I recently wrote about how the domestic cat will change over the next thousand years. I was mainly thinking about the domestic cat’s cognitive abilities.
I would like now to look back and see how the domestic cat has changed since it was first believed to have been domesticated about 9,000 years ago. At the moment of domestication the African wildcat or the European wildcat was also a semi-domesticated cat attached to some households. The wildcat and the “domestic cat” were one and the same animal in terms of mental and physical characteristics.
Then the changes began. These have been subtle, however. We only have to look at the appearance of the European wildcat today and compare it with a random bred, brown/grey tabby domestic cat to notice a very great similarity in appearance. You could actually mistake one for the other. It is the “wild look” that cat breeders treasure that marks the difference. This is one objective in Bengal cat breeders.
I refer to Linda P. Cases’s assessment of changes in her book The Cat: Its Behavior, Nutrition and Health
Domestic cat to Wildcat comparison – similarity evident
Wildcat photo: by Jonnee, Domestic by Colin+Alison Warner (both on Flickr)
Domestication involves the “breeding and containment” of a species. When a wildcat is contained and lives with humans, separated from the wild and ultimately selectively bred, it changes and becomes a “genetically distinct” species, over time. This results in it being classified as such by the scientists. The domestic cat is classified as felis catus while the European wildcat has the scientific name: felis silvestris silvestris.
The domesticated wildcat went from being semi-feral to semi-domesticated, thence to full domestication and now in many homes in America, a full-time indoor cat, totally removed from the earth and nature, with carpet replacing grass and cat furniture replacing trees to climb.
The changes in structure and behavior that have occurred in respect of the cat are typical of all domesticated animals.
The domestic cat is slightly smaller on average than the African wildcat. The muzzle has become foreshortened, Linda says. I am not actually sure if that is strictly correct. Some breeds have been bred with very short muzzles (Ultra Persian, no muzzle, health problems) but some have be bred for elongated muzzles (Modern Siamese and associated breeds). The random bred cat however, has a muzzle very similar to the wildcat. In fact it is stated that the wildcat has a comparatively flat face1.
Please note, by the way, that I refer to the species of wild cat called the “wildcat“. This is slightly confusing.
The domestic cat has a slightly larger head in relation to body, Linda says. The head is more domed and the teeth are smaller and there are less of them. The coat is softer and there is a wide variety of coat types many of which were developed through selective breeding of purebred cats. Purebred cats make up a small percentage of all domestic cats, however.
The changes in the cat have not been of the same order of those undergone by the dog.
Perhaps it goes without saying that the domestic cat is also born “tame”. It does not need to be tamed as would a wildcat. But this is only the case if it is born into domestication. Feral cats are born relatively wild but not wild in the sense that they are true wildcats. That said both true wildcats and feral cats can be tamed in equal measure and perhaps some individual wildcats of certain species might be more easily tamed than some individual feral cats. The American bobcat is fairly often tamed. The margay is another small wildcat that is meant to be a good domestic cat.
The interesting aspect of the domestic cat is that it can and does revert back to the wild. This can almost be like throwing a switch. Put them outside in the back garden (yard in the US) and the wildcat characteristics and mentality emerges. The domestic cat has not become completely dependent on the human. They can survive if returned to the wild, Linda suggests. This is partly true. It depends on the individual cat. Rarely, some cats desire to revert to the wild. I am thinking of a ginger cat my late mother lived with. He disappeared to the golf course never to return. He lived wild for most of his life and returned at the end of his life, wild and worn out, to die shortly thereafter.
It could be argued that “the cat has undergone fewer physical changes due to domestication than other domesticated species”. The most obvious, as mentioned, is size reduction and increased coat type varieties.
The domestic cat has the same number of chromosomes as the wildcat (38 in 19 pairs). This means that they can mate, and mate they sometimes do, usually as part of a breeding program organised by humans. There are many wildcat hybrids. The Scottish wildcat genes have possibly been diluted by interbreeding with the domestic cat.
Both wild and domestic cats are seasonal breeders. However, the wildcat has one estrous cycle (in January or February – see serval cat reproduction – video) while the domestic cat has multiple cycles, called “polyestrus”. This ability to produce more offspring
is one factor in the overlarge feral cat populations. See also: Domestic cat reproduction and development.
Finally, domestic cats are kept in a state of perpetual kitten hood due to our relationship with them. Kneading our laps is one expression of this. We are their parents who constantly provide. They don’t get a chance to grow up. For the wildcat the route to adulthood is a tough and fraught road, peppered with danger. They grow up fast.
1. Wild Cats Of The World Mel and Fiona Sunquist page 86.