the machine would cramp the owner's lifestyle -- by demanding too much care, maintenance, and money -- then they dump it off in the trash, shed crocodile tears, and rationalize away about how it was the best thing for it.

  8. I don't think the general population is that averse to children. Women in particular, which is why they tend to go into teaching (particularly at lower levels). I expect veterinarians to like animals. How much does it matter which of those animals is their favorite.

    Veterinarians may be more comfortable with euthanasia, they're used to it. Doctors are also much more averse to going to drastic efforts to prolong their own lives, preferring a peaceful & quicker death.

    You really don't get it if you think people who use dogs for functional purposes are "not pet owners". You can be both a friend and a co-worker to someone (in fact that's a common pattern). In the pre-modern era the household was an economic unit of production, does that mean they weren't really families? We can relate to others on multiple levels.

    On a minor note, the Brittany pointer I mentioned earlier had a docked tail. The reasoning was that it was liable to get injured in some of the brush he'd get into. The flushers sometimes hurt themselves, but they were smaller dogs with naturally smaller tails.

  9. And the rationalization train zooms outta the station...

    Can one co-worker unilaterally send the other to the junkyard once he calculates that it would cost more to preserve him than to junk him and get a new co-worker? Can one co-worker unilaterally amputate almost all of a crucial limb on the other -- "so you'll do your job better"?

    It's like I said before -- a car owner and their car. Some owners don't get very attached, others take better care and feel some emotional connection. But not enough to conceive of them and treat them as moral equals rather than animate machines.

  10. I had a high school physics teacher who hated cats. Every test she gave would include a problem in which a cat was killed or injured in some way.

    The cat jumped off a building so many meters high. Calculate the velocity at which it smashed into the pavement below.

  11. There are a lot of superstitions about cats, like they will steal the brearth from infants or cause infant death.

  12. I never claimed the relationship was the same and you could fit any analogy, I was only illustrating what should be the obvious point that relationships can be more complicated than you presume. Pets are not people and it wouldn't make sense to all the same things apply. Even you wouldn't assign them the same rights & responsibilities. I don't think the analogy with cars fits, because the vast majority of people would have no problem switching out one for an identical (and I mean they'd be sure it would have no defects). "Trading in" cars is normal, but there's not a big "used pet market" (although theoretically, a car could last forever if you keep replacing parts). Instead what's normative (at least in the city I live) is to get an animal from a shelter, which is perceived as doing a good deed (and if you've got a pet, it's absolutely normal to spend considerably more than "replacement cost" on its health). The shelters make sure to "fix" them, so there are not more stray animals going hungry. On a sidenote, Razib points out this has some implications for selection.

    This is not me engaging in defensive rationalizations. I don't own any pets, haven't been responsible for any since I got my own place. I think you have a simply wrong theory of how pet-owners think which would be evident if you actually talked to any as if they actually related to their dogs like cars. It's also possible that you don't actually believe in what you're saying but simply exaggerating for some reason, which would be irritating.

  13. No analogy is perfect, but yours is farther off. In any case, I'm not trying to perfectly capture the nature of dog people, but capture the *variation* between dog and cat people. Cat people are more toward the "pets are sacred" end of the spectrum, while dog people are more like halfway between both ends (the other end being "animals are mere beasts of burden").

  14. "Cat people are more toward the "pets are sacred" end of the spectrum, while dog people are more like halfway between both ends (the other end being "animals are mere beasts of burden")."

    Which one of these sounds more decadent? A person who keeps a pet to serve a funtional purpose and nevertheless forms a bond woth it, or a person who thinks of their pet as "sacred"?

  15. Fair enough, agnostic.


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