The curious case of the domestic cat

From yards to YouTube feeds, cats are simply everywhere. But despite their firm footing in our everyday lives, it seems we still have a ways to go yet when it comes to appreciating the wilder complexities of our feline friends. Jennifer Huizen embarks on a fascinating journey into their hairball-filled history, examining the curious case of the domestic house cat.

Although today the number of cat owners is finally evening out around the world in comparison to dog owners, this is a fairly recent shift. And it’s not just because cats have gotten a bad rap for their more paws-off approach to human bonding. The disparities between the two pets’ domestication stories are huge—varying in length, purpose and extent.

For starters, cats simply don’t have the same kind of long-standing legacy with humans as dogs do. Cats only agreed to begin hanging around humans some 10,000 years ago, recognised as useful vermin eliminators when people started giving up their own nomadic roots, adopting agriculture and forming larger communities. The human-dog relationship by contrast goes back almost four times that.

This makes some scientists refer to cats as semi-domesticated, claiming they haven’t branched evolutionary enough to be considered much different from their wild relatives. But there’s also evidence cats have adapted behaviours that make them more suitable to human companionship, or at least, says Leslie Lyons, more able to snag an easy meal by being a pet.

Lyons is a geneticist that switched from human research to feline after working on cat trials investigating human health issues. ‘I suddenly recognised just how similar humans and cats are,’ she says. ‘Most of our genes are the exact same.’


This realisation has lead her down an amazing career path, helping to confirm the genetic identity of the first cat clone Copycat, or cc for short. She also linked modern Cairo cat populations to their ancient Egyptian ancestors using samples from cat mummies. In 2014 she helped create the first domestic cat reference genome, pinpointing alterations consistent with the process of taming, like recent selection pressure in the genes responsible for fear-conditioning, memory, and stimulus-reward learning.

‘Cats learned hey, if I’m willing to approach a human, they may allow me easy access to reliable meals,’ says Lyons. ‘Along the line some cats made the decision this was worth changing for.’

And it’s not just this shorter timespan that makes dogs and cat domestication stories so different. People have been fascinated with breeding dogs, and for far more purposes, than cats. Only 41 pedigreed breeds of cat are listed by The Cat Fanciers Association, whereas The American Kennel Club lists 184 types of dog. While the stats are shaky, in most countries random or mixed-breeds are the clear majority.

Though unrecognised and not encouraged as a credible breed of its own by some, the Savannah cat, a hybrid between a Siamese and an African wildcat called a serval, takes the title of heaviest breed, reaching weights of 30lbs. They’re also expert jumpers, able to hit targets more than 7ft above them. Maine Coon cats come in as the heaviest ‘pure’ breed, with males hitting 15-25lbs. Other standouts are the Ragdoll and RagaMuffin breeds, known for their affectionate, floppy nature. Balinese and Burmese are thought to live the longest on average, from 16-22 years. Almost every cat breed has been established in the last 100 years.

Lyons says they suspect around 10 different ‘races’ of cat exist, originating from eight separate geographical locations spanning across Western Europe into East Asia. All are suspected to be in some way derived from the Near Eastern Wildcat, still roaming Middle Eastern deserts today.

‘Cats are an old-world species that after the last ice-age, made it when a lot of larger predators were wiped out,’ says Lyons. ‘Once they began living with humans, they travelled where we did for better or worse.’


The worse Lyons is referring to, touches on another major difference between the story of cats and dogs adjustment to human cohabitation. Cat’s still retain traits enabling them to cope in the wild pretty efficiently, while dogs have lessened these skills, becoming almost entirely dependent upon humans even for basics like food and water. This has helped large, sometime massive, colonies of feral cats to pop up in cities and countrysides alike.

The abundance of barn and alley-cats has raised serious alarm in some countries with sensitive endemic species, evolutionarily unable to handle the new threat cats impose. Recently Australia has suggested banning outdoor cats altogether—putting domestic cats on 24-7 house arrest and steadily extinguishing feral communities with a goal of 2 million eradicated cats by 2020.

That’s why groups are sprouting up to defend these vagabonds, who are in reality just doing what cats have been doing for most of their time on this planet, albeit not to the same extent they do today.

Elizabeth Holtz is a staff attorney with the Alley Cat Allies, a rare type of advocacy group, one devoted only to the welfare of cats. Since 1990 the American group has been fighting for the fair and humane treatment of feral cats, and felines in general. Though tensions between conservationists and cat-lovers aren’t as high in the United States as other places, Holtz says the way people deal with free-roaming cats is still far from ideal. And that’s not so great, considering of the world’s estimated 100 million feral cats, 60 million or so reside in the US.

‘Kitty litter was only invented in the 1940s, that shows just how short of a period people have been keeping cats indoors in large numbers, or considering them valuable family additions,’ says Holtz.


Holtz explains people fail to recognise that protecting wildlife and humane cat reduction techniques can go hand in hand. For example, the trap-neuter-return method they advocate is as effective as other methods if not more so, but still not adopted everywhere.

‘The old ways of trying to control feral populations, like poisoning, capturing and killing simply haven’t worked,’ says Holtz. ‘Continuing to use outdated techniques and supporting policies that enforce them is lending more credit to the problem and angry debates than known solutions.’

And traditional shelters can’t really stop the feral-cat epidemics growing worldwide. Even no-kill shelters often don’t have the kind of space needed to keep human-wary barn cats or territorial tom cats indefinitely, let alone elderly pets left behind when their owners pass on.

Lynea Lattanzio runs The Cat House on the Kings, a no-cage, no-kill, lifetime sanctuary and adoption centre for cats, most of which fit the description of ‘unadoptable’ when they come to her. The group takes in roughly 2,000 cats a year off the streets of central California, and trades animals with other no-kill shelters without enough space, at an exchange rate of one lifer per five adoptable adults or 25 kittens.

‘In 23 years we’ve rescued 27,000 cats, and 7 to 8,000 dogs,’ says Lattanzio. ‘Right now I have about 800 adults and 300 kittens; about normal.’

Beyond its massive turnover rate, Lattanzio’s set-up is also fundamentally different from most shelters. The House’s philosophy is basically that cats are best when they’re allowed to be cats—that means having-free roam (within reason), stimulus and the chance to snuggle a human if so desired.

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‘For our feral cats, the ones who will never be realistically adopted we give them 12 acres,’ says Lattanzio. The House also has five veterinarians working full weeks on spay and neuter surgeries for animals off the streets they just can’t keep.

But the feral-cat problem won’t stop if humans don’t reform their ways, says Lattanzio. She promotes the idea that humans have a duty to the animals they breed, and that ultimately spay and neuter surgeries should be mandatory and affordable.

‘People allow their cats to have kittens, give them away for free or close to it, then toss the mother. They keep a kitten or two, or another free kitten comes along, and the cycle begins anew,’ says Lattanzio. ‘Labeling something as worthless from birth isn’t right. Living breathing things are not disposable objects.’

Lattanzio’s situation is unique, but she’s not alone. Charities are trying to fill the gap, but most governments haven’t gotten on board in a meaningful way—one that doesn’t involve killing the wandering fellows.

With 600 million pet cats thought to currently reside in homes around the globe, it’s clear cats have a place with humans, whatever that may be, or more realistically, each cat decides. Though it’s been a fairly short, and sometimes aloof romance so far, it is safe to say Homo sapiens and Felis catus will only get closer in the future.

They already rule the internet.