Introduction: this test requires that the cat’s owner has never used their hand as a toy for their cat. If that has happened, their cat will instinctively want to attack it. I am referring to a test to assess cat domestication in interactions with their owner. I accept that all domestic cats have a wild character just below the surface which is expressed when alone outside.
All cats are not domesticated to the same level. There is a spectrum of domestication. At one end there is the feral cat which is effectively a wild cat and completely undomesticated while at the other end of the spectrum there is the fully domesticated cat with no signs of wildness in their interaction with their human caregiver. These domesticated cats will still behave like wild cats at least to a certain extent when outside on their own (if they are allowed outside). In the middle is the semi-domesticated cat which are community cats in many countries in Asia for example or barn cats in the West.
I’m interested in how domestic cats interact with their owner and whether those interactions are entirely acceptable because their cat is fully domesticated. I think I have a test which may be useful.
The Flicking Hand Test
In many of the interactions between owner and cat the owner’s hand is used in petting their cat as part of a greeting process. Often the domestic cat is confronted with the hand of their owner in front of their face.
It depends how you present your hand. If the hand is moved quickly and the fingers are flicked (which is not uncommon) in front of a domestic cat’s face it can provoke an attack because it triggers their deeply embedded predatory instinct to attack a moving object. If a domestic cat is not fully and truly domesticated, they will not differentiate the moving hand of their owner from a prey animal. I am referring to non-play circumstances. If you use your hands as play objects, the most placid domestic cat will be inclined to bite.
Conversely, if they are fully domesticated, they will always relate to that hand as the hand of their caregiver. They won’t attack it. This, in my view, is the test. The difficulty is that it is a test to destruction, unfortunately 😎. This is because if your cat is not fully domesticated, they may attack your hand which means they bite. You don’t want to be bitten unless you are a masochist. And the test requires that you use bare hands. However, as it is a test it gives the person time to remove the hand and defend themselves by holding the scruff of the neck of their cat with their other hand if they attack. This will subdue a cat in the middle of an attack.
I would suggest that this test is done ten times over a week under different circumstances to fully verify whether the cat is entirely domesticated.
Can formerly feral cats be fully domesticated?
Personally, I would argue that a cat who was born feral and raised as a feral cat never quite eliminates their wild character even after being domesticated. I could be wrong but you can socialise adult feral cats with commitment and patience but it would seem that you end up with a domestic cat which is not quite as domesticated as a true domestic cat.
As you know, domestication is about socialisation. And socialisation is about the cat been fully socialised to humans and relating to them as companion and caregivers. This should totally preclude the urge to bite the person under non-play circumstances. That last sentence is important.
I would be interested in comments about this. I don’t recall reading any articles about testing the extent of the domestication of their cat. It is an interesting topic. The best cat companions are those which are 100% domesticated in their interactions with their human caregiver. Although, you cannot eliminate their wild side if they are allowed to go out into the countryside for example on their own when they revert to a large extent to the character of their wild cat ancestor. This is indicative of the continuing journey of cat domestication.
Below are some more articles on domestication.