Are Cats Domesticated? Here’s the Obvious Answer
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Melissa cares for a variety of exotic animals and has completed a certificate in veterinary assisting and a bachelor's degree in biology.
There are actually people who see the domestic cat (Felis silvestris catus) as not domesticated, or essentially a so-called wild animal. This article on the Smithsonian addresses the ‘debate’ that actually sheds much-needed light on the topic of domestication, animal behavior, and the controversial practice of keeping ‘exotic’ or wild animals as pets. After all, if cats aren’t domesticated, doesn’t that mean around 30% of the population own ‘wild’ animals?
Polar Opposites: Our Society’s Perceptions of Dogs and Cats
Dogs are energetic, outgoing, loyal, and overtly social. There is no question that they are ‘domesticated’. The dog’s opposite has always been the cat; quiet, stealthy, observant, and fastidious.
A cat prefers to offer its occasional displays of affection to the carefully selected humans that provide its food and care. Most people are familiar with these stereotypes about felines (and dogs)—they are ubiquitous in our cultural perception of these popular pets. People have even devised ways to assess your personality based upon which of these animals you own or prefer.
While dogs are essentially seen to embody an ever-optimistic, loyal, and childlike companion, cats are known as independent-minded and self-sufficient. While also being seen as ‘lazy’, cats are appreciated for their innate hunting prowess.
Independency and the ability to provide food for yourself—aren’t these traits of wild animals? When we examine dogs and cats in this way, we might start to see why cats are often seen as wild animals. You will see this as a reason given why many cat owners (particularly in Europe) allow their cats to free-range outdoors, since they believe it is wrong to keep a ‘wild’ animal locked up. Here’s why any proposition of cats not being domesticated is flawed at best.
No One Can Decide What a Domesticated Animal Is
There is an ample lapse of logic and numerous inconsistencies when the concept of domestication is discussed. The term seems to have wholly different meanings depending on who you talk to—the only trait the definitions seem to have in common is that they never seem to equally apply to every situation.
- Domestication takes place over thousands of years where animals are bred to co-exist with humans.
- Domesticated animals have been selectively bred to be cared for by humans and cannot fend for themselves in the wild.
The Dictionary Says:
- to convert (animals, plants, etc.) to domestic uses; tame.
- to tame (an animal), especially by generations of breeding, to live in close association with human beings as a pet or work animal and usually creating a dependency so that the animal loses its ability to live in the wild.
- to adapt (a plant) so as to be cultivated by and beneficial to human beings.
- The six criteria that animals must meet to be considered good candidates for domestication: They cannot be picky eaters [carnivores are difficult to feed, at least in the past]. They must reach sexual maturity quickly. They must be willing to breed in captivity. They must be docile by nature. They cannot have a strong tendency to panic and flee when startled. And last, they must naturally respect a social hierarchy and dominant member, recognizing humans as their ‘master’.
—Jared Diamond. (1997) Guns, Germs and Steel
- “At its most basic, domestication is a dependence on humans for food, shelter, and control of breeding”
—Driscoll, Carlos A., David W. Macdonald, and Stephen J. O'Brien. "From wild animals to domestic pets, an evolutionary view of domestication."
The Problem With Each Idea of Domestication
The layperson’s idea of domestication is that of a species’ dependency on humans after breeding-induced modifications, but this criterion simply does not work.
The existence of feral animals, which are all domesticated or formerly domesticated animals whose ancestors have escaped and survived without humans, disproves that they will all perish in the ‘wild’. It’s the opposite; these populations have done very well and are hard to eradicate.
More importantly, most non-domesticated animals that have been raised as pets cannot survive in the wild without extensive rehabilitation, even when released into the right environment, another big determinate in whether or not an animal will survive. This is part of the reason why it is always advised to not release long-term captive animals, from geckos to killer whales.
The cat’s hunting instinct is also seen as a ‘wild’ trait but the shocking fact is that most domesticated animals, like cows, horses, and goats, are herbivores and also forge for their own food, just as a wild horse, goat or cow (auroch) would. Chickens are omnivores and actively seek out insects in addition to their grain. Their hunting instinct is just as strong as a cat’s.
