“Cats choose us; we don't own them.” According to a recent genetic study, this isn’t far off from the truth. A massive study conducted at the University of Leuven discovered that cats lived alongside humans for thousands of years before they were technically domesticated. In fact, even these days there’s not much that genetically separates housecats from wildcats. So how exactly did Garfield come to grace our lives?
How Cats Became Domesticated
What Does It Mean for An Animal to Be Domesticated?
Before we delve into how your precious exotic short hair kitty became domesticated, it might be useful to go over what is actually means for an animal to be domesticated. According to scientist Jared Diamond, there are 6 criteria for domesticated animals:
- They have to be easy to feed
- They have to grow/mature at an economical rate
- They have to breed well in captivity
- They have to be relatively pleasant
- They can’t be too touchy or prone to wild behavior
- They have to be relatively sociable
How Did Cats Leave the Wild and Enter the Home?
Well, according to the study at the University of Leuven, there were two main lineages that cats descended from—one in Europe, and one in Africa. Over 8,000 centuries ago, the clan of cats that ended up in Europe began a mutually beneficial relationship with farmers. The cats often ended up in human settlements because they would hunt and eat mice and rodents that ruined farmers crops. They stuck around because people let them inside where it was warm and dry in return for the rodent control services that cats provided. That meant that wherever humans and their crops were, cats would likely follow.
Cats entered Africa in 1500 BC. In ancient Egypt, cats were worshipped as sacred because they were symbols of the goddess Bastet - the goddess of motherhood. This might be because the African lineage supposedly was more sociable and easily tamed. Historians think that cats’ pest-catching skills might also have had something to do with how much they were valued. Ancient Egyptians loved their feline friends so much that they were even buried with their human owners. It’s been said that killing a cat was even punishable by death.
So it seems less like cats were domesticated and more like they coexisted alongside humans in a mutually beneficial relationship. Like now, ancient cats lived on their own terms.
What’s the Difference Between Domesticated Cats and Wild Cats?
Well, there isn’t much of a difference. Genetically, wild cats and domesticated cats are almost identical. In fact, they share more that 95% of their DNA with tigers! One of the few differences between wild cats and domestics is tabby markings. That blotchy, striped (and oh-so-cute) appearance is unique to domesticated cats and has been around since the Middle Ages.
Another one of the few distinct traits that domesticated cats have is their sociability. Domesticated cats are much less solitary than wild cats, so when Fluffy snuggles up to you, she is displaying proof of her domestication.
Why are house cats so similar to their wild ancestors?
It may be because we never trained them to accomplish tasks or perform labor for us. Dogs, for example, were trained to perform specific tasks like herding sheep. Cats never underwent this training process, so they were never forced to change much. Cats were pretty much perfect as they were.
The lack of difference between wild cats and domesticated cats may also be due to genetic mixing. Wild cats and domesticated cats still breed, and that means their genetics are constantly intermingling. That’s why domesticated cats can still take care of themselves if they have to. Sure, you feed your cats and change their litter, but deep down you know that they don’t really need you to survive. For this reason, some experts refuse to refer to cats as “fully domesticated.”
If you have a particularly strong-willed cat, it probably doesn’t surprise you that humans didn’t play much of a role in their domestication. As one expert says, they “just sort of domesticated themselves.”
These days, cats are one of the most popular household pets. More than 47 million families in the US alone have cats, second only to dogs who come in at 60 million. We spend almost $1000 a year on our cats, including their food, healthcare, and toys.
While feral and wild cats sleep less than 12 hours a day, domesticated cats can sleep up to 16 hours a day! Because your favorite kitty isn’t really responsible for its own survival, it has more time to devote to its favorite pastime—snoozing.
But if your house cat is resting too much, it might be from boredom. Cats need to scratch, run, and jump as well as nap. That’s why toys like cat trees are perfect for your favorite feline. Cat trees and condos have posts for scratching, which naturally shreds the top layers of their claws to keep them healthy. Cats also have a natural inclination to run, jump and climb, so try to pick a cat tree with multiple layers. That way, they can live out their hunting instincts left over from their wild days. Plus, your cat is sure to love a cat condo or tree with a nice snuggly place for them to nap.
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