The unfolding of our sweet felines

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In the last issue, you read how domestic cats evolved with time. Here are the differences that set them apart from their wild counterparts.

Our cats had to adapt and change themselves in order to fully exploit their relationship with humans, and several key differences that set the domestic cat apart from his wild cousins include:

Communal living: While most cat species are solitary, domestic cats, like lions, are capable of sharing resources and forming bonds with each other. Female cats will even cooperate together to rear kittens, pooling litters into a group with the benefits of two mums to feed and protect them.

Fertility: Our pets display different breeding behaviour from their ancestors, which only have one or two breeding seasons a year; domestic cats can breed all year round and produce larger litters.

Appearance: Cats in a domestic setting no longer had a need for camouflaging coats and indeed the more unusual colours and patterns would have been more prized and tended to, giving them a better chance of passing on their genes. An increasing number of genetic mutations gave us solid colours, such as reds, torties, chocolates, colourpoints, bicolours, long coats, curly coats and a great many more.

Different on the inside: Not all of the differences are external, and domestic cats have evolved a significantly longer intestinal tract. This adaptation allows them to digest a greater range of foods and therefore take advantage of many things they come across in our kitchens. This means they find it easier to gain some energy from cereals, although it would take a few more great leaps of evolution before they would be happy tucking into a bowl of muesli!

I’ve been headshrunk!: It may be embarrassing for cats to admit, but domestication caused their brains to become smaller. It is difficult to say whether this is due to an all round downsizing, but it may be that with the safety of human protection there is less for the brain to do.

Neotony: This means that cats have retained kittenish behaviour into adulthood. This is partly because humans favoured cats who were more vocal, playful and affectionate, but also because cats extended the use of behaviours from their times living in groups as kittens to help them interact when living communally as adults. No self-respecting adult wild cat would be caught milk-treading!

Plus ça change: In spite of all these differences, domestic cats are still very close to their wild cousins and there are many things to remind us of this. Cats evolved in hot deserts and even shaggy-coated cats living for generations in cold climate still have adaptations to heat, such as ability to concentrate urine and drink comparatively little. Hunting instincts are hard-wired and an essential feline characteristic, even when they are redirected to toy mice. The preference for running water that sees many cats leaping up to the bathroom sink when their owner picks up the toothbrush harks back to a survival instinct to avoid unhealthy stagnant pools. Conveniently for us the instinct to bury faeces has not disappeared and draws our pets to the litter tray. Affectionate cheek rubbing is a behaviour wild cats use to mark territory. However, there are some wild behaviours we would rather our pets didn’t cling on to, such as territorial urine marking; some of the things we class as problem behaviour are just cats still acting out their wild sides.

Thanks to that unique symbiotic relationship with the human species the cat has evolved in a unique direction to become one of the most widespread and successful species on the entire planet. While many other cat species are endangered, domestic cats are extremely numerous and have conquered every continent even joining expeditions to the Antarctic. It reminds us of what amazing creatures we have the privilege of sharing our homes with.

(Anthony Nichols has been showing cats for about 20 years, starting with non-pedigrees, and breeding for about ten years. He has bred Devon Rex and Singapuras, but mainly focuses on breeding LaPerms in a range of colours, particularly the reds, creams, torties, chocolates and colourpoints.)


Did you know?

  • Miacids, weasel-like, primitive, prototype carnivores, gave rise to cats, dogs, raccoons and bears.
  • One common ancestor passed on a genetic anomaly to all living cats that prevents them from tasting sweetness.
  • There are distinctive differences between the different branches of the feline family tree: cats from the Americas have one less chromosome, only the big cats can roar and Cheetahs’ claws are uniquely non-retractable.
  • Archaeological evidence shows that 3000 years ago, a parallel domestication of cats occurred in the ancient cities of Pakistan’s Indus Valley. Centuries later, trade routes opened and the two groups of cats mixed.
  • Although it is often stated that killing a cat in ancient Egypt was punishable to death, they were also bred for ritual sacrifice.
  • Jungle cats (Felis Chaus) were also present in the Egyptian temples and could have interbred with other cats.
  • The ‘Founder Effect’: the first individual cats to arrive in a new place passed on traits to their offspring that became more common in the new populations than they were in the original populations. For example, poldactyly or extra digits, is disproportionately common in east coast America.
  • Cat colours or patterns are most common in the area of the world where the original mutation took place, for example, the highest density of colourpoints is found in Asia.

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