CLOSE
Original image
iStock

How Were Cats Domesticated?

Original image
iStock

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?

Original image
iStock
arrow
Animals
Why Your Cat Can't Roar, But Jungle Cats Can
Original image
iStock

Your kitty may have the swagger of a mighty jungle cat, but it’s hard to take the tough cat act seriously once it opens its mouth. Unlike their roaring relatives, domestic cats have a high-pitched, mewling cry. However, they do purr—a trait that isn’t shared with lions, tigers, leopards, or jaguars, the four species of cats with loud, growling vocalizations.

In the video below, SciShow’s Hank Green explains the science behind why your beloved ball of fur can’t roar—and how it’s linked to their ferocious cousins' lack of purring ability.

Original image
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
Why Do Cats Love to Knead?
Original image
iStock

If you're a cat lover, chances are your favorite feline has shown a penchant for kneading, and at some point has given you and/or a favorite piece of furniture a massage with his or her rhythmic paws. Colloquially called “making biscuits,” kneading is a common behavior among kittens and adult cats alike—but animal experts still aren't sure exactly why they do it.

Scientists have a few theories, some of which SciShow’s Hank Green outlined in this fascinating video. One theory is that your cat's kneading is an attempt to mark its territory—yes, even if that “territory” is you—with the scent glands in its paws. Another rationale is that kneading is a neotenic behavior, or a juvenile trait that sticks with cats into adulthood. Kittens knead their mother's belly to stimulate milk production—an act that’s nearly identical to that strange, Shiatsu-like practice it’s doing in your lap. (This could also explain why some adult cats also "suckle" the items they're kneading.)

Green does point out that domestic cats knead, whereas wild cats don’t, which raises the question: Why have only domestic felines retained this behavior? Green attributes this to the fact that house cats were selected over thousands of years for their friendlier, less aggressive traits, but says they've "probably also held on to some of their more social, baby-like behavior, just because it serves them well when they’re around people."

"I don’t know if you’ve heard this, but wildcats are not super social," Green jokes. "They don’t come up and cuddle, so much as try to eat your flesh. Felis silvestris, the ancestor of all domestic cats, is a solitary hunter that only socializes with members of its own species when it’s time to breed. So wildcats only developed social behaviors for two situations”—mating and caretaking behaviors between mother cats and their kittens.

“Unlike wild cats though, domesticated cats have a lot of social behaviors as adults, because they’re not wild loners anymore," Green adds. "They have us to cuddle with, con treats out of, and demand food from. So their innate tendencies for snuggling with mom and hitting on the lady cats are put to good use on us."

While occasionally painful or bothersome, kneading one’s owner is definitely a loving act on the part of the cat, a way of letting you know that it feels comfortable and safe with you. That said, don't sweat it if your cat isn’t big on the habit—or, conversely, worry that it kneads too much.

“Some cats are more needy and knead more than others,” Dr. Michael W. Fox, a veterinarian and author of the syndicated newspaper column "Animal Doctor,” advised one anxious reader who reported that her kitty had taken to kneading the family dog. “This behavior is exacerbated when a cat is weaned from its mother too soon. It’s an anxious cat’s way of seeking contact comfort.”

If you’re not a fan of kneading, it's futile to train your cat to cease a perfectly natural behavior. Instead, consider investing in a pair of nail clippers—and when you’ve finally had enough, gently push the cat away and enjoy the fleeting freedom of an empty lap.

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

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios