Right, we’ll start with the controversy shall we? Because that is how We Lack Discipline does things.
Domestic cats are responsible for a significant reduction in numbers of hedge birds, small rodents and other, various, ecological damages in every habitat in which they are present. The irresponsible keeping, especially with feral populations, of cats is a problem for the wider ecosystem.
The spread of domestic cats to various other habitats, particularly outside of wildcats’ home ranges of Europe, Africa and Asia, has led directly to the extinction of rare or unique species of small mammals, ground-based birds, rodents and marsupials on various island nations and places like New Zealand and Australia. Here their effect is quite profound, but at the same time the same idiots who brought cats there also brought cane toads.
However there is also the ‘mesopredator release’ effect to consider. Decline in numbers, or even eradication of cats, as an apex predator in some habitats has caused lower predators – the middle, or meso-, predators – to fill the gap without fear and cause significant rebound harm to the ecosystem. This is uncommon but worth considering.
Interbreeding with wildcat species, in areas with native wildcats, is also endangering those species, causing problems and potential extinctions such as with the Scottish wildcat, Felis silvestris grampia.
However, to counter, deforestation (the cutting down of forests), habitat fragmentation (the cutting down of parts of forests, or destruction of parts of habitats for human exploitation), cars, loss of hedgerows and modern agricultural practice are all a much bigger contributor to losses to British biodiversity, especially among birds, small rodents and small predators such as mustelids (weasels and stoats). Definitely more than domestic cats have been over the last century.
For the wider problems around the world caused by the spread of the domestic cat – the cats didn’t carry themselves there, did they? They didn’t build little cat ships, powered by pootling cat feet and purrs, and send themselves off to the arse-ends of nowhere, did they?
No, they were put on ships to control pest populations on those ships by PEOPLE – HUMANS! So even in that undeniable ecosystem destruction the proximate cause of those cats being there was people, not cats.
Yes, I am a Felis catus apologist, but only because cats have been, are and will possibly still be mistreated, abused and persecuted into the future for a variety of reasons, most of them nonsensical and I do not want cats to become a target for persecution by ecologists and conservationists. Not when the problems have solutions, and not when the bigger – indeed as far as the whole fucking planet is concerned, biggest – problem is us!
I don’t blame the cats, I blame us!
I could brush it over, or pretend it doesn’t exist but what good does that do? Domestic cats are evolving. Much like we did with dogs, our selective breeding is creating more and more cats happy to laze around a house and not go wandering about outside. I don’t think this is a bad thing.
However, on the flipside, particularly in urban areas; rats, pigeons, gulls – they’re all numerous and it seems, with no natural predators, they have to be trapped and poisoned and all sorts of horrible things. Why not let cats be the answer? I would always prefer a feral cat population to indiscriminate use of poisons in the environment.
I guess there’s no easy answer to the problem, is there? Like so many man-made ecological problems it’s a big, messy, complicated one. But cats are, they exist, and we have to find solutions to ensure we, they and our ecosystems, can live together.
Problems out of the way, let’s move onto the cats themselves.
Why is the domestic cat the number one cat of all time according to We Lack Discipline? Well there are many factors.
First and foremost, they are damn cute.
What you want better than that? You need more than that?
You need more justification than having a murderous bundle of fluff curled up, trustingly, on your lap, purring and nestling its head into your hand?
Okay then I’ll give you one, the reason they became ‘domesticated’ in the first place.
You see the so-called ‘domestic’ cat is barely domestic at all. Unlike the dog that we have selectively bred into all sorts of sick-and-twisted shapes and sizes for our own use, abuse and amusement cats were pretty much left to domesticate themselves.
Effectively our modern domestic cat has two close ancestral lines, in Felis silvestris, the European wildcat, and Felis lybica, the African wildcat. It is generally considered that Felis silvestris evolved from Felis lybica, so whether Felis catus is a speciation from Felis silvestris or Felis lybica is often debated. Current evidence based upon mitochondrial DNA analysis (mitochondria are little bits in your cells that act like powerstations, but they have their own genome – so technically you have two genomes!) suggests modern domestic cats evolved from populations of Felis lybica – with these populations then having interbred with sub-species from around the world.
Phylogeny (where stuff fits in the tree-of-life) can get complicated but the gist of it is the most likely common ancestor of our homely, domestic cat is the African wildcat, Felis lybica.
