I like cats. I always have. My cat doesn’t much like me these days, because in his considered opinion, I spend far too much time with that small and loud creature who doesn’t know how to be properly gentle, but I love him very much, and he has gotten me through some tough times. I would rather spend an afternoon curled up with my cat and a book than with a fair number of the people of my acquaintance. And therefore, by movie standards, there is something irredeemably broken about me, especially since I don’t much care for dogs.
Oh, I get a minor pass—after all, at least I’m a woman. Men who don’t like dogs are just evil. At least women who don’t like dogs can be phobic, though even allergies don’t reliably get you a pass. Can you picture Blofeld with, say, a King Charles Spaniel? Villains can have big, vicious dogs, but by and large, dogs are for heroes and cats are for crazy women and villains.
There are exceptions. Oddly, though, I am able to find more exceptions allowing heroes to have cats than villains to have any dogs that aren’t security devices. I know quite a lot of people who will tell you that they don’t trust anyone that dogs don’t like, but my experience is that, if you get a dog early enough, it will like you no matter how terrible you are. I’m just going to have to Godwin, here, because Hitler had a dog of whom he was very fond. Who was very fond of him. (Mussolini, however, had a pet lion cub. Because he was crazy.) Vladimir Putin has a dog. Dogs just don’t have the same morality as humans do.
Not that cats do, of course; there isn’t something morally profound about being liked by cats, either. (My cat’s preference seems to be “people who are allergic to cats.”) I don’t dispute that what kind of pets you prefer can say things about you, but I don’t think any of them imply you’re a good or bad person. However, we’re perfectly willing to accept that it’s true.
Everyone knows you can’t let the dog die in an action movie, no matter how improbable. My personal favourite example is that they were willing to kill the grandmother in Dante’s Peak, but the dog was still alive and standing cheerfully by a lava flow, waiting to be rescued. If you kill the dog, well, that’s a sign that there’s something bad happening. There seems to be a whole genre of children’s fiction of “dogs that die to usher boys into manhood.” It’s a depressing genre, and you’re already thinking of Old Yeller before I cite it as an example.
Little girls can like cats, of course, especially if there’s a cute ribbon bow involved. But when Audrey Hepburn had a cat in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, it was yet another demonstration of the fundamentally temporary nature of Holly Golightly’s life. She had a cat that she didn’t name, because she couldn’t stand to be tied down by anyone or anything, even a cat. In the end, it turns out that the cat needs her and she needs the hero and everything ends happily, but the story just wouldn’t work with a mutt instead of a stray cat. This is probably why Llewyn Davis ends up carrying a cat around as well.
Heck, even in most animation, the cat is the villain. One of the many reasons I don’t like Tom and Jerry cartoons is that the later ones don’t even start with the basic premise that Tom is just trying to get a bite to eat and incidentally keep a roof over his head. Or, when they do, we’re not supposed to think about it. Jerry is living by stealing, and Tom’s job is to stop him from doing that. We’re supposed to want Jerry to keep his home and Tom to get kicked out, and we’re not supposed to think about that. Besides, it isn’t enough for Jerry to just evade him; the response gets awfully disproportionate in a lot of those cartoons, so that Itchy and Scratchy aren’t much of an exaggeration.
My Renaissance faire boss has always thought of himself as a dog person. He now says that the one thing he got out of his (terrible) recent relationship is a greater appreciation for cats, because they’re less needy. But I think it’s that very lack of neediness that gives cats such a bad rap in pop culture. We want to be needed, and cats are just fine without us. Most dogs are, too, but they’re better at pretending than cats are.