The dictionary probably has a wider encompassing, but still faulty description. As previously described, an animal losing its ability to survive in the wild is in no way associated with domestication or lack thereof. There are domesticated animals that can survive and ‘wild’ animals that can’t when raised in the same setting, dependant on the individual, species, and sheer luck.
‘Taming’ is also not a proper way to describe domestication, which really describes behavioral modification on a non-genetic level. “To convert animals to domestic uses” is true but vague. Animals can be converted through hand-rearing and taming which does not involve a genetic shift in a population.
Scientists cannot even seem to lay out quantifiable characteristics of domesticated animals that do not shift which species qualify despite their wide acceptance as domesticates (including cats).
For instance, Jared Diamond’s popularly cited 6 criteria for domestication includes ‘recognition of the human caretaker as the pack leader’. Chickens are easy for us to manage but do they really psychologically look up to humans as ‘masters’? I wouldn’t say they do this any different from cockatiels or flamingos….we’ve just deprived chickens of flight to make their captivity easier. Also, not all the ancestors of domesticates have a ‘pleasant disposition’ and that is actually the entire point of domesticating them in the first place.
African Wildcats: Is There a Difference?
What We Know to Be True About Domestication
So is domestication an invalid concept? Not necessarily. We know that a true wild, non-feral animal is not domesticated. We know that a species with an evolutionary history that involved no human relationships cannot be domesticated. All domesticated animals have in common that they must breed well around humans, because an animal that is difficult to breed, or won’t breed prolifically around humans, won’t produce enough offspring to create the generations needed to produce that genetic change.
There is also a domestication phenotype. Traits such as curly tails, piebald color patters, and floppy ears are associated with breeding animals to be comfortable around humans. Domesticated cats exhibit many color patterns and a longer digestive tract in adapting to consuming some human food scraps.
However, whether or not these characteristics show up is species-dependent or it just might randomly show up. These characteristics are not requirements for domestication. We could just as easily selectively breed dogs to strongly resemble or even behave like wolves as we desire, and that doesn’t make them any less a human-selected domestication project.
Why Cats ARE Domesticated
This is where cats come in. In its most simple terms, domestication is the genetic modification through intentional or unintentional selective breeding of an animal to suit a human use. Animals are unintentionally domesticated via the means of natural selection; when they breed around humans, they inevitably become a more human-tolerant species. Cats evolved this way.
Are Cats ‘Semi-Domesticated’?
Several scientists state that cats are ‘not fully domesticated’ or ‘semi-domesticated’, a very strange idea given the fluid definition of the term. InA Natural History of Domesticated Animals (Clutton-Brock J. 1987.) it is stated that less than 10 species have been ‘fully domesticated’. This means that no more than 9 animals on this list of 15 can be considered such.
The power of artificial selection to produce modern fancy cat breeds has only recently—within the last 200 years—been brought to bear on the accumulated store of wildcat genetic variation...
Which animal on this list isn’t fully domesticated?
Cow, horse, pig, dog, guinea pig, duck, ferret, goat, sheep, rabbit, pig, turkey, goldfish, donkey, chicken
These animals are likely unanimously considered to be domesticated animals, and for good reason. And that’s leaving out domesticated rats, mice, llamas, camels, and much more.
Wesely Warren, a geneticist at Washington University, states:
“There’s still a lot of genetic mixing,” Warren said. “You don’t have the true differentiation you see between wolf and dog. Using the dog as the best comparison, the modern cat is not what I would call fully domesticated.”
(Driscoll, 2009) suggests:
“Because 97% or more of the nearly 1 billion domestic cats living today are random-bred house cats, or are feral and intact, the overwhelming preponderance of domestic cats choose their own mates. Only a tiny fraction of cats (mostly those in registered breeds) have mates chosen for them (prezygotic selection). Furthermore, the majority of feral cats obtain what they eat without human assistance. Additionally, the domestic cat varies little morphologically from the wildcat body plan…”
Why Are Cats Only Semi-Domesticated?