Their domestication goes hand-in-hand with the domestication of humanity. As we changed from being small, nomadic tribes of people to forming agricultural communities our food-stores and waste would have attracted small mammals, pests and rodents, which would have attracted cats.
The cats less likely to be afraid of humans would have approached the food stores to eat the rodents and, the humans seeing the cats eating the pests would have approved. No doubt encouraging them.
Eventually this mutual relationship resulted in cats and humans getting closer together until they trusted one another. As a result, human-friendly cats would be more likely to be found around settlements than human-wary cats, and due to this separation would be more likely to breed with one another rather than with wary cats – the next thing you know your Neolithic ancestral wildcats are starting to be buddies with humans, humans are partially selectively breeding friendly cats but they’re still, effectively, handy self-sufficient rat-munchers.
The oldest evidence we have of a potential domesticated cat comes from a grave in Cyprus dating to around 9,500 years ago. An adult human skeleton was found with the remains of a feline skeleton in the same grave. Since cats were not native to the area at the time it is reasonable to assume that it was brought there, either by traders, or by the travellers who settled the island.
Previously the thinking was that the ancient Egyptians began the process of ‘keeping’ domestic cats. The Cyprus findings would indicate close relationships between humans and cats long before then.
But what makes this all the more surprising is cats, for the most part, at least until very recently, did not undergo drastic genetic changes due to their closeness to us. Indeed they still haven’t.
Genetically dogs diverged from wolves around 20,000-40,000 years ago, so not so (relatively) long before humans are likely to have interacted with, or encouraged cats -though human relationships with wolves likely date back much longer. Without doubt wolves were one of our first ‘domesticated’ species, that relationship potentially dating back 50,000-100,000 years or more! After all we share a lot in common – Social, pack culture, the ability to communicate through gesture, facial expression, vocalisations etc. and an ability to act as long distance hunters.
The oldest undisputed ‘dog’ remains (i.e. definitely not wolf) are approximately 14,000 years old – there is a disputed 36,000 year old example but either way human/wolf relationships pre-date human agriculture. Again, this makes sense, whether for protection of your tribe, protection of whatever scant livestock or food stores your nomads would potentially have with you (if any) or just to act as a keen nose, a strong set of legs and a good retriever when hunting, dogs are a labour-saving device to a hunter/gatherer, but a labour saving device akin to a washing machine or a vacuum cleaner. You have to move it, you have to maintain it, and you do a lot of work with a dog. Even today cats are seen as a lower maintenance pet.
With the ancient cat relationship, it’s like having a Roomba. Stick it near a source of rodents and pests and don’t feed it. It’ll do the work for you.
So whereas human selective breeding caused dogs to diverge very quickly from their ancestral wolves, the humans did not necessarily exhibit the same pressures on cats. So long as a cat could cat, cats were left to be cats.
Obviously there was a selection pressure, and not necessarily one we could consider ‘natural’, being friendly to humans was beneficial to the cat – those that weren’t amenable remained as wild Felis species around the world. Eventually the two populations would separate, speciating (becoming a new species) into our modern domestic cat but, humans didn’t really have to selectively breed or change the cat much to suit our needs at all. After all, it did what we wanted it to do so effectively already. Would there have been selective breeding going on, though? Most likely. Around this time, though, we would be looking for two main factors, effectiveness at killing pests and friendliness.
Until we get to Ancient Egypt, at which point I believe some breeding for colouration was done, although I may need correcting on that.
Cats were beneficial to humans because they killed pests that infested, ate and infected our food stores and food supply. Cats got a constant source of food. It was a mutualism, an arrangement beneficial to both species.
By the time we get to Classical Euro-African cultures, the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, domestic cats were commonplace. Given how seafaring some of these cultures were, the Greeks and Phoenicians especially, they would have been moved around the Mediterranean basin and, with the Romans, spread as far north as Germany, as far west as Britain and, if they weren’t already there from the Egyptian and Greek influence, as far East as places like Syria.
Everything I could say about any small cat, particularly everything I said about Felis nigripes, holds true to the domestic cat. Small, agile, fast, slinky, retractable, razor-like claws, solid jaw, sharp teeth – they are perfect small-creature killing machines.
Their eyes are some of the prettiest and most incredible and well adapted for crepuscular (twilight) or nocturnal (nighttime) vision. Indeed one remarkable thing about a domestic cat’s skull is the size of its eye sockets.
