Cat Origins and Domestication

by Jennie K. Willis, PhD as printed in the Coloradoan in February 2013

Just because cats and dogs frequently live in the same household and occupy similar spaces in our hearts does not mean they are close relatives or even that they arrived in human homes the same way.  Cats are not little dogs, as is evident by their behavior.  Why are they so different in how they interact with us?  The answer may lie in how we began our relationship some 9,000 years ago.

An early agricultural society in the Fertile Crescent, in the Near East, is where the story begins.    Farmers were growing grains and storing them.  Wherever such a stash of cereals existed, rodents were bound to seek it out.  We created a new niche where rodents were abundant and the pickings were easy and wild cats capitalized on this new niche.   Seeing that cats helped us keep our harvest safer, early people considered them helpful.  Cats began a cautious coexistence with us to eat the mice and rats drawn to our food stores.

The status of cats has changed over time, at first being revered by Egyptian culture, then reviled at times in Europe.  They have emerged as the most numerous pet in America.   Their genetic picture of origin was a little murky, due frequent hybridization of feral cats to wild close relatives.   Our domestic cats are very similar in size and appearance when compared to the African Wild Cat, so other than color and coat type, they have changed little in the years they have spent with us.  Their mutually beneficial relationship with us didn’t require changes in size or behavior.

As owners, it is important for us to consider aspects of our cat’s biology and incorporate them into our cat’s environment.

  • Cats are solitary hunters.  They spend 70% of their waking time  searching for prey in the wild.  Cats have been observed to consume 10-20 small prey items per day, but not all attempts are successful.  We need to structure seeking and finding experiences for them, especially with food, to approximate this natural behavior.  Food in a bowl wastes an opportunity to stimulate an intelligent mind.
  • Provide time for both predatory and play behavior.  Think of toys that induce a chase response in your cat.  It is highly pleasurable for them to watch, chase and subdue and is accessing their biological need to perform such behaviors.  Sometimes these behaviors are directed at inappropriate targets due to lack of appropriate opportunity.
  • Provide multiple areas for key environmental resources such as areas for feeding, water, toileting, resting, scratching and play areas.  By spreading out these areas, it encourages more complete use of space and natural ranging behavior even in small homes.  Think of vertical space too, and give them opportunities to get above.

Cats are amazing companions.  Next time we will discuss their senses and social structure and how that influences their behavior in our homes.

If you are interested in learning more about your pet’s behavior,  please consider attending the CSU Behavior Symposium this Saturday March 2 at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital.  Please RSVP to attend this free event at for schedule and reservation.  Your pet will thank you for it!

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