It barely needs stating: Cats are not dogs. While both these animals have joined human homes as valued and beloved pets, dogs are deeply dependent on us and tuned in to our every mood. Cats, on the other hand, seem to go their own way. Despite this difference, humans and cats have forged a deep, enduring bond. Read on for an in-depth look at the history of human-cat relationships.
To grasp the nature of the human-feline partnership, we’ve got to go back in time. In many accounts about how, when, and where cats came to share their lives with humans, the ancient Egyptians are credited as the main actors. Emerging some 5,000 years ago, the Egyptian civilization is one of the oldest in the world, with some of the first forms of writing — including descriptions of cats. Yet while the Egyptians held cats in high esteem, even burying them in pyramids and creating massive statues for them, they were not the first ones to embrace this cross-species relationship.
A more ancient set of clues comes from the burial of a man who lived on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, close to the coast of Turkey, some 9,000 years ago. What is unique about this grave is that the man was buried with an 8-month-old cat, both of their bodies positioned to face the west. This was a carefully crafted burial meant to shepherd the man into the afterlife.
In fact, the human-cat relationship reaches as far back as 10,000 years, before any civilizations or cities, but with one new feature in human existence: agriculture. Once humans shifted from foraging for foods to producing foods, they faced the challenge of storage. This new accumulation of food surplus brought many uninvited guests, including cats. Cats, who are carnivores, did not care to eat these grains. Rather, they caught the mice, rats, and even birds who showed up to enjoy the brand-new buffet of grains.
It didn’t take long for cats to become valued, even beloved, entering the human fold. Besides the ancient burials of the day, cats are also carved and shaped into stone and clay figures throughout the Near East. All around, both the material remains and the representational figures tell us a very concrete story about how special the human-cat relationship has been for thousands of years. And today, roughly every third household in the US continues this ancient relationship, having a cat as part of their home. These cats are fed and cared for, but besides occasional mouse catching, they do not contribute to household tasks, particularly in urban settings. All around, the way that cats exist in human culture, now and in the past, stands out when we compare them to the other animals that have become significant for humans over time.
Domestic, Not Domesticated
One big question is how to classify our feline friends. Surely, we can’t group cats with domesticated animals, a category that includes the many species that humans consume as food: cows, chickens, sheep, reindeer, and the rest.
Most animals that have been domesticated are there to fulfill some kind of functional relationship for humans: to provide us with calories, hides, or wool, or as a means of transportation. That’s not to say that humans don’t develop close feelings for some of these species, such as horses. In each category, though, these species are there to perform tasks. But cats just don’t pull sleds all that well!
For biologists, who commonly wrestle with these issues of classification, the term “domesticated” means that there is a clear physical difference between a species in the wild and its domesticated counterpart. Since Charles Darwin began to write about this in the 1800s, that difference has been dubbed the “domestication syndrome.” In part, the term “syndrome” here highlights the fact that the domesticated forms no longer can sustain themselves in the wild. Instead, the new variant of the species — the domesticated version — is dependent on humans. This change results from “artificial selection” rather than natural selection, operating in nature. Through artificial selection, humans now increasingly control three main aspects of animals’ lives: food, shelter, and reproduction.
It’s clear that many things become altered if you keep an animal captive. Some of the changes come about because, in contrast to life in the wild, animals in captivity no longer go out and acquire their own food. Nor do captive animals traverse the same amount of territory as their wild forebears. This decline in movement changes the body on multiple levels. Pretty quickly, it becomes a loop: The less you move, the less you can move. So all in all, domesticated animals become increasingly dependent on humans. Once this pattern is repeated over many generations, the changes become encoded in the biology of these animals, and a new, fully domesticated species comes into existence.
We can see such overall patterns with dogs. If you contrast dogs and wolves, the two are biologically distinct species, with observable differences present across physical features and a range of behaviors. One of these species you can bring into the living room to watch TV with you or take to the park. The other one simply won’t fit into these scenarios — wolves are fully wild and cannot be turned into household pets.
How can we apply these insights to cats, given our connection to them as pets? Our two species are close. Either we acquire them as kittens and build a relationship from the start, or we may come across a feral cat in an alley and with some time, patience, and good treats, this individual can be tamed. And this is where all species domestication got its start: taming an individual, and then bringing consistent control over the three key elements in that creature’s life: food, shelter, and sex.
But does the formula apply to cats? When it comes to food, cats enjoy the Friskies and other treats we provide them with. But any wild animal will consume food if we provide it. The real question with food is: Can the animals still provide for themselves? And with cats, somewhat unfortunately, we know all too well that they can hunt to kill. Outdoor cats in the US alone kill hundreds of millions of birds every year, even contributing to avian species extinction. Cats also kill mice and other rodents, but as humans, we tend to either welcome this predation or not concern ourselves too much with it.
Because cats maintain their capacity for predation, because they go out and hunt birds and rodents with abandon, they do not fall into “domestication syndrome.” The shelter part as well is also taken care of by the small size of cats: It’s easy for them to find places to tuck into, even in cities with all those sheds, alleyways, and dumpsters. Cats certainly seem to enjoy the comfort of our homes, but if need be they can also shelter themselves.
This brings us to that third factor, sex. One of the most basic concepts in biological conversations about species is “gene flow” — the movement of genetic materials from one population to another. And there really is only one main way for genes to “flow”: through acts of reproduction.
When kitties roam the streets, for this or that reason, even just for that classic cat curiosity, they will meet other cats. And if neither is neutered, and the female is in heat, sex likely follows. Because most cats enter this world from such non-human mediated processes, there is a great deal of gene flow happening: Different populations of cats are genetically continuously connected. Even if your individual kitty is a happy indoor couch potato, they are still part of the genetic population of roamers and hunters.
Broader analyses show that the domestic cat (Felis silvestris catus) is very close genetically, in fact nearly identical, with the wild cat (Felis silvestris). In short, their genes have traveled across the generations. It is this gene flow that maintains biological preparedness in cats to keep moving, hunting, and roaming. They also have hidden deadly weapons, the claws, and a truly exceptional hearing range, being able to detect ultrasonic sounds, just as bats can.
The long and short of it is that modern cats are domestic, often living with us, but they are not actually domesticated. In contrast to dogs, which humans have been biologically sculpting much more closely and for much longer, cats do not enter the world prepared to communicate with humans as a species. But at times, individual cats do choose to hear us. That’s the cat’s life in summary: tamable, yes, domesticated, not so much.
And that just might be part of the draw: Cats mess with our neat human categories. In this, they remind us that life maybe cannot and need not be so fully controlled.
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine, Inside Your Cat’s Mind, in 2022.
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