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Understanding Your Cat
It is a beast of prey, even a tame one, more especially the wild, it being in the opinion of many, nothing but a diminutive lion … being a crafty, subtle, watchful creature, very loving and familiar with mankind, the mortal enemy to the rat, mouse, and all sorts of birds, which it seizes on as its prey.
—William Salmon, The English Physician, 1693
Cats often outwit humans. They can understand human beings as perfectly as they need to. They are not much interested in us, but they focus on getting what they need. They know enough to get what they want from us. We, on the other hand, often don’t really know very much about cats. We are so much under their spell that we can’t see the feline nature behind their elegant form and charming gestures. We don’t really understand cats.
Are cats really domesticated?
We used to think that prehistoric man domesticated animals. He went out hunting in the forests and savannahs, and when he killed a female animal he brought home the young ones as pets. Clever humans, dumb animals—to let themselves become domesticated.
But what about cats? As far as cats are concerned, that old story is definitely a myth. The occasional wildcat may have been picked up as a very young kitten and tamed, but it’s not easy. Anybody who has tried to handle feral kittens after they have been weaned knows that picking up wild kittens is incredibly difficult. Besides, rearing kittens from a very early age would have been difficult for prehistoric man; Neolithic hunters had better things to do with their time than nurse kittens. We might like to think that we humans domesticated cats, but it’s more likely that cats domesticated themselves.
Understanding this will help us understand our own cats. It’s no good thinking that they are somehow like dogs or like cattle—and that we can treat them like servants. That won’t work. If domestication means being at man’s beck and call, cats just won’t do it. They do their own thing.
Cats can live wild. You can see them all over the world—that is, if you look out for them. Some hang round restaurants in Mediterranean vacation resorts living off handouts from visitors, others live in farms and stables catching mice, still others hang out in big towns, coming out at dusk to check the trash cans and thrown-away portions of take-out food. Cats are wonderfully adaptive; as long as they have shelter from the weather and something to eat, whether it is mice or portions of hamburgers, they can survive. Even pet cats, if they lose their homes, can sometimes live for a long time in the wild.
If you are vacationing at a place where there are many stray cats, keep an eye out for a Cat Café. These are little shelters—part of a scheme organized by the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA)—where tourists can feed stray cats.
Cats have spread all round the globe, living on their own as well as living with humankind. Cats are everywhere. You can find them in the deepest part of the Australian bush, miles and miles away from human habitation. They live on small islands far out in the world’s oceans, descendants of ship’s cats that jumped ship years ago, when the sailors stopped to get water.
Domestic cats are an outstandingly successful species. All the big wildcats and most of the small ones face a bleak future. The relentless growth of human populations puts them under pressure. Many of the big cats now live only in small areas of the world. Yet their tiny little domestic cousins are everywhere. There are literally millions of them—about 600 million is one guess.
Cats move in and out of domestication according to circumstances. An individual pet cat that has not been neutered may be pushed out of its home, but he will survive long enough to start a colony of feral cats. Many cats that lose their homes will do their best to find a new one. They much prefer the easy life of regular meals, warm central heating and soft beds, to trying to scratch a living on the streets or hedgerows. Best of all, if they have a cat door, they can have the best of both worlds—shelter and food and the chance to hunt.
If cats could choose, a home with regular meals is what most of them would prefer. Many cat owners didn’t even plan to have a cat. A stray cat turns up in their yard or starts sitting longingly outside their back door. A meal or two later, the same cat moves in with them and makes it plain that he is there to stay.
This is the intriguing part of the cat-human relationship. Cats often seem to get their own way.
So did cats domesticate us?
From the cats’ point of view, they domesticated us. They have managed to persuade humans to feed them, house them, and even give them medical services. Most of us humans don’t ask anything in return. Cats don’t have to learn to sit and beg, wait patiently for a human to pick up a leash and take them for a walk, go jogging with us, fetch balls in the park, guard us like German shepherds, herd sheep like collies or fetch pheasants like hunting dogs.
Cats just are there. They lie under radiators, watch out of the window, dig up our seedbeds in the garden, and nowadays, rather than clear our houses of mice, they probably bring them in the first place. Cats lucky enough to have their own cat doors are free to come and go as they please. Cats will even rehome themselves if they think they can do better farther down the road.
Clever cats. They are now probably the most numerous pet in the world; in numbers far greater than their old rivals, dogs. How did they find their way into our houses and hearts?
Your cat’s heritage
Understanding your cat’s ancestry helps you understand your cat. We used to think that cats were first domesticated in ancient Egypt. Early archaeologists found cat cemeteries, statues of various Egyptian goddesses in the shape of cats, and cats appeared in Egyptian wall paintings. It looked as if the ancient Egyptians were so into cats that they were the first humans who brought cats into our homes. However, while Egyptians may have been the first to tame or value cats, cats were already living in human settlements.
Now we know where our cats came from—the Near East, the area from the eastern Mediterranean around Turkey, down into Mesopotamia. Scientists have worked carefully on cat DNA, and in particular compared the DNA between domestic cats and various wildcats. From this they know that the common ancestors of all domesticated cats were the African wildcats, Felis silvestris Lybica, that were living some 130,000 years ago in what is known as the Fertile Crescent. This is “exactly the place where humanity settled down to agriculture ten to twelve thousand years ago,” says Dr. Stephen J. O’Brien, Chief of the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, and one of the scientists studying the cat genome.
