When I see one of my cats peering out the window at a bird, tail twitching ever so slightly and clearly ready to pounce, I often imagine he imagines himself hiding in the tall grasses of the Serengeti stalking his prey.
As a recent study of house cats and wild cats DNA suggests I may not be all that far off in my imagining. Domestic cats only recently split off from wild cats. According to Wes Warren, professor of genetics Washington University and co-author of the first complete mapping of the house cat genome, this split occurred some 9,000 years ago when humans made a shift of their own to agriculture. Settled farming communities with dense rodent populations were a new habitat, and wildcats came out of the woods and grasslands to exploit it:
Drawn to the teeming rodent populations that gathered during grain harvests, wild cats began interacting with humans. And because cats kept rodents in check, the researchers hypothesize, humans likely encouraged them to stay by offering them food scraps as a reward. These early farmers eventually kept cats that stuck around.
The cats who stuck around the settlements were those “with genes that encouraged interaction with humans, thereby making those traits prevalent in what became the global domestic cat population.”
So just like house cats today, their wild ancestors are the ones who decided the terms of their relationships with us: “they came for the mice, stayed for the food scraps,” and whenever it suited them, they hung around. Yep, in typical cat fashion, they pretty much tamed themselves.
Despite 9,000-odd years of living alongside humans, house cats are not all that genetically different from wild cats. The genetic adaptations highlighted in the study indicate that house cats still retain many of the characteristics of wild cats, including acute vision, fast reflexes, and an innate meat. They’ve also retained the rough tongue that once helped them clean every last morsel from an animal bone and now is primarily used to groom themselves.
So many of the behaviors we find so endearing in our house kitties– pouncing, kicking with their hind limbs, and chasing balls, toy mice, laser pointers, shadows . . . –are predator learning behaviors and can be seen in wild cats. Particularly telling is that these behaviors emerge in house cats within the first 52 days of life before the ever encounter any prey. Can you spell instinct?
The student found that the areas where the domestic cat’s genome differs from wild cats are linked to adaptations in memory/reward conditioning. These genetic changes make it easier for house cats to quickly link rewards (like treats) with actions. House cats can, in theory, attribute rewards received to ‘good’ actions faster than their wild counterparts. During neonatal development, domestic house cats have higher numbers of the progenitor cells that form the cortical areas responsible for processing reward information. This leads to larger cortical areas that are responsible for processing reward information – fine tuning house cats’ ability to hone in on what exactly led to the cat treat. In other words, once you turn on the electric can opener, flip the lid on the dry food container, or crinkle that bag of treats, your kitty’s brain screams TTRRREEEAAATTTSS, and much meowing ensues.
Some who don’t understand the appeal of cats attribute their supposed aloofness to the fact that they have not been domesticated as long as dogs, but those of us who love cats know they’re not aloof at all. They’re quite affectionate and great companions; it’s just that they decide when they want to share their time and with whom.