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Are Dogs Funnier Than Cats?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Fake laughter is the worst. When you notice it, fake laughter is a reminder that something, socially, is off.

Contrast that with the way you laugh when you are with your dog.* It’s spontaneous, raw and honest. You don’t mean for a laugh to pop out when Sampson is waiting for you to throw a ball and his rear end moves progressively faster and faster. It just happens. Sampson — waiting for a ball — is funny.

YouTube makes it abundantly clear that dogs do not have a monopoly on humor. Companion cats also tickle our funny bone. I’ll take a happy dog running amuck or a cat with a box any time, any day.

Laughing with pets
But which animal makes us laugh most (setting aside the Taylor Swift goat compilation**). Do people living with cats laugh more than people living with dogs, or is it the other way around? And what prompts our laughter? A pilot study, aptly titled Tails of Laughter, investigated those questions, surveying a small sample of people living with cats, dogs, both cats and dogs or no companion animal at all. Participants were told the survey explored how frequently people laughed and what made them laugh. Participants volunteered the information by completing “laughter logs” (yes, that’s what they’re called). While the findings are based on data collected on one working day and from a small number of participants, they offer food for thought into The World of Laughter.

Who’s laughing?
Not cat owners. People living with dogs or both dogs and cats reported laughing more frequently than those living with just cats.

Fine, but what were people laughing about? Maybe people living with dogs were cracking up when thinking about how last year on vacation your sister fell in that giant hole on the beach. Or, maybe people living with dogs and cats spend a lot of time reading The Onion or watching dog and cat videos on YouTube. Nope. People living with dogs or both dogs and cats reported laughing when pets were present more frequently than cat owners.

Why laugh?
Previous research into naturally occurring laughter finds that most laughter occurs spontaneously, not from mass media, recalled events or stock jokes. Laughter is most often prompted spontaneously by “something the individual or someone else said or did or something that happened to the individual or someone else.” And it most often occurs in social contexts rather than when alone.

Given the social element of laughter and our propensity to see companion pets as extensions of our social group and families, it is not surprising that we would laugh in their presence. But not all companion pets are necessarily viewed the same. An earlier study found that dog owners perceive their dogs as more “playful, active, affectionate and excitable” than cat owners view their cats. Differences in laughter could derive from actual or perceived differences in dog and cat behavior. Dog behavior, and the social contexts in which it occurs, could provide more opportunities for people to laugh.

I already mentioned a few of the study’s caveats (small sample size, self-reported data), but the most important one could be selection bias. There are notable personality differences between people who describe themselves as dog people, cat people both or neither (click here for an overview of Sam Gosling’s excellent study on these personality differences). It is possible that the current study is more an indication of individuals’ personalities and not necessarily whether dogs or cats are funny. People who live with dogs or dogs and cats might just laugh more, or claim that they laugh more, than people living with cats. Or maybe the people living with cats just had a bad day the day they completed their “laughter logs.”

This study also doesn’t investigate why people are laughing when pets are present. What does your dog or cat do that makes you laugh? Why is it funny?


Footnotes
*Of course, people can fake laugh in the presence of their dog. But it tends to be a nervous laugh appeasing another set of human eyes, with the potential to offer criticism or judgment.
** Some “goats” in the video are actually sheep, via Alan McElligott on Twitter @AMCELL

Images: o back to dogs via Flicker/ faster panda kill kill; Cat on stove, copyright the author.

References
Serpell J.A. (1996). Evidence for an association between pet behavior and owner attachment levels, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 47 (1-2) 49-60. DOI:
Valeri R.M. (2006). Tails of Laughter: A Pilot Study Examining the Relationship between Companion Animal Guardianship (Pet Ownership) and Laughter, Society & Animals, 14 (3) 275-293. DOI:

Julie Hecht About the Author: Julie Hecht is a canine behavioral researcher and science writer in New York City. She would really like to meet your dog. Follow on Twitter @DogSpies.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Bobsoup 12:03 pm 04/29/2013

    Individual personalities of animals vary.

