Your cat may like to cuddle, or run away at the sight of a vacuum cleaner, but they have actually retained many of their wild relatives’ behaviours
Cats have captured the world’s hearts, a fact reflected in the number of pet cats outnumbering dogs three to one in the UK, and in the internet’s wealth of cat-related content. They’re neurotic and fickle, yet despite their independent nature we all love them. It seems the more standoffish our kitties are, the more we want them to love us. But they can’t help staying aloof – cats are only really semi-domesticated despite a long history of living alongside humans.
It’s most likely that farmers welcomed cats as they controlled the rodent population feasting on their crops. In return, farmers probably offered the cats rewards and treats to tempt them into sticking around. Humans would have naturally selected their furry companions based on their friendly and docile nature. The cats, clever enough to realise that good behaviour meant food and security, were kept for longer and fed more often.
The earliest evidence for wildcat taming comes from 9,500-year-old Neolithic graves excavated in Cyprus. It’s thought farmers brought cats with them from the Middle East, as there are no native cats in Cyprus. Fast forward 4,000 years to the Ancient Egyptians, and it seems by looking at paintings and inscriptions that cats were somewhat domesticated by this time. As all domestic cats evolved from the African wildcat, this trend spread from North Africa, to the Middle East, India, and China, but did not reach Europe until the Romans introduced them much later.
Cats are only really semi- domesticated, despite a long history of living with humans
Wild cats hunt at dawn and dusk, meaning they are crepuscular. Domestic cats mirror this behaviour. Many cat owners report being kept awake at night or being woken up early by their pet mewing and scratching at the door, or running up and down the hallways. They’re most active at these unsociable hours, just like their big cat relatives.
Domestic cats show hunting behaviour even when they’re not hungry. Pouncing can release feel-good hormones and they must do this to avoid frustration. The mechanics of creeping up on a victim, whether its prey or a cat toy, are very much the same, suggesting that even though domestic cats don’t need to hunt for food, they still have the instinct.
In the wild, tigers and lions will often scratch trees as a way of communication. They will stand up on their hind legs and scratch the bark with their claws, to give the impression a much bigger cat has left the mark. So the next time your little lion is ruining your furniture, remember they’re just following their instincts and protecting your home from bigger cats.
Preference for heights
Have you ever wondered why your cat loves climbing? All cats usually feel safer off the ground than on it, which is probably why they love to clamber up on your cupboards and sleep perched on the sofa. Wild cats also have a preference for heights as it gives them a good vantage point of their surroundings, and may help them to pinpoint their prey.
Cats can often be seen head-butting each other, objects around the home, or you. This is known as scent-marking and is when they release their scent through glands in their face. In doing this they are establishing a ‘family scent’, marking you as one of their own. Wild cats also do this to welcome each other back from a hunt or to mark their cubs
No one is completely sure why cats do this. It is seen in the wild with young cubs that paw at their mother for comfort or while nursing, but it’s not seen in wild cats after adolescence. It has been argued that perhaps years of domestication have encouraged cats to retain their kitten-like behaviour.
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