We all know that our pet cats are relatives of some of the world’s most ferocious hunters. But as they became tame, they changed in some interesting ways compared to their wild counterparts. Yes, many cats will still chase a mouse if they see one. And they’re very much like the wildcats that they descended from in some respects. Yet they differ from them in an important way that’s likely to surprise you.
Lots of cats
There are certainly a lot of cats in the United States. In fact, nearly 60 million of the animals call the Land of the Free their home. More than a quarter of U.S. households have a pet cat, and most of those owners have more than one. They’re a fixture in our lives, for sure, with so many of us welcoming them into our families.
Descent of the species
All of those cats have descended from one ancestor species. That’s the North African/Southwest Asian wildcat, whose scientific name is Felis sylvestris lybica. But the long time that they’ve spent with us humans has brought about a peculiar change in our furry friends. And it all relates to something that they don’t need because they have us.
When we say cats have been with us for a long time, we mean a long time. They first became domesticated during the Neolithic era — or New Stone Age. That was in the Fertile Crescent of Southwest Asia, though it was the ancient Egyptians who really took to the furry beasts.
They lived among us
But what may surprise you is that cats had been our neighbors for millennia before we first tamed them. That’s right: wildcats lived among us even though we weren’t feeding them. And in the time that they’ve stayed near us, their genetic make-up has hardly altered, except that they’ve evolved the tabby coat.
More rats, more cats
So why were cats drawn to humans? Were they seeking companionship? Not likely! They came because agriculture attracted rodents, and those rodents attracted cats that saw them as dinner. The association’s probably been going on for about 8,000 years, with the fur-balls eventually coming to Europe sometime around 4500 B.C.
University of Leuven professor Claudio Ottoni is an expert in cat domestication, and he told National Geographic magazine how cats came to be tamed by human beings. He explained, “This is probably how the first encounter between humans and cats occurred. It’s not that humans took some cats and put them inside cages.”
Once people had figured out how useful cats were for keeping rodent numbers down, humans actively encouraged them to stick around. Ottoni found evidence in DNA samples taken from ports that humans actually helped the spread of the animals. They did this by taking the creatures with them on ships to safeguard their onboard food.
Leopard in the home?
Experts have actually identified a different possible historical domestication of cats, and this one seems a bit more risky. Yes, Chinese people might well have domesticated leopards in the distant past. But there’s zero trace of leopards in modern cats, so if they did, it didn’t take — perhaps not a massive surprise!
Just like wildcats
Another cat expert, genetic specialist Eva-Maria Geigl, explained to National Geographic that the thousands of years of domestication haven’t brought that many changes to cats. They still resemble wildcats pretty closely. One way that they’re very different, though, is that they aren’t strictly solitary; cats will put up with other felines and with people, too.
Geigl also notes the difference between cats and dogs, which were domesticated earlier than cats. People had an idea of particular jobs that they wanted dogs to perform, so the animals were picked for traits that helped them do this work. But cats are different. Geigl explained, “I think 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.”
Domesticated cats are of course part of a bigger family of creatures, and there are some marked differences between them. One is the ability to roar. You will not hear Fluffy roar, we’re sorry to say, because house cats can’t. The Carnegie Museum of National History’s John Wible told the Live Science website, “Roaring is much rarer among cats and evolved in a particular lineage of large cats.”
But not being able to roar does mean that cats can purr. Much of the time, of course, that sound means they’re content and are letting you know about it. Did you know, though, that purring isn’t always a good sign? No, sometimes a cat that’s afraid or suffering discomfort will purr. On top of that, the animals occasionally purr to calm kittens.
Another difference is that the big cats — tigers, lions, and so on — don’t have “cat’s eyes.” No, they have round pupils, just as we do, not the black slits that domestic cats have. It’s thought that this might be because the likes of lions are so big and aren’t near to the ground, which means they don’t need to work so hard to bring things into focus.
Let light in
A cat’s pupil can increase in size by a factor of up to 300. In contrast, the pupils in our eyes can grow to just 15 times as big as their smallest size. The difference is down to cats’ need to see in poor light. By making their pupils so much bigger, they can let in a lot more light. Conversely, making them tiny keeps the light out when it’s sunny.
Dusk and dawn
Is this because cats are nocturnal? Actually, no. Cats are what’s known as crepuscular. That means they’re out and about mainly at the times when there’s just a little light: dusk and dawn. Of course, your cat mightn’t hunt anything more than their bowl of food, but they still have genes that tell them to search for prey in the half-light.
Your cat might well sleep away the day if you aren’t around and the house is tranquil. When you come back, though, they’ll be ready to play. They’ll then probably sleep again during some of the night. If you want them to sleep right through, you can try tiring them out with some evening play and providing them with a comfy bed.
In the wild, cats largely live on their own. Wildcats don’t feel any need of company. But domesticated cats can build a tight relationship with humans and even with dogs. They actually come to be so used to having you around that some can get very anxious when you aren’t there for an extended period.
Vets tell us that cats can develop serious psychological issues if they’re left alone for a prolonged amount of time. They can even be physically sick in some instances. But don’t mistake this for the same kind of bonding that a dog will indulge in. Some cats might play for a while, but others won’t seek any form of interaction with their owners, even if they want them to stick around.
Cats can live without other felines. They usually find it better to be the only puss in the house. But they’re still capable of sociability and may build a relationship with another cat if there’s one around. It has a lot to do with when they’re introduced. If they grew up together, cats will often be fine friends. And when they go feral, they tend to live in groups.
