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How Were Cats Domesticated?

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House cats share 95.6 percent of their DNA with tigers, but despite how adorable they can be, most people probably wouldn't want the latter as a pet. While big cats and our furry friends have several other things in common, one of the main differences is that many years ago, people successfully domesticated Felis catus. But how did it happen?

To understand how cats became pets, you have to understand what it means for a species to be domesticated. In scientist and author Jared Diamond's 1997 book Guns, Germs, and Steel, he lists failed attempts at domesticating zebras in 19th century South Africa, gazelles in the Fertile Crescent, grizzly cubs in Japan, and cheetahs in India. “Of the world’s 148 big wild terrestrial herbivorous mammals—the candidates for domestication," he writes, "only 14 passed the test.”

According to Diamond, there are six criteria for successful domestication: the animals must be easy to feed; they must grow and mature at a rate that makes economic sense; they have to breed well in captivity to keep the population going; they have to be generally nice animals; they can’t be prone to freak outs; and the social structure of the species has to be strong. Thousands of years ago, cats hit every mark for people looking to make them pets, though when that happened exactly is still a point of contention.

According to Smithsonian, cat remains have not made their domestication timeline any clearer, because house cats and wildcats have similar skeletons. Archaeologists have found evidence that suggests that cats in Cyprus were domesticated around 9500 years ago, long before the love affair with cats began in Ancient Egypt. A separate study and genetic analysis suggested that domestication of the animals began closer to 12,000 years ago. A theory about these wildcat ancestors, according to Stephen O'Brien of the National Cancer Institute in Frederick, Maryland, is that they “just sort of domesticated themselves.” O’Brien said that one of the cat species had a “genetic variance” that made the animals approach humans and hang around, while others were likely captured so that they could hunt mice and other pests for farmers.

Unfortunately, because cat domestication is believed to have started so long ago, history doesn't offer written manuals that explain every step of the process. By bringing the cats in as rodent killers, early domesticators may have given them certain amenities (like warmth and food) that persuaded the cats to stay. Over the course of time, that mutual relationship led to the breeding of slightly tamer cats than their cousins in the wild, though some would argue that even the house cats of today aren't fully domesticated.

Smithsonian Institution archaeologist Melinda Zeder tells The New Yorker that it’s the mutual relationship that makes cats the “ultimate domesticate.” But the domestication process didn't equal full subservience on the part of the felines. “I think what confuses people about cats is that they still carry some of the more aloof behaviors of their solitary wild progenitors,” Zeder said. “Sometimes they don’t give a damn about you, but they are very much part of your niche. Cats have us do everything for them. We clean their litter, stroke them, admire them, but unlike dogs they do not have to constantly please and satisfy our needs." Makes you wonder—who's domesticating whom?

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Big Questions
Do Cats Fart?
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Certain philosophical questions can invade even the most disciplined of minds. Do aliens exist? Can a soul ever be measured? Do cats fart?

While the latter may not have weighed heavily on some of history’s great brains, it’s certainly no less deserving of an answer. And in contrast to existential queries, there’s a pretty definitive response: Yes, they do. We just don’t really hear it.

According to veterinarians who have realized their job sometimes involves answering inane questions about animals passing gas, cats have all the biological hardware necessary for a fart: a gastrointestinal system and an anus. When excess air builds up as a result of gulping breaths or gut bacteria, a pungent cloud will be released from their rear ends. Smell a kitten’s butt sometime and you’ll walk away convinced that cats fart.

The discretion, or lack of audible farts, is probably due to the fact that cats don’t gulp their food like dogs do, leading to less air accumulating in their digestive tract.

So, yes, cats do fart. But they do it with the same grace and stealth they use to approach everything else. Think about that the next time you blame the dog.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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environment
How Japan's 'Dancing' Cats Predicted a Deadly Environmental Disaster
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In the 1950s, residents of Minamata, Japan, noticed that something was wrong with the city's cats. As the SciShow's Hank Green recounts in the video below, the cats would convulse, make strange noises and jerking "dancing" motions—and eventually die. Soon, these symptoms spread to the local townspeople, and scientists began searching for the cause of the terrifying sickness.

The culprit was soon revealed to be the Chisso Corporation, a Japanese chemical company with a factory in Minamata. About 30 years earlier, the company had begun making an organic chemical called acetaldehyde, using mercury as a catalyst to trigger the needed reactions. Afterwards, the company dumped the leftover chemicals into Minamata Bay, where the mercury came into contact with bacteria that transformed it into the most noxious form of the metal: methylmercury. This toxic substance was absorbed by plants, which were in turn eaten by fish. Eventually, the methylmercury made its way up the food chain and poisoned both felines and humans. Birth defects became rampant, and more than 900 people died. Thousands of victims have since been identified. The neurological syndrome caused by extreme mercury poisoning is now known as Minamata disease.

You can learn more about the worst mercury poisoning disaster the world has ever seen by watching the video below.

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