Cats are seen as ‘semi-domesticated’ because the majority of them do not have their breeding controlled, rather, most are randomly-bred mongrels and don’t have humans select their mates. This is with the exception of pure-bred feline breeds such as Persians and British shorthair. These cats would be considered a (newly) fully domesticated animal by this definition.
Science scholars seem to be setting up their different criteria for domestication in comparison to a limited number of species, or one. Upon searching for an agreed-upon definition of domestication, I kept finding more papers that added a criterion another didn’t have, or using dogs or cows as the grading rubric for which one should check off points to determine if an animal is domesticated or ‘semi’.
For example, in (Driscoll, 2009):
“Wildcats are improbable candidates for domestication… Furthermore, cats do not perform directed tasks and their actual utility is debatable, even as mousers”
An animal does not need to perform a directed task to be domesticated. This idea must be derived from examining other domesticated animals.
The only logical conclusion I can come up with, taking into account the science, cultural perception, and dictionary descriptions, is that domestication is a process that varies according to species and the purpose it is being carried out for. The scientific definitions seem to examine classically domesticated animals, particularly the large animals that were extremely important in human history. There simply is no value to these arbitrary rules when humans can alter animal populations in so many other ways.
Are Some Animals Poor Domestication Candidates?
Should an animal not meet some criteria or be ‘pre-adapted’ for domestication, what would we call the process of breeding that species to better suit a human need? If we use the Russian fox experiment, which was a 50 years long study that produced docile ‘dog-like’ foxes after selective breeding, as an example, such foxes have had their breeding controlled 100% by humans and would be, according to some scientists, ‘more domesticated’ than your average cat.
Even though foxes are not initially great candidates for domestication, according to scientists, because they are too skittish and too carnivorous, the experiment produced similar results to dog domestication.
Semi-Domestication Should Not Be a ‘Thing’
It seems evident that cats, despite not being similar to the other mostly herbivorous domesticates and having mate choice, have just been domesticated in a different, but no less effective way. In this case, it is self-domestication.
Humans still play a strong role in the natural evolution of human-tolerant cats by not only allowing, but encouraging their presence in and around our homes.
The fox experiments show that we can achieve our domestication result with different means, and different species.
The docile fox is not a dog, sheep, or cat, it is a docile fox. Just as we don’t expect to domesticate a cat and have it behave like a domestic chicken, we should be able to produce desired human-tolerance in many so-called ‘wild’ animals and expect that domesticated form to be unlike dogs, chickens, or horses. In other words, just because a domesticated fox might have some unique behaviors that make it unlike a dog, doesn’t make the fox undomesticated.
The species-specific behavior of the cat, which includes retained hunting skills, independency, and roaming tendencies, should not mean a cat is not or is ‘semi- domesticated’. This is just how the domesticated version of the African wild cat turned out, based on our needs and methods.
Cats Are Still Controlled by Humans
Cats suit the need of humans who’ve allowed their initial natural selection to proceed to the extent that it has, to the point that cats reside in our homes and are confined, manipulated (including euthanasia of cats with undesirable traits), transported and altered (surgically) by humans. In this way, outside of feral populations, it would be unwise to say that humans aren’t playing a part in their breeding.
Since times have changed and humans have the luxury of using animals for means other than food and survival, cats evolved as companions that also hunt 'vermin' (small wildlife, indiscriminately).
Many humans irresponsibly enjoy maintaining this species in a ‘free-range’ manner, which in some populations where cats are not spayed or neutered (even more irresponsible) leads to them selecting their own mates. Feral cats can be adopted at a young age and turned into house cats. These animals meet the human need of companion enrichment and are overall not significantly different from cats whose breeding is completely controlled. The so-called ‘fully domesticated’ cat like the Siamese or Persian still varies little in its morphology from the African wild cat (another reason given for cats being ‘semi-domesticated’).
Domestication Tells Us Very Little About Animals
The Savannah cat, a ‘cat breed’ that has serval DNA, is a completely-controlled creation. Is the Savannah cat fully domesticated, and is it more domesticated than average cats? Most people would view this animal as a ‘semi-wild’ cat. They might wonder why you couldn’t just adopt a ‘domesticated cat’ instead.