If you ever seen the reflection of a cat (or other animals) eyes at night (or making them look like demons in photographs) it is caused by a film called the tapetum lucidum, latin for ‘bright tapestry’, and it is exactly what it looks like. It is a reflective layer that re-passes light over the light receptors in the cat’s eye helping it see better in low light. In fact they can see relatively clearly in conditions where a human would be basically blind.
Cats have exceptional hearing, if you’ve ever wondered why your cat twists its ears or pulls a funny face when you put your music up loud or drop something it’s because it hears it a lot louder than you and can hear frequencies (pitches, particularly high ones) that not even Mariah Carey can reach. This is to help it pick up the quiet scuttling and high-pitched squeaks of mice and other small prey.
They have also become incredible communicators. Considering they are barely evolved from their generally solitary wild cousins domestic cats show sociability beyond merely with humans. Feral cats group together and there is evidence of an almost ‘pride’ like structure to their society. A few males will generally associate with a larger group of females, the females will share childrearing duties, especially if two are lactating (producing milk) at the same time. It is quite a complex social structure they have.
They have many vocalisations that they use with each other, meowing, purring, hissing, growling and trilling, clicking and grunting. The interesting thing about the meow is, for the most part, adult cats do not communicate to each other in meow-like sounds until they are howling at each other outside in a territorial dispute. Kittens meow to their mothers so that they may locate them and help them, but outside of that most meowing is reserved for their human companions.
That’s not to say cats never meow at each other, we have enough internet to prove otherwise, but it is relatively rare.
Cats meowing to humans is what is known as ‘operant conditioning’ – That is to a say species can learn that a certain behaviour can induce a certain positive response, thereby further encouraging that behaviour.
Thus cats have used operant conditioning to train humans that when they make that cute noise they do, it means it is time to give them a treat, which makes the human feel warm and fuzzy inside. As a bonus, the human then rewards the cat for having been rewarded by exhibiting affectionate, pseudo-grooming behaviours with pets and pats.
Another interesting thing to note about the cat’s meow is that its sound is of a similar frequency to a baby’s cry. Whether this is by accident, or whether this is deliberate mimicry is debatable, but it helps in the conditioning.
There are people who think cats are not intelligent! They’ve got us figured out!
And the simple fact is, from 10,000-15,000 years ago, up until around the 19th century, that was mostly it for cats!
Sure some would have been bred, interbred, creating different shapes and sizes around the world, is there a hint of Felis silvestris in the Norwegian forest breed? Is there a hint of Felis lybica ornata, the Asian wildcat, in the Persian or the Siamese, maybe? Did this culture prefer this colour cat, did this culture breed this colour fur? Sure. Otherwise the notion of cat ‘breeds’ as an actual thing, did not happen until around the 19th century.
What’s my opinion on that? The same as it is for dogs only worse.
Many breeds of dog were manipulated, inbred and given torturous features and disabilities with the express purpose of creating a dog for work, whether that be a tiny terrier used as a ratter or a large retriever used to retrieve.
With cats, besides modern breeds intended to be more lazy and happier at home, most of it has been done for appearance. Breed purity generally requires inbreeding and leads to all sorts of problems related to ‘inbreeding depression’ discussed last time out with cheetahs. Never mind things like flat-faced cats having breathing problems!
Look, change happens, but arbitrary, artificial change for surperficial, human-centred reasons is stupid. Inbreeding cats to make one that ‘looks good’ is stupid. It was stupid when we did it with dogs, its stupid to do it with cats.
So what else can we say about the cat? Well they flehmen! What is flehmening? Cats have a particular olfactory (nose-and-smell) system. They have the regular old olfactory bulbs just like we have, that pick up things from the air and give them an idea what’s about. They also have another olfactory organ outside of these normal bulbs, known as ‘Jacobson’s organ’ (some other animals also have one) that allows them to smell with their mouths. Have you ever noticed your cat sniff a particular corner of a couch, or area of the garden and then half-open their mouth and seem to breathe it in? That’s flehmening and it is generally done in order to ‘smell’ pheromones, communicative chemical perfumes.
So if you see a cat smell something, particularly if it is you, and they pull a funny face, they may not be repulsed by the smell, they may be detecting your pheromones and determining you to be their friend.
