Cat domestication: Debate over hunting, tameness, docility, affection, feral cats.

Are Cats Truly Domesticated? Or Are They Really Wild Animals?

Are Cats Truly Domesticated? Or Are They Really Wild Animals?

The state of the universe.
July 5 2015 8:34 PM

Are Cats Really Wild Animals?

Experts clash over whether they count as a domesticated species.

Left and right: 'Larry', the Downing Street cat, indoors and outdoors Number 10 Downing Street.
Are cats with us or against us?

Photos by Mark Large/Getty Images and Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

The other night, before my wife and I put our 2½-year-old twins to bed, she began reading them one of their favorite books, Where the Wild Things Are. Juliet, in Dalmatian pajamas, asked, “Mommy, where are the wild things?” My wife glanced over at our gray-and-white tabby curled up on a chair nearby. “Well,” she said, “Jasper’s a wild thing.” Juliet looked incredulous. “Jasper’s not a wild thing,” she said. “He’s a cat!”

The dispute is understandable. Though cats have lived with us for nearly 10,000 years and are the world’s most popular pet, experts disagree about whether they’re actually domestic animals. Our feline companions don’t really need us, after all: They can hunt for themselves, and they go feral without human contact. A scientific paper published last year uncovered some of the first genes responsible for domestication—all in the cat genome—yet still referred to cats as “semi-domesticated.” Other scientists vehemently disagree with that designation. “There’s no difference between a domesticated cat and a domesticated anything else,” says Greger Larson, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford who has studied the domestication of pigs, dogs, and a variety of other animals. “Good luck trying to get a goat or a sheep to spend the night in your house.”

At the heart of the debate is the heart of our relationship with cats. Sure, they were gods in ancient Egypt, but ever since a paranoid pope linked them to witchcraft in the 13th century, felines have been vilified as evil, unpredictable, and untrustworthy—stereotypes that persist even in this age of the adorable Internet cat video. So the question must be asked: Are cats just like dogs but in slinkier form, eager and able to be part of the human family? Or is there something truly feral about them—something wild and unknowable that will forever keep them from blending into our tribe? Put another way, are cats with us or against us?

A ready for adoption cat looks on at Villa Kitty on November 26, 2013 in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia.
A cat ready for adoption in 2013 in Bali, Indonesia.

Photo by Putu Sayoga/Getty Images

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Even early legal scholars debated the question, as I discovered while writing Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship With Cats and Dogs, which traces the journey of pets from wild animals to members of the family. In 1894, a Baltimore man was arrested for stealing his neighbor’s cat. But as the judge prepared to sentence him, Maryland’s attorney general stepped in. “A cat,” he declared, “is not legal property. … It is as much a wild animal, in a legal sense, as are its relatives—the tiger and the wild-cat.” The judge was forced to let the thief go. In the eyes of the law, a man who had stolen a cat had stolen nothing at all.

In the early 1900s, however, as cats became more popular household companions, the law changed its tune. At issue in a 1914 Maine state Supreme Court case was whether a man was legally justified in shooting his neighbor’s dog because it was chasing his cat. Under state law, the shooter pointed out, a person could kill a dog that was “worrying, wounding, or killing any domestic animal.” But did a cat fit that definition? After much deliberation, the court ruled that it did. “In no other animal has affection for the home been more strongly developed,” it decreed. “The cat is a domestic animal.”

Yet scientists remained divided. Part of the problem is that they don’t agree on what “domesticated” means. For some, it’s as simple as being tame and able to live with people generation after generation, criteria under which cats easily qualify. But others propose more stringent standards: complex genetic and behavioral changes that transform a creature inside out. Do cats meet that bar?

Wes Warren thinks they don’t. Warren, a biologist at Washington University in St. Louis and the senior author of last year’s cat genome study, starts with docility. Yes, he says, there are cuddly cats, but there are also a lot of skittish and aggressive cats—a wider spectrum of behaviors than seen in dogs. He also faults felines for being too independent. “Cats only come to you for affection when they feel like it,” he says. “They pretty much take care of themselves.” After all, if an animal doesn’t need us, has it really been domesticated by us? (Maybe not; scientists now believe that cats domesticated themselves.) And then there’s the fact that—to the chagrin of birders and other wildlife enthusiasts—house cats hunt nearly as well as their wild ancestors. “Dogs don’t have that ability,” says Warren. “It’s been bred out of them.”

a rescued cat on Long Island, New York
A rescued cat on Long Island, New York.

Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

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Warren says he sees these differences play out at the genetic level. “When you look at the molecular signatures of domestication, there are 10 times more in dogs than in cats.” That’s probably because dogs have been around humans a lot longer than cats—20,000 years longer, by some estimates. Cats, Warren says, should really be thought of as a subspecies of wildcat, while dogs are more like their own species.

Larson doesn’t buy it. For one thing, he says, felines can be every bit as docile as their canine counterparts. “You will easily find cats that are more affectionate than dogs, more seeking of human affection.” He also notes that cats have undergone a remarkable behavioral transformation since first entering human society. As opposed to their ancestor, the wildcat, which the naturalist H.C. Brooke once described as “probably the least amenable of all living creatures,” house cats are “love sponges,” as Ernest Hemingway called them—purring balls of fur more interested in curling up on your lap than in ripping your eyes out. Scientists even suspect cats have evolved particular purrs and meows that they use to communicate with human beings. (Their intelligence may have evolved as well, though this is hard to prove because cats make terrible research subjects.)

British Shorthair
A British shorthair cat.

Photo by Vyacheslav Oseledko/AFP/Getty Images

As for the genetic signatures of domesticity, Larson chalks up the differences between dogs and cats to the intense breeding of dogs that has happened in the past 150 years, not to any fundamental differences in domestication. All this talk of semidomestication, he says, simply dredges up centuries-old stereotypes of cats as peculiar beings. “We don’t like loners,” he says. “We see a lot more of ourselves in dogs.”

So are cats wild or domestic? Let me tell you one more story about Jasper. Over Thanksgiving, our family (including our two cats) drove to my wife’s parents’ house. My sister-in-law’s clan was there as well, with her two boys, 2 and 5 years old. One morning, we were all hanging out in the basement: my kids squealing as an electric train screeched along a metal track, their cousins racing their bikes around the room, and the adults shouting a conversation over the bedlam. Jasper sat on a couch in the corner, stared at us calmly for a while, then fell asleep.

Cats are descended from some of the world’s most fearsome predators. They can be aloof and mysterious, and when they go outside they blend into the savage world around them, stalking, growling, and leaping—their eyes wide, their ears back, their teeth bared. They are the kings of their backyard jungles. Yet they give it all up to be with us—a loud, erratic, and sometimes incomprehensible species. When they cross our thresholds, the beast fades away. They tame us, and they are tamed by us. Cats may have retained a bit of their wild ancestry, but they always come home.