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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
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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Smart Shopping
25 Dapper Outfit Choices for Fashionable Pets
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Lavishing your furry friends with adorable attire is a benefit of pet ownership that they don't mention on the adoption forms. Whether you prefer practical clothing like sweaters and jackets or statement pieces like bow ties and tutus, these dapper duds are perfect for a howl-iday or "gotcha day" gift, or simply for saying, "Who's the cutest little pupper in pajamas? You are!"

1. CASHMERE DOG SWEATER; FROM $165

dog in sweater
Canine Styles

This classic cable-knit cashmere sweater is a sophisticated look for Fido or Finn. Get it from Canine Styles, a luxury dog emporium in New York City that has plenty of posh and preppy outfits.

Find It: Canine Styles

2. TOGGLE DOG COAT; $85

dog in coat
Canine Styles

This toggle coat (available in orange, navy, and tan) is as fashionable as it is warm. Made of Melton wool, it has Velcro closures to make getting dressed easy. It's great for long walks in the country.

Find It: Canine Styles

3. DOG TUXEDO; FROM $90

Dog in tuxedo
Etsy

This satin tuxedo is perfect for the canine members of your wedding party, though it will brighten up any other occasion as well. The custom, handmade outfit comes complete with a snappy bow tie.

Find It: Etsy

4. DOG BELLE DRESS; FROM $45

Dog Belle Dress
Etsy

The queen of your castle can feel like a Disney princess in her very own version of Belle's iconic yellow dress from Beauty and the Beast. This ball gown is made from yellow crepe satin with chiffon overlay on the bodice and features hand-painted gold detailing on the skirt. Enchanted rose not included.

Find It: Etsy

5. POODLE SKIRT OUTFIT FOR DOGS; $26

Rubies Pink Fifties Girl Pet Costume
Amazon

What if you could buy a 1950s poodle skirt for your poodle? This retro dress is comprised of a pink poodle skirt, striped bodice, and sequined belt, and comes with a bow headband.

Find It: Amazon

6. RIBBED CROCHET BUNNY SWEATER; $25

bunny in a sweater
Etsy

Your snuggle-bunny will look like a little fancy-pants in this ribbed crochet sweater. Choose from seven colors, including this dashing deep red.

Find It: Etsy

7. BESPOKE MONOGRAM DOG SWEATER; FROM $155

Dog in sweater
Ruby Rufus

Bespoke clothing isn't just for humans: British luxury dog clothing brand Ruby Rufus will make your pooch a custom monogram sweater made with 100 percent Italian cashmere. You can even order it in your dog's favorite color.

Find It: Ruby Rufus

8. HOT PINK DOG TUTU; $17

Dog in hot pink tutu
Etsy

Tutus look absolutely adorable on tiny humans and animals alike. If your pooch wants to get in touch with its inner ballerina, then grab this hot pink number from Etsy. Rave reviews are a sure thing.

Find It: Etsy

9. PINK DOG POLO SHIRT; $35

Dog Pink Polo Shirt
Canine Styles

This pink polo shirt is perfect for your preppy fur baby. It features not one but a veritable multitude of crocodiles. They'll be the most dapper dog at the country club.

Find It: Canine Styles

10. DOG BARN COAT WITH BROWN CORDUROY COLLAR; $85

Dog in barn coat
Canine Styles

When it's time for a walk, your dog will look effortlessly chic in this fancy barn coat. It comes in navy, cranberry, orange, hot pink, and loden and features convenient pockets for anyone with opposable thumbs.

Find It: Canine Styles

11. WHITE PET NECK RUFF; $26

Pet Neck Ruff
Etsy

Your canine or kitty will look like their painting belongs in London's National Portrait Gallery with this Elizabethan neck ruff.

Find It: Etsy

12. CHICKEN SWEATER; $25

chicken wearing sweater
Etsy

Chickens can get cold when they're strutting around outside. A sweater (well, more like sweater vest) for your bird can also help prevent feather picking during molting season. Or, it can simply keep them warm while they stare pensively across a snowy landscape.

