The Evolution and Domestication of Cats: From Working Cats to Cuddle Buddies

Evolution and domestication are complicated and still largely mysterious concepts when it comes to cats. Much is known about the evolution and domestication of dogs, but far less so when it comes to their feline counterparts.

From Working Cats to Cuddle Buddies.

Dogs have long been known for their usefulness to humans, particularly for hunting and protection as early as 25,000 years ago. In contrast, the first cats to work with humans, as early as 10,000 years ago, began the road to domestication by ridding homes—and later, ships—of rats. When agriculture began spreading around the world, so did granaries and large stores of food, both of which brought mice, and by extension, felines. These expert four-legged hunters were handsomely rewarded for their efforts by farmers and storage owners.

Often, cats show their affection by proximity, not necessarily close physical interaction. As a general rule, wild or feral cats don’t enjoy being picked up—let alone cuddled—and they are not typically social creatures. From an evolutionary standpoint, cats needed to overcome this to be domesticated and brought into the fold of human households. Most animals, including cats, just want to stay safe, and living with humans is usually an easy way to do that.

Did Humans Domesticate Cats, or Was It The Other Way Around?

It may come as a surprise, but domestication is an extremely rare occurrence in nature. In fact, cats are still only partly domesticated compared to dogs. This largely explains the common trait of independence and aloofness in cats—most are happy to spend time alone. Dogs? Not so much.

Cats, for the most part, domesticated themselves. The selective breeding of cats only began about 200 years ago. The majority of the cat population comes from feral and outdoor cats choosing their own partners rather than breeding with cats that humans have chosen for them.

Generally, cats changed very little during their domestication, and remain very similar in behaviour and appearance to their wild ancestors—with a few notable examples. There are two theories when it comes to cat domestication. Either today’s feline ancestors were deliberately selected for their friendliness and companionship, or they were simply tolerated due to their usefulness in eradicating vermin. In all likelihood, it was a combination of these two that led to the cats we know and love today.

A member of the veterinary team, Dr Lorna Whittemore, explains there are “12 distinct groups of cats worldwide, and these populations have led to around 24 genetically distinct breeds. Humans selected for desirable traits, resulting in another 20–30 breeds to cater for different preferences in modern pet cats.”

Cinnamon The Abyssinian.

In 2007, scientists sequenced the genome of an Abyssinian cat named Cinnamon in the hopes of uncovering more answers. While this was a largely incomplete sequencing and was primarily conducted to better understand hereditary diseases, when paired with a recent second gene sequencing, scientists uncovered interesting results regarding feline domestication.

By pairing the results with the sequencing of other domestic cats and wildcats compared to that of tigers, dogs, and other mammals, the study found that while domestic cats retain many of the hunting and sensory traits of their wild cousins, they have become more adapted to human interaction—even on a genetic level. Lower levels of fear around humans and the creation of a closer physical relationship with people have rewarded felines from an evolutionary standpoint, and that change could be seen even in the evolution of their genetic makeup.

The Benefits of Domestication.

It’s fascinating to discover that science proves cats had an evolutionary incentive to be cuddled, petted, and groomed by humans. No matter how aloof modern domestic cats may seem, cuddling was, and still is, in their best evolutionary interests!

Dr Whittemore further explains that the “natural selection of cats that are more amenable to human companionship has enabled them to reap the rewards of this relationship; access to food, shelter, and safety. Humans have benefited greatly from rodent control, and now in modern-day life—a furry friend to snuggle up with.” It’s a win-win scenario that has seen success for years and will likely continue to evolve.

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