Domestic? Cats

by Don

A new study out of the University of Bristol in England finds that your ordinary house cat is a wild animal. Contrary to popular belief, a cat is not like a dog, and it has not been fully domesticated. As one of the researchers said, “Unlike dogs, a cat is still halfway between a wild and a domestic animal, and it is not enjoying life in the 21st century very much.”

The way the researchers discovered this was sort of interesting. They equipped households which owned cats with cameras to provide 24/7 video surveillance of the cats. They even had infrared cameras to follow the cats around at night, when their owners were asleep. There is a scale of behavior veterinary behaviorists use to determine if an animal is domesticated. When they reviewed the tapes they found cats were really smart. Cats pretended to be domesticated really well when there were people around. They know, after all, who feeds them. But when there are no people around (but the cameras were still rolling) all bets were off. Cats revert back into a purely feral mode of operation. When in that mode they act exactly like a wild cat, and show no evidence of domestication at all. When cats aren’t being watched (at least they think they’re not) they are intensely territorial and they are relentless hunters. You could drop your pet Fluffy right down into the deepest darkest jungle in Africa and she would do very well there. Do the same with Fido and he’d starve to death within a week.

The study also found what anyone who has ever kept a cat for a pet knows very well. Cats are master manipulators of their people. Again, they know full well who feeds them. Cats naturally don’t like to be touched, but they’ll allow themselves to be petted by their person. They hate it, but they’ll tolerate it. Cats also don’t like to be around other animals, including people. They are very solitary creatures, except during their short mating season. But here again cats will tolerate their people, but just barely. Scientists who have closely studied cats and know how to read their expressions see that the cats are giving off clear signals of annoyance when their people are around. We’re sort of like the “Guests Who Wouldn’t Leave” in the old Saturday Night Live comedy sketch. We’re just these annoying creatures who have invaded their territory and refuse to go away. We’re intruding on their space, and the cats aren’t happy about it.

The other thing cats really hate is other cats. If you think you need to get your pet cat another cat for companionship when you’re not around you should probably think again. Two cats will make a pretty good show of being friends when there are people around. But when the people are gone, but the cameras are still rolling, their true behavior comes out. They fight incessantly, and they battle relentlessly for territory. As the research paper said, “While the owners were under the impression that their pets got along well, the videos showed the reality: cats angrily hissing at each other and fighting for the warmest spot on the bed.” This is exactly how cats act in the wild, and is further proof that cats have not been domesticated.

The researchers didn’t do the study just for fun, of course. They were trying to find out why pet cats were increasingly suffering from dermatitis and cystitis, two diseases which are virtually unheard of in wild cat populations. They discovered that these diseases have a “strong psychological component” and are expressed when the cat is under stress. As it turns out cats really are wild animals, and they don’t like living in a domestic situation. At all. It’s not natural for them, and they get sick.

I’m not sure I believe all of this. I’ve owned cats all my life, and I think they like me OK. Sure, they can be a little aloof at times, and they definitely have a very strong will and they don’t like being told what to do. But I think we could still live with cats. Can’t we?

November 2014

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