Find It: Etsy

13. PET CIRCLE SCARF; $15

dog in scarf
Etsy

An infinity scarf is a perfect burst of color on a dreary early morning walk. The proprietor of Mitten Made on Etsy originally designed this wool snood for her miniature Dachshund to help keep her warm during the long, cold winters in Michigan.

Find It: Etsy

14. FAB DOG TRAVEL RAINCOAT; FROM $18

Fab Dog Travel Raincoat
Chewy

This timeless yellow rain slicker will look great on any puppy when it's raining cats and dogs. It's made of 100 percent waterproof nylon shell that keeps fur dry. Bonus: It's perfect for an It Halloween costume.

Find It: Chewy

15. LACE CAT OR DOG COLLAR; FROM $10

cat in lace collar
Etsy

This handmade, white lace collar is a must-have for fancy felines. It's also embellished with a large rhinestone.

Find It: Etsy

16. FITWARM PENGUIN PAJAMAS FOR DOGS; FROM $10

Fitwarm Cute Penguin Xmas Dog Pajamas
Amazon

Keep your pupper warm on cold winter nights with these penguin PJs. They're great for doggie sleepovers or lazy weekends on the couch watching Netflix.

Find It: Amazon

17. PLAID CASHMERE DOG COAT; FROM $225

dog in plaid coat
Canine Styles

Your dog will look like a proper gentleman in this smart plaid peacoat. This fine garment is made of cashmere with a faux fur lining and leather buttons, and is a perfect shield against chill and fog.

Find It: Canine Styles

18. SATIN PET BOW TIE; FROM $8

Satin Bow Tie for Dog
Etsy

This satin doggie bow tie is perfect for any occasion. It comes in several colors and features a Velcro fastener that makes it easy to attach to a collar. Plus, 10 percent of every sale goes to charity: specifically to SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) and Feeding Pets of the Homeless.

Find It: Etsy

19. RED DOG DRESS; FROM $34

dog in dress
Etsy

Your good boy or girl will look red carpet-ready in this elegant gown. The voluminous tulle skirt is to die for, and each bow is embellished with beads. Custom orders are also available.

Find It: Etsy

20. DOG TIE; FROM $13

Dog tie
Etsy

Your pooch will be ready to stun at any black tie event. This tie is designed like a collar, making it easy to dress your four-legged friend. This Etsy store gives back: 10 perfect of all sales are donated to an animal protection association.

Find It: Etsy

21. NAUTICAL DOG DRESS WITH MATCHING LEASH; $20

Dog sailor dress
BaxterBoo

Perfect for a day on the town or setting sail in a schooner, this is the sailor outfit you never knew your best furry friend needed. This vintage throwback also comes with a matching leash.

Find It: BaxterBoo

22. TARTAN FLANNEL PET BOW TIE; $5.50

tartan pet bow tie
Etsy

Your dog or cat will turn heads in this flannel tartan bow tie. It has a convenient elastic loop that slides over your pup's collar.

Find It: Etsy

23. PUCCI DOG SHIRT; $23

dog in Pucci dog shirt
Etsy

Only the fanciest dogs wear, err, Pucci. Grab this punny "designer" t-shirt for your pup. This high-quality cotton statement piece is perfect for small breeds.

Find It: Etsy

24. PINK POLKA DOT AND LACE DOG HARNESS DRESS; $20

Pink Polka Dot and Lace Designer Dog Harness Dress
BaxterBoo

This feminine pink polka dot dress is simply adorable. It features a convenient built-in harness and comes with a matching leash.

Find It: BaxterBoo

25. PET SWEATER VEST; $6

pet sweater vest
Amazon

Your dog or cat will look like an erudite Oxford professor in this sweater vest. Note that the button on the pocket is shaped like a bone.

Find It: Amazon

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