Dear Readers, this week New Scientist has a collection of posts about cats so here are a few of the highlights…I’m also now studying domestication and selective breeding in my OU course, so there’s a nice synchronicity going on.
- Cats and wheat were domesticated at about the same time, about 10,000 years ago. Presumably the wheat attracted mice, the mice attracted the cats, the humans got some pest control and everyone (except the mice) was happy. But clearly it went further than that – a grave in Cyprus that was about 9,500 years old contained a human and a cat. Was someone buried with their family pet? I only hope it was all consensual on the part of the feline. DNA studies have shown that the ancestors of all domestic cats came from the Eastern Mediterranean, which is also where the earliest evidence for agriculture is found.
- Cats are probably not really domesticated – many scientists categorise them as ‘semi-domesticated’, on the basis that they do pretty well without humans around, though the local wildlife less so. As anyone who has worked with foster cats knows, there is a critical window in a kitten’s development for becoming socialised to being around humans – miss that, and you have a hissing spitting ball of fur with claws and teeth.
- Cats know the sound of their owners voice, and react differently when they hear a stranger’s voice, even if both recordings are of people talking in that silly high-pitched baby tone that so many people (yes even me) sometimes adopt when talking to their pets.
- However, good luck with getting them to come when you call them, unless you have something they want.
- Cats approached someone more quickly if the human offered them a hand and spoke to them. as opposed to doing just one or the other. They seem to be attuned to a set of our behaviours, rather than just one thing.
- Cats also get jealous, as discovered in a study that looked at the cat’s reactions to their owner stroking a cushion and a realistic toy cat. How they expressed this jealousy (i.e. by beating up the ‘cat’ or sitting with their back to their owner or pooping in their owner’s bed) wasn’t related, sadly.
- In a study in 2017, scientist Kristen Vitale Shreve found that, when offered food, human interaction, a toy or a scent, human interaction came first, followed by food (a big surprise to me I must admit). She followed this up with a study in 2019, in which kittens aged 3 to 8 months were taken into a strange room and left alone for two minutes. When their owners returned, 64% of the kittens interacted with their owners and then went on to confidently explore the room. If you were a child psychologist you would probably think of this as showing secure attachment, and Vitale thinks that cats can form strong, happy bonds with their human caregivers.
- Cats sadly don’t have very expressive faces, and this might be one reason why we think they’re aloof, unemotional creatures – they can’t do that ‘puppy dog eyebrow’ thing that dogs do when they’re trying to persuade their owners that they haven’t been fed for a week. But they do have a wide variety of ways to let their owners know whether they’re happy or not, and if you learn to read the signs it’s amazing what they’ll tell you.