The question seems innocuous and the answer obvious but the explanation is not quite as simple as people might expect. The comparison will be to the pet cat’s wild cat ancestor.
Here is my answer for what it is worth. Please add yours in a comment.
The difference between a pet cat and a wild cat is that the pet cat has around 10,000 years of domestication behind them through their ancestors together with a crucial period of socialisation during the first weeks of life to ensure that they are not frightened of people and get along with them. Socialisation can include with other companion animals such as dogs.
The wild cat has no history of domestication behind them and neither have they been socialised to people or pets. This means that around people they will be frightened. They’ll will be reluctant to engage with humans generally and will normally be very defensive and make a lot of noise if approached and trapped.
Two elements are different
It is said that the newborn domestic cat can either develop into a domestic cat with socialisation to people or a wild cat (true feral cat) if not socialised to people. That’s not completely true as the difference between domestic and the true wild cat is not solely down to socialisation. You have to add into the mix the fact that the newborn kitten’s mother is a domestic cat whose long lineage goes back to the first domesticated wild cat in the world, if you go back far enough.
This has an influence on the character of the newborn. The newborn domestic cat is not the same as the newborn North African wild cat. They inherit different DNA, different genes which affect how they behave around humans.
The bottom line from the perspective of character between domestic and wild cat is that the former is ready to be a human companion while the latter will never be a good human companion even if they’ve been tamed. They’ll be too wild. That’s where you need the thousands of years of domestication to play a role.
Tame wild cats as pets
There are people who like to live with exotic cats which means tamed wild cats such as the serval and caracal. It never works out great in my opinion. The tamed medium-sized caracal makes a scary noise and pees over the walls while trying to escape the confines of the 3,000 square foot home where they are held captive to protect them from humans who might harm them. The animal ends up bloated through overfeeding and crazy to escape. Some do where they scare the local residents.
The intermediate cat is the wild cat hybrid and those with 50% wild cat DNA – the F1 wild cat hybrids – are exactly what you’d expect in terms of character; halfway between a wild cat and a domestic cat. This means that they are a handful for your typical cat owner. They are only really suitable for certain people who are prepared to give up their time to looking after a first filial hybrid and have the home and facilities to provide good caregiving. And of course, they might need a license to own one.
On appearance it is interesting to note that the wild ancestor of the domestic cat, the North African wildcat looks very similar to today’s spotted tabby cat – see heading image. As they should. The clear difference comes in the cat’s body conformation. The wildcat is thinner and rangier than the tabby cat thanks to the permanent challenges she faces which the domestic cat avoids thanks human caregiving.
The classic tabby pattern developed in the 19th century from the original spotted tabby pattern of the wildcat.
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