How have domestic cats evolved since the first wildcat was domesticated?

This post is specifically about the evolution of the domestic cat since domestication. I do not address the evolution of the wildcat pre-domestication.

Persian cat with lion cut on hind legs
The first domestic cat would not have looked like this or done this! Persian cat with lion cut on hind legs. Picture in public domain.
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It’s fairly well-known and currently accepted that the first domestic cats on the planet existed around 10,000 years ago. We don’t know exactly when. It may be earlier than that perhaps 14,000 years ago. The first domestic cat was a Near Eastern wildcat which had befriended a farmer and they had a mutually beneficial relationship. This happened in the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East. We know, that the wildcat in China, the Chinese Mountain cat, was not domesticated in the same way. The current thinking is that all domestic cats originate from farmers in the Middle East from where they spread out with commercial traders to other parts of the world over time.

The first domestic cat was therefore a semi-domesticated wildcat. This particular species of wild cat is predisposed to domestication and it still happens today in Africa. But since the ‘Big Bang’ moment of the domestic cat what has happened? Has a domestic cat changed and evolved? They’ve had 10,000 years to do it.

A New Scientist journalist/scientist has suggested that “humans have subtly evolved to meet the needs of cats rather than the other way round”. Emma Smith in Bristol, UK, claims that domestic cats “don’t seem to have evolved significantly”. I guess she’s saying that they didn’t have to because humans have adapted their ways to meet the domestic cat’s needs.

I get that point but I think she’s wrong. Firstly, domestic cats have evolved in terms of their appearance. The first domestic cat had a faint mackerel tabby pattern and nowadays we know that there are a myriad of different coat types and patterns. That’s a case of natural evolution because the protected domestic cat does not need a camouflaged coat. The tabby coat is higher contrast and there are now three variants from the initial one: mackerel, blotched and spotted. The blotched evolved since the 1800s as I recall.

What about their behaviour? I am going to argue that the first domestic cat was a solitary creature as is the African wildcat but that over 10,000 years of domestic cat evolution they’ve become very sociable. Today’s domestic cat is a social animal. There is still that inherently solitary nature which people interpret as being “independent” but essentially domestic cats have evolved to get along with other cats, dogs and people as they are socialised. Yes, socialisation is not evolution but I’d argue that there is DNA memory.

Projecting forward, you could argue that there will come a time when there will be no need to socialise domestic cats. They will be born pre-socialised because of the memory of their ancestors in their DNA.

The scientists call cats who get along as “associates”. I prefer to call them friends. You will see lots of friendships between cats and other cats and dogs et cetera. And you will see feral cats living in colonies where they get along quite well, drawn together by the food source. I believe that there is such a thing as chemistry between cats just as there is between people. This is evolutionary, I’d argue.

And of course, there are many millions of domestic cats living full-time inside their owner’s home. Aficionados of this kind of cat caregiving claim that it is far better than allowing cats outside. Cats adapt to this form of living and live good lives. This is a virtue of the domestic cat and part of their evolution.

Projecting into the future you will find that the vast majority of domestic cats will live inside their human caregiver’s home all their lives and they will do it without complaint having adapted to that lifestyle.

I think this is quite a big evolutionary step because the inside of a cat owner’s home is very far from the natural world. When a domestic cat accepts this completely as they do, surely that is an example of successful domestic cat evolution? In contrast you’ll find that tamed wild cats such as pet servals cannot accept captivity in a house which is why they escape all the time.

Another, perhaps minor, aspect of domestic at evolution would be the selective breeding of purebred, pedigree cats. This is not natural evolution but evolution through artificial selection. A classic example is the very long fur of the Persian cat. It is too long to be groomed by the cat himself and requires human intervention. Natural selection would not have resulted in that state of affairs. So domestic cat evolution is tied in with how humans relate to the domestic cat.


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