Scientists have discussed the questionable concept of semi-domestication because the cat genome (in comparison to the dog of course) varies little from the wild cats they originate from:
“In conclusion, our analyses have identified genetic signatures within feline genomes that match their unique biology and sensory skills. The number of genomic regions with strong signals of selection since cat domestication appears modest compared with those in the domestic dog, which is concordant with a more recent domestication history, the absence of strong selection for specific physical characteristics, as well as limited isolation from wild populations.”
—Montague, Michael J., et al. "Comparative analysis of the domestic cat genome reveals genetic signatures underlying feline biology and domestication.
While I argue that cats are certainly domesticated, this does not change the fact that they are not that different from wild cats.
As I’ve established, when animals are bred by humans in numerous different ways and for different reasons, we cannot claim to know by domestication status alone which species is ‘suitable’ for captivity and which isn’t.
If cats are considered by some to not even be domesticated, what does this tell us about the notion that it is wrong to keep so-called wild animals as pets and that we should only pick animals like dogs and cats?
Each species is unique and will undergo different changes when selective breeding is carried out. In fact, zoo animals might unintentionally be being selected for domestication when we find the individuals that breed well around us, thriving in the presence of humans in order to produce more healthy offspring, favorable.
Why Should We Care?
It may seem like mere semantics to fuss over the word ‘domestication’, but it is important that it is understood what it really signifies. Arguments are often made for ‘domesticated’ animals to be the only species suitable for captivity. ‘Domesticated’ animals are often described as being tolerant of various forms of human captivity.
There are welfare implications to be considered here, for all species. People should divorce their thought process from the concept of domestication and rather examine species-specific traits as well as the individuality of captive animals, from house cats to elephants. Dwelling over invalid ideas about domestication can serve to mar the logical thought process.
- 10 Small Exotic Cats That Are Legal to Keep as Pets
Profiles of the small and medium-sized exotic or wild cats that are sometimes kept as pets in the United States.
- Wild vs. Domesticated Animals: Why Domestication Has Nothing to Do With How Dangerous Pets Are
Domesticated and wild or exotic animals are not as different as you might think. Why saying "wild animals are dangerous" is completely illogical.
- Understanding Domestication | The Ethics of Wild Animals as Pets and in Zoos
Why do people put down wild animals in captivity while being perfectly fine with domesticated animals in human control? Are domesticated animals really that different from exotic animals?
© 2016 Melissa A Smith
Michael P King from Bostonia, California on October 08, 2017:
The questions raised in this article are of tremendous importance for several reasons. One that comes to mind almost immediately is that of legal status. A house cat can be viewed as semi-domesticated by some but doing so places it in a legal sort of no-man's-land (or, no-cat's-land, if you prefer). Either an animal is a pet or it isn't.
If a cat is a pet, then its owner must keep control of it at all times, just as s/he would keep control of a domesticated horse or dog. If it is not a pet, and its "owner" is relieved of such duty, then it must be regarded and treated as though it were wild. When a pet or other household member is threatened by a "wild animal", or when such animal roams into private areas and causes damage, the householder usually enjoys the right to dispatch said animal.
For example, if a wild coyote comes into my yard and begins circling my chicken coop, I can scare it away. If it actually enters my chicken coop, I can shoot it with impunity. Similarly, if a roof rat or field mouse makes its way into my pantry and winds up stuck to a glue board that I placed as a booby trap for just such an occasion, I can sever its head and toss it into my trash can--again, with impunity.
Now, if a cat is a pet, its owner should keep control of it and prevent its getting into my pigeon coop. If it is not a pet, and it enters my pigeon coop, I consider it a pest and will dispatch it as such. Thus the question remains: is a house cat a pet or a pest?
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on May 10, 2016:
That's a very good point RonElFran!
Ronald E Franklin from Mechanicsburg, PA on April 26, 2016:
After reading this article, the conclusion I've reached is that the common conception of domestication is backwards. It's not that the animal is comfortable around humans, and responds to human direction, but that humans like that species and are comfortable being around it. A fundamental aspect of that comfort is that humans feel safe in the presence of normal individuals of that species.
