Did cats domesticate themselves?

The question in the title has been asked before but I’m asking it again now because National Geographic has just published an article in which they say that “Cats Domesticated Themselves, Ancient DNA Shows”. My immediate reaction is that National Geographic are wrong. You could say that it is obvious that they are wrong because the domestication of any animal is a two-way process. It involves two parties, the human and the animal.

Syria is in the fertile crescent
Syria is in the fertile crescent, the place where the first domestic cats existed.
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The human is integral to the domestication of the cat. Without the human you cannot say that a cat is domesticated because domestication means that the cat is socuialised to people. Domestication means that the cat has got used to be around people. Domestication cannot exist in isolation. The first domestic cat engaged in an unwritten form of agreement (contract): cat keeps down rodents and human feeds cat.

Southern African wildcat
Southern African wildcat. Photo by hyper7pro on Flickr. Note: This cat is clearly semi-domesticated as the photographer wouldn’t have been able to approach so closely.

What the author of the National Geographic article is saying is that the domestic cat voluntarily agreed to become domesticated by hanging around human settlements and getting to know and becoming socialise with humans. They did this because it was beneficial to them: there was food to eat. The human allowed them to hang around because they liked to see them and enjoyed their informal company.

Wildcat subspecies domestication
Wildcat subspecies domestication. Chart: PoC.

The National Geographic author (Joel Sartore) also says that “cats lived for thousands of years alongside humans before they were domesticated”. My response to that statement is that if the Near Eastern wildcat was living alongside humans they must have been at least partially domesticated for that to happen. Therefore you cannot say that they were not domesticated. These early semi-domesticated cats are very similar to hundreds of millions of semi-domestic cats today. I’m referring to “community cats” or barn cats. Community cats live in the human community. They are not owned by anybody but they are at least semi-domesticated as they are socialised to humans. They’re not true feral cats or wildcats.

Tabby cat

Comparing African wildcat and domestic tabby cat appearance
Comparing African wildcat and domestic tabby cat appearance

I’d also like to pick up the National Geographic author with respect to tabby cats. I think he’s got mixed up about the tabby cat coat. He writes that “The gene for a tabby coat dates back to the Ottoman Empire in Southwest Asia”. This implies that it does not originate in the African wildcat. However, the original spotted tabby surely comes from the domestic cat’s wildcat ancestor? The coat of the Near Eastern wildcat is essentially a tabby coat. It is a dilute rather weak version of the modern tabby cat coat but it is there for all to see. In the words of Dr Morris it was a “supressed, weak or washed-out tabby”. The variations on that version of the tabby cat coat i.e. the blotched (classic) and the striped versions developed and evolved over thousands of years when the cats were exported with migrating cat owners to Europe.

Link to National Geographic article.

Useful tag. Click to see the articles: Cat behavior

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