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When it comes to that perennial, unwinnable debate-club topic – cats vs. dogs – it’s hard to avoid the stereotypes. You know them: cats are inscrutable, independent, chaotic; while dogs are loyal, obsequious, gregarious. If dogs are man’s best friend, then cats are his moody, volatile roommate. I’m no scientist, but I’ve always thought that the most famous cat- and dog-related experiments say something essential about their natures. Ask yourself: Might Pavlov, in a pinch, have used a cat – or Schrodinger a dog? Of course not. Dogs lack the metaphysical panache necessary to be simultaneously dead and alive. Cats will drool when you give them catnip, sure, but they couldn’t care less if you’re ringing a bell.

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Two slim new books (that would make great gifts) do little to combat the clichés, but they do confirm them in diverting ways. Cats: An Anthology (editor Suzy Robinson, with an introduction by Margaret Atwood; Notting Hill Editions, 172 pages), the latest entry in a series put out by Notting Hill Editions, compiles excerpts from essays, poetry and fiction by writers ranging from a 9th-century Irish monk to familiar names such as Tove Jansson, Ernest Hemingway, Lewis Carroll, Mary Gaitskill, Alice Walker and the Brothers Grimm. In an introduction, Cat’s Eye author Margaret Atwood talks about her lifelong fondness for felines and explains why writers have always had a thing for cats: “They interview well, projecting a mysterious aura while giving away exactly nothing.”

That cat ownership (if that’s not an oxymoron) can sometimes be an exercise in self-flagellation is alluded to by the writer and illustrator Edward Gorey, who owned as many as seven cats at a time: “I love them dearly, but I sometimes feel they’re largely an irritation, and I seem to spend most of my time screaming at them not to do things – not that it does any good.” Cats’ inherent narcissism is another through-line. Doris Lessing describes one of her felines as “arrogantly aware of herself as a pretty girl who has no attributes but her prettiness: body and face always posed according to some inner monitor … the sullen hostile eyes always on the watch for admiration,” while Caitlin Moran declares her own cat “Gorgeous – but simple. It’s like living with a beautiful-but-duh Hollywood starlet.”

Cats notably doesn’t pussyfoot, if you will, around the mixed, even polarized feelings cats can induce in humans. “I love them and I hate them, these charming and treacherous animals,” wrote the French novelist Guy de Maupassant, who recounts coming upon a cat yowling in the throes of death: “I could have taken a spade and cut the collar, I could have gone to find a servant or told my father. No, I did not move, and with my heart beating, I watched him die with a quivering and cruel joy. It was a cat! If it had been a dog, I would have cut the copper wire with my teeth rather than let it suffer for a second more.” On Goodreads, Cats has received criticism from cat lovers objecting to the inclusion of the Maupassant piece, and to another satirical one from 1922 by the American journalist Ring Lardner that makes reference to shooting cats to make cat-skin coats. When the cat furrier in the latter is asked if the coats wouldn’t be a bit on the small side, he replies: “Small coats is the rage … and I personally seen some of the best-dressed women in New York strolling up and down 10th Avenue during the last cold snap with cat-skin garments no bigger than a guest towel.”

In Mog the Cat and the Mysteries of Animal Subjectivity (don’t let the dry title fool you), Naomi Fry explains how Judith Kerr, in her much-loved series of picture books, plays to a misplaced anthropomorphism: Humans keep crediting the stories’ indifferent, titular feline with heroic acts she has carried out only by happenstance. That idea came to mind when I read one of the book’s briefer entries: a 1940 inscription at a bombed-out London church praising its resident cat for her wartime doughtiness. “She sat the whole frightful night of bombing and fire, guarding her little kitten. … She stayed calm and steadfast and waited for help.” (Did she, though?)

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Like all the instalments in the Letters of Note series, Dogs (compiled by Shaun Usher, McClelland & Stewart, 144 pages) uses an epistolary lens to explore its subject. The prevailingly cheeky tone is set by the book’s opener, a wonderfully sarcastic 1951 note from author E.B. White to the American Humane Society, which had accused him of not paying his dog tax and thus “harbouring” an unlicensed dog (“If by ‘harbouring’ you mean getting up two or three times every night to pull Minnie’s blanket, I am harbouring a dog all right”). A few pages on, a 1944 letter from Roald Dahl to his mother offers a tantalizing glimpse of books yet to be written. Dahl is circumspect about his work spying for Britain’s MI6 in Washington, but spills plenty of ink complaining about Winston, a bulldog whose non-stop farting has put him in some awkward social positions. In 1992, U.S. President George H.W. Bush, alarmed by his dog Ranger’s rapidly ballooning weight, pens a bulletin using all-caps to implore his staff not to keep slipping Ranger biscuits.

If these two books are any indication, dog owners have more confidence speaking on behalf of their pets than cat owners. (Even fantasy author Ursula Le Guin, one of the few to attempt this in Cats, doesn’t quite pull it off). Witness Charlotte Bronte’s curate father writing to her in the voice of her spaniel, Flossy, in a passive-aggressive attempt to dissuade her from accepting a marriage proposal. Or Bob Hope writing to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Scottish terrier in the guise of a dog named Fido to offer condolences on the death of his master.

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Although cats and dogs tend suck up the lion’s share of the oxygen, the animal world is full of worthy characters, as Susan Orlean amply demonstrates in her recent collection of essays, On Animals (Simon & Schuster, 409 pages). “I was always a little animal-ish,” The New Yorker staff writer and author of many books, including one on the dog actor Rin Tin Tin, says about herself. Orlean grew up in Ohio, but has had some of her most memorable animal interactions in New York – the prime example being with an African lion that her soon-to-be husband arranged to have brought into her apartment to surprise her on Valentine’s Day. “The lion ate two raw chickens that we served to him in a salad bowl and then he allowed me to stroke his back, which radiated a coiled, heated energy I’ve never felt before or since.”

Whether they’re deep-dive journalism (including a long, older piece on the efforts to liberate Keiko, the orca star of the 1990s film Free Willy), or more informational (covering everything from rabbit-borne viruses to the donkeys of Fez, Morocco), or a portrait (such as the one about Biff, a prize-show boxer), all the essays amply showcase Orlean’s trademark observant wit and indelible sentences (pandas are “the classic mystery wrapped in an enigma, delivered in the most endearing package in the world.”) And we learn things, too. A takeaway is that animals can get as stuck in their ways as people. Oxen, once paired, will refuse to switch sides. Homing pigeons can’t be re-homed – if you sell your house, the pigeons will have to come with it.

The book’s liveliest entries detail Orlean’s adventures in animal husbandry at her hobby farm in upstate New York, a place where people “discuss agricultural tax deductions with the kind of zeal and wonder with which Manhattanites discuss rent-controlled apartments” (though Orlean sounds rather like those Manhattanites when she calls her beloved turkeys “an impulse buy”). It’s an idyll that occasionally succumbs to some harsh realities. Racoons get into the poultry coop and stage a massacre. Multiple bouts of tick-borne Lyme disease in the family factor, perhaps, into Orlean’s decision to reassess her feelings about deer hunting on the property. And what to do with a “sociopathic” rooster named Laura? It is, you might say, a dog-eat-dog world.

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