CAT FACT: The earliest pet cat was found by archaeologists in a Neolithic grave in Cyprus. The complete cat skeleton dated back to about 9,500 years ago. A small pit had been dug and the body of a cat had been placed in it, then covered up. It was just 1.3 feet away from a human grave, which had offerings such as flint tools and polished stone axes. It is possible that the cat was buried at the same time as the human, suggesting some sort of cat-human relationship, though it is also possible it was just a wildcat that was hunted down and killed. Cat teeth have been found in a couple of later archaeological sites, but evidence of full domestication comes from Egypt 3,500 years ago. Egyptian paintings show cats sitting under chairs, eating from bowls and sometimes wearing collars. A little later Egyptians began worshipping a cat goddess, Bastet. They sacrificed cats to her, mummifying them and burying them in cat cemetries. An ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, reported that when a cat died in a household fire, onlookers would go into mourning.
Look at it from the cat’s point of view: it wasn’t until we were civilized that cats bothered to move in with us. That was around the time that humans stopped being hunter-gatherers roaming round the landscape to follow game and settled down in one place to grow crops. Cats like known territory, not the wandering life of a hunter-gatherer. So humans who were always on the move did not make good cat owners.
Once humans settled down, cats joined them. Stored grain from Neolithic farming and the accumulated rubbish of the human settlement attracted mice and rats. And the rodents attracted cats to these first human villages. Not only did cats find food there, but they also found shelter in the buildings, instead of having to search for hollow trees or rock cavities. They started living side by side with humans.
This wasn’t a once-for-all moment in a particular location. The geneticists think that there were several moments and several places where cats started living near humans. The ancestral genes show several different lineages.
Two things happened. The cats that were least wild were most successful in living near human settlements. Wild animals have something called a flight zone. If a human moves into this area, the animal starts moving away. Even before they have started moving off, many wild animals stop eating and start staring to make sure they can be ready to run from humans.
When cats moved into human settlements as equals
The wildcats that domesticated themselves were the ones that were happy to mouse under the eye, so to speak, of the humans. They had smaller flight zones. The wilder ones probably went back to the desert from which they had originally come. The bolder ones stayed put, catching rodents among the human settlements. They reproduced and their kittens were bolder too. Little by little a whole population of tamer cats emerged. There may even have been a sudden genetic change that accounted for their tameness.
At the same time the humans must have noticed these small furry animals hanging around. Cats were helping them keep down the mouse population and a smaller mouse population meant that more grain survived in storage. It was a partnership that made sense. Cats had the benefit of some shelter and the food they preferred, mice. Humans had a natural rodent control operative on the premises. What is more, there was a sort of equality about it. Both species benefitted. Cats didn’t look up to men as their benefactors then, and they still don’t! Cats don’t do gratitude.
This natural partnership, which wasn’t yet full domestication, still exists today among farm cats. A few cats around farm buildings help keep down rodents. Even if the farmer doesn’t want a pet, he may think it worthwhile to have a farm cat that lives in his farm buildings. Today’s feral farm cats are living much the same way as Neolithic cats did 10,000 years ago.
When the original dogs set up home with humans, they had the group mentality. They were looking, so to speak, for a group to fit into. Dogs today aren’t wolves but they look to humans for care and for instruction. They are happy to be led.
Cats aren’t. Your cat does not consider you his leader. Not ever.
It’s each cat for himself; the genes of a singleton
Your cat has the instincts of a separate but equal individual. This individuality is his inheritance.
Their ancestor, the African wildcat, lived in the desert areas where it had to hunt small mammals, birds, and reptiles in order to eat. African wildcats don’t hunt in packs; they don’t help each other pull down prey because their prey is small, rather than large. Each cat goes out separately to hunt for his dinner. He will often bring back food to a safe place to eat it (because he doesn’t want to get jumped on by a larger predator while he is busy eating), but he won’t bring back food to share with other cats.
Wildcats, and their domestic cousins, usually don’t share. The only time that Felis silvestris lybica shares is when a mother cat brings back prey to feed her kittens. All mammals have to share food with their young, otherwise none of their babies could ever survive.
A cat hunts for himself. He doesn’t need help in getting his food. So your cat has the instincts of a solitary, not a group, hunter. It’s each cat for himself. We humans call it selfishness because we think like a group animal. Cats don’t have the group gene, they have the self gene. It’s not selfishness to them; it’s just proper self-care.
CAT FACT: Not much is known about the African wildcat, the ancestor of our domestic cats. They are also rarely found in zoos and only one UK zoo has a pair of these interesting animals—Howletts Wild Animal Park, near Canterbury—which were sent as a gift from South Africa in 2001. In appearance, Otavi, the male, looks just like a very large, tabby domestic cat.
Within their enclosure the two cats behave much like domestic cats. The male, Otavi, sprays at various territorial marking spots and both cats scratch the wooden tree trunks to condition their claws. There is a latrine area in one corner of the enclosure. On fine days the pair spend time on a high sitting place, grooming each other and sleeping.
So far they have not bred and the zoo doesn’t yet know why. “Oranje, the female, comes in heat and there’s a lot of mating behavior but no kittens,” says Jim Vaissie, head of the cats’ section at the park.
The cats are fed dead small animals, given to them whole, such as rats, rabbits, mice, chicks and pigeons. In the wild they would also eat other small rodents, insects, lizards and other small reptiles. Because the cats were sent as a gift at the time of the death of the zoo’s founder, John Aspinall, little is known about their history.
Even in captivity, the behavior of African wildcats is distinctly different from that of the Scottish wildcat, the UK’s only wild feline. “These are much tamer than the Scottish cats,” says Jim Vaissie, who has experience of both. “The female can be quite aggressive but the male is more placid. I get the impression that they would tame quite easily.”
Copyright © 2010 by Celia Haddon