Animal IQ

In True Feline Fashion, Cats Domesticated Themselves

You may want to train your cat, but more often than not, your cat trains you. Fluffy decides when she wants to be petted, when she wants to play, and whether or not she's going to wake you up at 4 in the morning for more Fancy Feast. (But you love her anyway, right?) As it turns out, a June 2017 study reveals that cats also chose to domesticate themselves.

After you're done entertaining Mittens with the laser pointer, you can resume the story. We'll wait.

Cats to Humans: "I Guess You're Alright"

According to National Geographic, a comprehensive survey of cat genes used DNA analysis to suggest that "cats lived for thousands of years alongside humans before they were domesticated." And if you're picturing a major transformation, think again. Besides developing the classic stripes and dots of a tabby cat, your kitty's genes haven't strayed much from those of wildcats.

In the study, researchers analyzed the DNA of more than 200 cats (Romanian, Egyptian, African wildcats, etc.) from over the past 9,000 years. They discovered that cats come from one of two major lineages. The initial line of ancestors began as early as 4400 B.C. somewhere between Europe and southwest Asia. Then, cats likely befriended humans for the first time in farming communities about 8,000 years ago — their rodent hunting was seen as mutually beneficial. Study coauthor Claudio Ottoni of the University of Leuven explains that humans didn't throw cats into cages to domesticate them. Instead, we simply let our feline companions domesticate themselves.

Egyptian cat mummies

Why Change Perfection?

The second possible lineage began around 1500 B.C.E. when the Egyptian cat successfully spread throughout the "Old World." These cats were known for their "sociability and tameness," which is likely what attracted humans. Flash forward to the middle ages — the first time researchers found a distinct change in this cat's genetic makeup. Tabby cats with "blotched or striped coat markings" date back to the Ottoman Empire in Southwest Asia, then became common in both Europe and Africa. Their coat only became associated with domesticated cats in the 18th century, then people started breeding house cats for specific traits in the 19th century.

Unlike with dogs, humans didn't attempt to breed cats for specific tasks (thus, leading to more diversification in breeds). Evolutionary geneticist and article coauthor Eva-Maria Geigl is clearly a cat lover, elaborating that "there was no need to subject cats to such a selection process since it was not necessary to change them. They were perfect as they were." Seeing as there are more than 74 million cats living in U.S. homes today, Geigl might be onto something.

Now, if you could reach into that treat bag and fulfill your purpose as food-giver, Jinx will stop staring you down. Hurry, human!

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Learn more about our feline friends in "Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet" by John Bradshaw. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Anna Todd July 12, 2017

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