Everyone knows the history of dog domestication. It probably went something like this:
Thousands of years ago, a friendly human was cooking by a fire. The smell attracted some friendlier-than-normal wolves. They sat by the fire, maybe enjoyed some of the food, and hung out with the humans.
Over time, humans and wolves both evolved towards a mutually beneficial relationship. Wolves that were more companionable, enjoyed a scratch and a cuddle, and maybe were protective of their adopted human “pack” were given food and love. And humans grew to love and appreciate those friendly wolves right back.
Today, we’ve bred dogs to a variety of shapes, sizes, and functions. Truly humankind’s best friend.
But what about cats? How did house cats go from roaming mountains to purring in our laps?
You might be tempted to believe they arrived in our lives, fully formed, with no influence from us. Perhaps one day a wildcat leapt into our lives and demanded some treats. They’d certainly like you to believe that. The fact is, it’s not far off the truth.
Experts agree that cats, true to form, domesticated themselves. Mice and rats have long followed humans, as people have a messy habit of leaving crumbs behind. Like the pied piper, this brought cats into our lives, too. Unlike dogs, who were selected and bred for specific traits, cats wandered into our lives 4,400 years ago for the promise of food and never looked back.
This might explain why some people believe cats aren’t truly domesticated. As William Burroughs wrote:
“The cat does not offer services. The cat offers itself.”
While some cats can be trained, it’s a lot harder to do than with dogs. When you call a dog’s name, she bounds over to you, tongue lolling out in a canine smile. When you call a cat’s name, he might stop washing a paw, stare at you for 10 seconds, before seeming to consider coming over to you.
However, this makes sense — dogs have been much more extensively bred than cats, with 400 recognized breeds (compared to 38–45 cat breeds), with specific traits being focused on, such as security, herding, or docility. Cats have only much more recently been bred for specific traits.
We see cats differing much more from the archetypal wildcat. While you may not have a secret wildcat in your house, disguised as a common house-cat, your tabby might not be as tame as you think.
If released into the wild, most cats can more than fend for themselves, living perfectly happy lives catching small rodents and birds. Perhaps cats have in fact domesticated us — to feed them, pet them, and look after them, all while they do nothing but look cute.
Cats have evolved to control us.
But one aspect of the human-feline dynamic isn’t really explained by this, and that’s the fact that cats are natural manipulators.
Every morning, my cats like to perch on my chest and make a peculiar meow-purr combo. I’ve learned to associate this with breakfast time, so I dutifully rise and go make them their tasty, meaty food.
I’m not a mother, but something in me responds in a deep, primal way to those cries. And when I researched why I was so driven to help my kitties with whatever they wanted, I found it’s because I think of them as my babies. This is an association the cats have carefully cultivated.
You might know that cats don’t meow to each other in the wild. Bu you might not know that cat noises are uncannily similar to baby cries. And that this cry gets more and more urgent to our ears the more the cat wants to be fed.
One study shows that people, even ones who have never owned cats, respond to this meow-purr for food with more urgency and more care than normal meows. What’s more is that cats don’t make those meows for strangers — only their carefully trained owners who can be relied on to feed them.
Now that’s food for thought. Next time I’m being manipulated into giving my cats more food, I’ll probably carry on and maybe even give them extra.