People have very strong opinions about cats, and in my experience the numbers of people who have positive feelings about cats far outnumber those who have negative feelings about them. The interesting thing about these likes and dislikes, though, is that they may be the result of absolutely the same set of facts and observations! The same feature of a cat or its behavior may cause some of us to swoon with pleasure but then cause others of us to turn away in disgust. Unlike many of our political and social problems, we don’t have “different sets of facts” when it comes to cats!
So what do we know about cats?
The domestic cat (or “housecat”) was named Felis catus by Carlous Linnaeus in 1758. This scientific name went through a number of very speculative changes over the next two and a half centuries as the biological identity of this familiar species was debated. For a while the housecat was included as a sub-species of the wild cats (Felis silvestris) of Europe (F.s. silvestris) and Africa (F.s.lybica) from which it had undoubtedly evolved. More recently, however, it was returned to its own Linnean species designation: F. catus.
The six (or, possibly, seven) living species of the genus Felis all trace their evolutionary lines back six or seven million years to a common, Asian ancestor. The natural ranges of these Felis species include almost all of Africa, Europe, the Middle East and central and southern Asia. All of these cats have very similar sizes, conformations, and habits. Felis catus as a domesticated partner of humans has spread widely over most of the Earth but has retained the generalized appearance and behaviors of its closely related fellow cat species. Put a wild cat from Africa (like the one pictured above) next to a domesticated cat from Pennsylvania and they would look overwhelmingly alike.
How cats came to be domesticated is a subject of intense speculation. It seems logical to assume that humans would benefit from the ability of cats to catch and kill vermin (especially rodents), but whether this symbiosis was from an intentional act of domestication or simply the inadvertent consequence of wild cats exploiting the vermin-rich habitats created by people and then sticking around to take advantage of the weather –resistant, human constructed habitations is probably unanswerable. Wild species of Felis do display a ready tendency for at least semi-domestication and have a high tolerance toward the presence of people. So it is indeed possible that wild cats just got close to some of our ancestors and stuck around for the food and for the shelter. The nature of the human/cat symbiosis is possibly less mutualism than it is commensalism!
An often repeated story in which cats and dogs (and sometimes even children!) are compared describes a hypothetical situation in which one of these organisms is abandoned in an unfamiliar place (just pick the ecosystem: a forest, a farm, a prairie, or the seashore). In the story, when the abandoning pet owner (or parent) subsequently (and hopefully promptly!) returns, both the dog and the child greet the returning person with great energy and affection (not to mention relief!). The abandoned cat however, in this old social myth, has taken off to explore the wild, new habitat and has begun to fend for itself and totally ignores the returning “owner.”
Now this story is much more fiction than science. I am sure that many dogs (and I can think of two that I have owned over the years) would have run out into the new, unexplored place of their abandonment with uncontrolled enthusiasm and only returned to their owners after many hours (or days) of calling and searching. I am also quite sure that some cats, if transiently abandoned somewhere, would come running to the sound of their owner’s call. I don’t even want to think about the child part of this story! Let’s just say that I think children were added to this tale by the dog-lover who first came up with this foolishness in order to add some emotional tone to the proposed dog results!
Daniel Mills of the University of Lincoln in the U.K. is a widely published animal behavior expert. Mills has conducted experiments that play with the three components of the above social myth (dogs, cats, and children) and expose them each to unfamiliar surroundings and the presence of reassuring owner (or parent). Mills has found that dogs and small children demonstrably attach themselves to their owner or parent when they are placed in an unfamiliar situation. Cats, however, do not turn to their owners when placed in these same unfamiliar places. Instead, cats will focus on the surroundings and (“heartbreakingly,” according to one reporter writing about these experiments) ignore their owners.
Mills conclusions are that dogs and children “love you” and cats do not!
These experiments were featured on a BBC television special that was broadcast in 2013. I have recently searched through a number of science journal article data bases looking for the published descriptions of these studies, but, although as I said at the onset of the discussion Mills has numerous journal publications on a wide range of animal behavior topics, these experiments have not yet been described in a refereed journal. They have been, though, widely quoted especially in on-line articles. For example in Vox on October 16, 2014 an article entitled “What Research Says about Cats: They’re Selfish, Unfeeling, Environmentally Harmful Creatures” (I guess that the reporter wanted to put his entire thesis statement in his title!) featured these experiments and repeated the social myth that I described a few paragraphs back. The author, obviously an unbiased arbiter of the truth, went on to cite a variety of scientific sources to back up his underlying thesis that cats are evil!
Which gets us back to our original idea: people love and people hate cats for exactly the same reasons. Domesticated cats look just like wild cats (so they are either beautiful creatures or wild animals masquerading as pets). Humans did not choose them for domestication, instead they chose us (so, they are wonderfully independent, or they are aloof and ungrateful). Cats don’t seem to notice us, they pay more attention to their surroundings than to us (so, they are curious and lively, or they are arrogant and conceited). Cats don’t miss us when we are gone or act happy when we come back (ah, they are independent and not needy like a dog, or they are sinister parasites who think that they own us!).
I take the positive side of these cat descriptions. Cats are elegant, glorious creatures full of surprises and rich rewards! They are not dogs, though. A cat has a different kind of bond with its human, and it is worth it to get to know a cat in order to assess how our co-evolution is progressing!