    That said, dogs tend to hang around you more than cats do. Dog owners may be laughing in the presence of their dogs more simply because their dogs are almost omnipresent around the house.

    The cat could just as easily be napping in a different room of the house. Spending less time WITH you.

    The logs didn’t say the owners were laughing “AT” the pets. Nor is there a mention of a log of how frequently they are in contact with their pets.

    If you keep a pet comedian but it sleeps in a different room 23½ hours of the day- you will probably laugh in it’s presence less frequently than a dog that is always by your side even if the comedian was funnier.

    It’s highly possible that dogs do more to make us laugh than cats; however, can’t tell from what is described above.

    Link to this
  2. 2. JohnCartwright 2:10 pm 04/29/2013

    Dogs are funnier than cats, for one simple reason:
    Dogs are children; cats are teenagers.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Silkysmom 2:49 pm 04/29/2013

    I have a cat who makes me laugh every day with her antics. I play with my son’s dog when I am there and he makes me laugh too. Maybe I just like to laugh!

    Link to this
  4. 4. hanmeng 3:35 pm 04/29/2013

    “I haven’t laughed so much over anything since the hogs ate my kid brother.”
    ― Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest

    Link to this
  5. 5. nckfbr 11:21 am 04/30/2013

    Great post, Julie! We laugh most at my dog Teddy when he’s in situations that allow us to anthropomorphize him easily. Like, when I’m talking to him and tilts his head like he’s actually listening. Or he tries to sit on the couch when there clearly isn’t room. I think, in the latter example, it’s because we assume he’s as smart and socialized as we are, so it’s like, why would you try to do that, Teddy?

    Link to this
  6. 6. BuckSkinMan 11:01 pm 05/1/2013

    Missed entirely by all these “studies” is one well-documented fact: Dogs (and horses) have long enjoyed a working relationship with humans which cats have never had. You do not see cats guarding and herding sheep, is probably the best way of saying this.

    Both humans and dogs guard and herd sheep: the dogs were trained by their “bosses” and that formed a permanent working relationship. Cats, it’s been observed many times, are far less trainable. Cats used as “mousers” aren’t really trained, humans put them in places where unwanted rats exist. That’s not training, it’s placement. This is why cats are usually at least partly decorative: nice to see them “handy” and putting in an appearance if rats come visiting.

    Catching frisbees and balls – is a dog demonstrating a desired behavior and the obvious hope of the dog is a reward. This too is a working relationship: that of employer to employee. Everything that is desirable in an employee is also valued in a dog: only the dog seems inexhaustibly enthused by this relationship. Human employees: less so. So the dog gives us the feeling of always being the boss, because the dog agrees – affectionately, enthusiastically and loyally.

    Thus, we can relax with our dog far more easily than with our cat. The cat’s role often is that of dependent and sometimes demanding infant. When we’re relaxed and confident: we can laugh with our friends, families and with our dogs.

    The one time I tried to help herd sheep was a comic disaster: the sheep literally leaped over my head to counter my directions. We brought in a sheep herding dog: the sheep immediately became compliant. Need I say more about this relationship – or the humor built into it? :-)

    Link to this
  7. 7. evelyn haskins 2:13 am 01/11/2014

    There is one obvious reason that people with cats laugh less.

    Dogs are natural clowns and enjoy it when you laugh — they feel good when you laugh with them.

    Cats simply despise being laughed at — all you get from a cat for a laugh is a dirty look.

    Link to this
  8. 8. mikeldelgado 7:14 pm 04/8/2014

    My cats make me laugh every day. The antics include 360 degree spin outs on the floor, ridiculous meows and the “poop and run.” I might just have very undignified cats.

    Link to this
  9. 9. Julie Hecht in reply to Julie Hecht 8:21 pm 04/8/2014

    Poop and run is my favorite too.

    Link to this

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