Cats Aren’t Really Domesticated

“We own a dog—he is with us as a slave and inferior because we wish him to be. But we entertain a cat—he adorns our hearth as a guest, fellow-lodger, and equal because he wishes to be there.” —H.P. Lovecraft, “Cats and Dogs”

In A Nutshell

Ask anyone who doesn’t like cats and you’ll hear them testify that they’re standoffish, only occasionally sociable, and would be absolutely fine with digging into us for a meal should we die in our sleep. While others swear that cuddly little Fluffy would never do that, it turns out that there are only a few genes that separate Fluffy from the king of the jungle. There are about 13, to be more precise, and it’s only the genes that govern things like fear and docility that have changed. The rest of the house cat is still a wild cat, and researchers are now saying that at best, they’re only semi-domesticated.

The Whole Bushel

When it comes to the age old question of cats vs. dogs, there are some very distinct and well-established views on who makes the better companion. Critics of cats often describe them as aloof, unpredictable creatures that merely tolerate our presence for their convenience. Well, it turns out that they may actually be more duplicitous than even their harshest critics have given them credit for. According to researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine, they’re not even actually domesticated.

They’re just letting us think they are.

Cats have been living with and alongside humans for 9,000 years. In those 9,000 years, though, they’ve retained most of their genetic makeup. Researchers mapped out the DNA of a domestic cat named Cinnamon and compared it with the DNA of humans, dogs, and wild cats. And there’s not that much difference at all between the genetic makeup of our house cats and their wild cousins.

In fact, they found that over 9,000 years of supposed domestication, there’s only a difference of 13 genes between the cats that lounge at the foot of the bed at night and the ones that we see at the zoo.

When it comes to most genes, cats remain the same as they were in the wild. They’ve kept all the same senses and abilities, they’ve kept the same meat-based diets, and the digestive systems to cope with being a carnivore. Because they’re still mainly carnivores and they’re still equipped to be able to hunt and find their own food, they don’t actually need us.

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While dogs have been bred over generations and generations to accent certain traits and get rid of others, cats have only been bred into distinct breeds for the last 200 years or so. That means that dogs have had thousands and thousands of years to become more dependent on us for their survival, while cats . . . 

Cats really do just tolerate us.

The difference in the genes between wild cats and our household companions are, obviously, cosmetic ones. They’re in the colors and patterns, they’re in the genes that determine the structure of their faces, and they’re in genes for docility. This goes hand in hand with how we think we domesticated the cat.

The theory says that humans generally realized cats were useful for keeping pests away from homes and food. Cats would kill rats and the like, and they’d be rewarded for it. But rather than actually domesticating the animals, we were just encouraging a natural behavior in the cats that were most inclined not to be afraid of us.

We succeeded in selecting the cats that were genetically more docile, friendlier, and more accepting of a human presence, but we absolutely didn’t domesticate them. We didn’t breed out the traits that might have made them as unmanageable as many people think that they can be today. We still wanted them to be able to hunt, to catch mice, and to patrol our fields, our crops, and our barns. What makes them useful is what makes them independent, and that goes for all of the estimated 600 million “domesticated” cats in the world.

They also continue to breed with wild cats, helping to keep their wild genes running through the population. The result is a constant companion that really just keeps us around because we have thumbs that can open and navigate the complications of the treat packages making them, at best, only semi-domesticated.

Show Me The Proof

The Independent: Why cats will probably never be as domesticated as dogs
The Atlantic: Why You Shouldn’t Trust Your Cat
LA Times: Semi-domesticated? House cats not far removed from wild, genome shows