Cats are "domesticated" because humans enjoy having them around, and the cats are just responsive enough to their "masters" to allow the humans to have affection for them. If cats were totally independent of humans, paying human wishes no attention, humans would be less likely to want them around.
Mice, which as a species humans don't like having around because of sanitation concerns, are not domesticated even though they can become just as habituated to humans (or even more so) as cats.
And species such as wolves, coyotes, lions and tigers and bears, etc., will never be considered domesticated, although individuals among them can be trained to be quite responsive to humans. Their problem is that humans don't consider them safe, as a species, to be around.
Bottom line: whether a species is "domesticated" is not a matter of definition, but of observation. It's domesticated if humans consider it to be.
The pets in our households are all descendants of wild animals, many of which still run free today. But dogs, cats, and rodents are all domesticated to varying degrees, with a wide range of consequences for their behavior and genetics.
To understand the nitty gritty of this, let’s get some terminology out of the way first. When we discuss domestication, we’re referring to the process of adapting wild plants and animals for human use. This definition is frustratingly vague, so we won’t open the entire can of worms: in this column, we’ll focus on pets, so animals intended for human companionship (leaving out plants and animals intended for food or labor).
On one end of the spectrum, we have wild animals – that is, animals that live their entire lives outside the human bubble. They don’t rely on us, and human encounters tend to be detrimental to one party or another. At the other extreme, we are left with domesticated pets, which have, over many generations, grown and changed alongside their human companions, who have selectively bred and chosen the animals who best fit their needs. If only the most human-tolerant members of the population are allowed to mate, certain genetic traits like reduced fear and increased friendliness will become more prevalent in future generations. The classic example of this is dogs being bred from wolves, which we’ll dive into shortly.
But between wild and domestic, there are at least two shades of gray. First, animals can be tamed, but not domesticated (though some use the terms interchangeably). In these cases, a single wild animal can be adapted to live alongside humans, take their food, and generally benefit from their presence – but the change is entirely behavioral and can occur within a single animal’s lifespan. Genetic changes do not occur, and the rest of the animal’s species remains wild. What’s more, not all domesticated animals are tame: consider chickens or Spanish fighting bulls.
Next, we have the inverse of taming, in which a domesticated species is released to the wild and adjusts to fending for itself, results in a feral animal. In both of these cases, behaviors change ahead of genetics – but tamed and feral animals can be precursors of genetic changes in either direction.
But what do these genetic changes actually entail? The domestication of dogs, bred from their wolf ancestors, is the process that has undergone the most scrutiny. Without going too deeply into the history and philosophy of domestication, it’s thought that dogs were originally domesticated (at least once, if not multiple times) between 10,000 and 33,000 years ago in Asia. Their original purpose was likely to aid in the hunt, but along the way, companionship became a driving factor. And unsurprisingly, when we compare the genomes of modern domesticated dogs to those of wild wolves, there are quite a few differences that have manifested over the years.
As you might expect, many of the differences account for changes in behavior, including alterations in genes controlling brain development and function that increase animals’ tolerance of and even friendliness towards humans. But other changes are less intuitive. For instance, unlike their carnivorous wolf ancestors, dogs eat diets more similar to those of their omnivorous human companions. Consequently, dogs’ genomes have changed over the years to produce more proteins involved in starch and fat metabolism.
These shifts in behavior and diet are two of many characteristics we find in domesticated animals. By no means are these patterns hard and fast rules, and many exceptions exist. But speaking generally and liberally, domesticated animals are more likely to: be smaller or larger than their wild counterparts undergo multiple periods of fertility within the span of one year (a trait referred to as being polyestrous), unlike wild animals, which often mate seasonally and have spots or patches in their fur, curly hair, floppy ears, smaller heads, and shorter tails. Many of these last physical characteristics are reminiscent of juvenile versions of domesticated animals’ ancestors in other words, dogs are the Peter Pans of the wolf world – pups that never grew up.