Of course, in the wild, not all cats are solitary. Lions famously tend to live in prides. These groupings can be as large as 40 creatures, usually featuring more females than males. This makes them the exception among the large cats, though — all of the others hunt alone once they grow out of kittenhood.
No sharing please
Even if they do share a home, cats don’t much like sharing anything else. Particularly if it means they have to show patience at feeding time! In fact, if you have more than one cat, it’s best to keep separate areas, one for each animal, especially when it comes to toilet duties.
One of the most curious elements of cat behavior is the “zoomies.” Anyone who has a cat — particularly one that lives entirely indoors — knows that they’ll sometimes go crazy, sprinting around as though they’re chasing the most juicy of rodents. They’re usually just releasing energy. With humans feeding them, they don’t have the outlet for it that hunting provides.
Cat behavior expert Pam Johnson-Bennett told the Daily Paws website, “The zoomies typically look as if a switch has been flipped. Cats are ambush predators, and they conserve energy for multiple short bursts when hunting. For indoor cats who don’t get enough exercise, they may engage in the zoomies as a much-needed energy release.”
So domestic cats have a few differences from their wild relatives — but one in particular stands out as a consequence of evolution. Experts have checked out the size of the animals’ skulls and found that house cats have smaller ones than the wildcats that they’re most closely related to. Yes, that means kitty has a smaller brain than their undomesticated relatives.
But does this imply that your cat isn’t as bright as a wildcat? No, not really. The experts say that it may be an outcome of being domesticated. How? Well, over time, humans have put value on cats being tame — these animals have gone from feral mouse-munchers to cuddly lap creatures. And this might well have affected their cerebral development.
Neural crest cells
Scientists believe that the change in cats’ brains may start when they’re just embryos. At that point, they’re developing a particular sort of cell found only in vertebrates — animals with backbones, such as humans or whales — known as neural crest cells. These are really important in the growth of the nervous system.
Experts told the Live Science website, “Selection for tameness in the domestication of animals may have caused a downregulation in the migration and proliferation of neural crest cells, leading to decreased excitability and fear. However, this downregulation may also cause correlated changes to morphology, stress response and brain size.”
These experts had launched their project because previous research had compared house cats with the European wildcat. But those studies, which found that the wildcat had a much bigger brain, have since been called into question. That’s because the cats we keep as pets are no longer thought to descend from this particular animal.
More recent studies of cat genes have shown that the African wildcat is actually the wild creature most closely related to the domesticated cat. So it was a matter of assessing whether those old assumptions still held true if we used the African version as the benchmark. And the results were interesting to say the least.
Less gray matter
The difference between the brains doesn’t even need sophisticated measurement for it to show up. It’s that noticeable. In fact, the house cat can have a skull that’s just three-quarters the size of both the European and African wildcats. So, the previous research is still sound.
And the team didn’t stop there, either. They also took a look at some species that are hybrids between the wildcats and the domestic versions. The results were conclusive. The hybrids have skulls of a size that’s halfway between the tame and wild strains of the cat.
Not the only animal
This seems to be firm proof that being tamed has led to cats’ brains becoming smaller. What makes this result even more interesting is that it’s reflected in other animals that have been domesticated. The team explained, “Changes to cranial volume have been well documented across [domesticated] species, including sheep, rabbits, dogs, and many more.”
Threat from mixing
So this study’s helped to progress our understanding of the alterations in development that happen when wild beasts are tamed. But it also indicates a particular risk posed to those creatures that still live in the wild. They’re “threatened by hybridization with the domestic animals,” according to the team.
Researchers don’t really know much about what goes on inside the heads of cats. This is a different story from dogs, some of whose secrets have been unveiled in recent times. The reason so little is known about cats is that they aren’t exactly willing to help researchers! A writer’s even described them as “the world’s most uncooperative research subject.”
But what is known is that cats have a brain whose size may very well surprise you. It’s only 2 inches in length. Wow! Tufts University veterinarian Serene Lai told the Great Pet Care website, “I’ve always marveled at how easy it is to overestimate the size of an animal’s brain.” And that small blob of gray matter only weighs in at just over an ounce. By comparison, even a newborn baby has a 12-ounce brain.
Cat brains aren’t much like human ones, either. While humans have a much bigger prefrontal cortex — which deals with complex actions, organizing, and short-term memory — cats have a bigger cerebellum. This part of the brain’s more valuable in cat behaviors such as pouncing, balancing, tracking, and looking down from treetops.
With such a differently structured brain, it isn’t surprising that a cat doesn’t find the same things interesting as you, or even a dog. Lai explained, “Think about the cat toys that never fail to capture a cat’s attention — this mimics their natural drive to attack prey and feeds their curiosity and fascination with hunting birds and bugs.”
The animal with brainpower most similar to a cat is actually a brown bear. Yes, bears have much bigger brains (except perhaps for that famed possessor of a “little brain,” Winnie the Pooh), but cats have as many cells in the cerebral cortexes. These are the areas where information’s handled.
Who’s the smart one here?
Humans have as many as a hundred times as many cells in their cortexes. Vet David Weinstein told Great Pet Care, “The human brain’s more complex and contains significantly more neurons, specialized cells designed to transmit information to other cells and muscles throughout the body.” So, no danger of cats outsmarting you, right?