Purring is another odd behaviour in cats. Only smaller cats tend to do it (excluding the cheetah which is…it melts my heart and one day I want to just snuggle a cheetah as it purrs) but it’s a mystery. It is believed to be a signalling mechanism, although some study has suggested the particular wavelength of a purr is conducive to growth and healing. There’s conjecture! When isn’t there in science? The fact is they are known to do it when happy, contented, stressed and in pain, with kittens and without kittens and they have no unique anatomical (bodily structures) to explain it. Purring is actually quite mysterious.
As I like to say, evolution only makes things by accident, it doesn’t keep them by accident. If purring exists there’s a reason for it, but exactly what it is we do not know.
Whatever, this is all biological much-of-a-muchness. None of it is the reason the domestic cat is number one on our list. One reason is they helped ensure the survival of our ancestors by protecting our food and grain stores for thousands of years.
The other is that they have become our friends. Over those thousands of years of mutual respect for one another’s abilities we have grown closer and closer until now we are trusted companions.
Anyone who thinks cats cold and unloving has either never met the right cat, or not given the cat the space and time it needs to get used to a person to form a bond with them. Once you have that bond, though, it is as strong as that with any dog.
Indeed, because of the cat’s natural inclinations to individualism and capriciousness, in my opinion there is a sense that the bond is stronger.
A dog is inclined to love. They had already evolved, long before domestication, to be social, to depend upon one another, to care for one another and find a place within a community.
Wildcats were mostly solitary, and domestics carry much of that in them still. So when one decides, for the first time, to sit in your lap, eyes-half-shut (incidentally that gesture, or slow-blinking, is a sign of trust), purring, it is symbolic not merely of a pre-existing want, an urge to fulfil a social desire, a need to fit in and be loved, but because that cat sees you as worthy of trust and love. That cat likes being around you. It doesn’t ‘need’ to be around you, that cat doesn’t ‘need’ a social system or social support in the same way a dog does. The cat ‘chooses’, the cat ‘wants’. That, to me, is what makes a bond between a human and a cat so special.
I mentioned my old cat Sylvester in the introduction to this series. It is a shame I, as far as I know, only have the one photograph of him, paws up on the window doing his best ‘window cleaner’ act on the back door in order to be let in. Well he, on his daily walkabout, once followed me along the bulk of my paper-route. In directions I don’t think he’d walked, along streets new to him, he just followed. He was a remarkable boy who, when you picked him up he would place his head beneath your chin and one paw either side of your neck and give you this most incredible cat-hug. He also enjoyed being carried like a baby, for a semi-feral butch tomcat he was utterly adorable.
And then there was my Smooze. She used to hang around my back yard, this cautious, skinny thing. I don’t know what had happened to her, whether she had merely left home or her owner had died and she was abandoned but she was clearly unfed and uncared for. I lured her into my house with doner kebab. She did that tentative little dance wary cats do. She was low to the floor, shoulders protruding like protective spikes, making slow movements back and forth trying to figure out if it was safe. Then she got the meat and wolfed it down, and then she got more. She would keep turning up, I would keep feeding and eventually she just became ‘my cat’.
She loved sitting on laps but was not much of a pick-up or cuddly sort of cat, so I always remember the time I (being an insomniac sort and sometimes finding myself sleepy at inopportune moments) curled up on the couch, her in my arms, stretched out in front of me, and we both napped.
I also knew the exact sound she would make when she was going to catch a lizard or a slow worm! Because I would shout at her out of my window and go save the poor things. She caught plenty of mice, rats and pigeons without complaint from me but I would never let her get one of our rare native reptiles! She had a distinct, low howl for when she was stalking one.
This is the thing with domestic cats. We form tales with them. We form bonds with them. We get to know them and they become parts of our family. Smooze died last year, and ever since then the biggest absence has not been buying boxes of cat food, or the pain of having to clean litter, or vacuuming fluff off the carpet. The biggest loss is that purry comforting friend who I could divulge any secret to knowing she would keep it. I could talk about anything with knowing she would listen and not judge, and that first meow (she had a meow that sounded like she was saying “Alan!”) when I would come down whenever I had woken up and she saw me for the first time that day. I will admit, I would often meow back and we’d have a little meow conversation.
Our domestic cats have gone from being more than just pest control. They have become family, and no other cat has earned their way into our hearts, minds and homes quite like Felis catus.