In fact, after making many of these observations, a few scientists decided to put the genetics of domestication to the test in late 1950s Soviet Russia with a group of silver foxes. The researchers selectively bred only the friendliest or most aggressive foxes of each generation. Forty years later, the scientists found themselves with domesticated foxes that eagerly approached humans, wagging their short and curly tails, pricking their floppy ears, and allowing their soft, speckled fur to be petted. Their wilder counterparts, on the other hand, remained combative, untamed, and anatomically like their ancestors. The researchers showed domestication was breedable and that it came as a package deal with predictable changes anatomy and physiology.
With this kind of directed breeding, domestication can produce companions that are almost unrecognizable as descendants of their wild ancestors. But my cats will be the first to tell you that not all the pets we spend our time with have been domesticated to the same extent. After all, bringing wild animals into the home is no simple feat. And while cats have also been a part of human society for a long time – about 10,000 years – they’re often noted as more aloof, more independent, and less needy of attention than dogs. It may be because they’ve been around for a little less time, but the truer and far more compelling reason is that cats may have domesticated themselves. Many generations ago, the first barn cats found their own way into civilization because they cleverly deduced that grain storehouses were good places to corner mice (which, to go a layer deeper, have also seemingly self-domesticated the same cannot be said for the grain).
And when we look at the genes of house cats and their wildcat ancestors, the differences are accordingly sparse and minor. While we purposefully selected out subpopulations of friendly wolves until we successfully bred man’s best friend, cats more or less wandered into our lives and decided to stay put. In other words, cats didn’t experience the same pressure to change to fit human needs.
All that said, domesticated or not, cats are of course wonderful companions to many – myself included. One of my cats plays fetch another sleeps curled up next to me every night without fail. On the other hand, there’s no question about how well my cats have trained me to be at their beck and call. Their internal clocks recognize when we normally eat dinner, when we typically play, and even the strange, amorphous time of evening when the humans scoop their poops. And if I try anything shady – sleeping in on a Saturday, for instance, instead of promptly doling breakfast out at 6 a.m. – my attempts are quickly squelched by their frantic meows and scrabbling paws. My cats are tame – but it’s probably more accurate to say they’ve tamed me.
Most pets have life spans shorter than those of their human companions. But I’d be surprised if their presence isn’t also exerting some kind of selective pressure on us. After all, we’re not exactly wild ourselves.
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Katherine Wu is a graduate student at Harvard University and Co-Director Emeritus of Science in the News.
Feral and Stray Cats—An Important Difference
Feral, stray, and pet cats are all members of the same species they are all domestic cats. But stray cats and feral cats are also different from each other in a very important way—in their relationship to and interactions with people.
Whether you are a shelter worker, veterinarian, or feral cat advocate—or you just share your neighborhood with feral cats—knowing how to tell the difference can help inform how best to interact with a cat or what, if any, intervention would be in each cat’s best interest.
How Can I Prevent My Cat From Getting a Sunburn?
Thankfully, there are some simple ways to help prevent your cat from getting a sunburn. Dr. Hall suggested that trying to keep your cat in the shade when it is sunny out and applying sunscreen to them is the best prevention owners can take. "A few attempts have been made for pet-friendly sunblock products, but as you can imagine, most are not feline friendly as cats tend to lick the product off their nose," Dr. Hall cautioned.
Brian Bourquin, DVM, founder and chief medical officer at Boston Veterinary Clinic, also had some suggestions that can aid owners in helping their pet avoid sun damage. For instance, if your cat is an outdoor cat, be sure to set up a space with an umbrella for them to have quick access to shade. "If you have an indoor cat that loves to sit by the windows, which may not be UV protected, draw your blinds closed during the hours the sun is the strongest," he added. He explained that this could motivate your cat to find another sun-free spot to lie in around the house.
If you live in Alabama, you cannot possess, sell, or import fish from the genus Clarias (walking catfish) Serrasalmus (piranha) black carp any species of mongoose any Cervidae (deer, elk, moose, and caribou) any species of coyote, fox, raccoon, skunk, wild rodents, or wild turkey.
There are no licenses or permits required for ownership of exotic animals, including lions, tigers, monkeys, or bears. If you plan to exhibit any of the wild animals, a permit is required. You also need permits for protected wild birds.