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My life with a cat or Why are cats the way they are

author Lucy Byrne | Care and raising

Naturally, some cats are really sweet, lovable, cuddly and nice. But I have a perfect example of the behaviour that the geneticists were interested in at home. My Cat (that’s her name: we call her “kitty”, since she decided to ignore the name that I gave her) behaves, as if she had everything figured out, and as if she doesn’t give a... tail. Every day, we measure our strength and fight for moral and social reign over the household. When she wants something, she goes for it hard, whether by incessant miaowing, pushingness, persistence, with a burning look or with her claws.

Imagine, for instance, that you would like to water the plants on the window sill. But over the cat, who thinks that the flowers are hers and therefore any manipulation with them must be carried out under her supervision, you won’t be able to get to them. So you take the cat and put her down on the couch. But before you turn around, she is back on the window sill. You can repeat this exercise even for an hour, but then there’s no help for you anymore, you have been pulled into the game of “who can take more” otherwise called “who will snap first”. And no, spraying her with a sprayer won’t help. Not even closing her in the room next door. Since I would have to lock the cat door as well and she would shake it for so long until she would unhinge it. It would probably work putting her into a sack. Only then I would have to get her into the sack somehow. And I don’t want to imagine the revenge that would follow. I’d probably not fall asleep for the fear. I’d rather let those flowers die.

Or imagine that you’re watching the TV and the cat wants to go into the corridor, to where it usually doesn’t have access. So she sits in front of the door and starts miaowing. Pretty loudly and in the same rhythm, like the most annoying clock in the world. And when she starts losing her voice and it starts to dawn on her that it won’t win this, at least she bites into your leg and runs away or climbs onto your lap and she will harass you for so long and get into the picture, until you start stroking her. Then she will contently nestle down with the feeling that she didn’t get into the corridor, but she won in the end anyway.

Sometimes, I feel that she wants something, even though she actually doesn’t want it. Only so that maybe I wouldn’t start thinking that I am the master of the household here. But don’t be wrong, the Cat is no beast. She likes to cuddle, she is nice to me when I’m feeling bad, she comes to me and purrs. She even knows how to be good and sometimes, she even meets me halfway. She just needs to feel that she’s not like that dumb dog, who always listens and things are never his way. She only wants to be equal to me and when she feels that she’s losing her position, she carries out the necessary measures to remind everyone how things work around here. And I don’t mind, it’s a part of her character that I love. The Cat has a very strong personality even for a cat and we have a very intensive and honest bond between us.

Why are the cats the way they are

And now, finally, we get to what you’re probably interested in: Why are the cats the way they are. Biologists from the university in St. Louis studied and completely rewrote the genome of the house cat and they think, that they have found an answer. They found out, that the house cat genome basically isn’t different from that of the wild cat. Therefore, domestication occurred in cats to a much lesser degree than in the case of dogs, for instance. This means, that the cat still behaves as a wild animal that only lives next to a human (but not with them).

You can notice how little the cats have changed, for instance, in their ability to hunt. Even though most of them don’t need it at all anymore, genetically, it is as strong as in the wild cats. When the Cat used to like to go outside before we moved, she liked to bring me live titmice that she would triumphantly let fly at home. For your peace of mind: I let all the titmice fly out again, untouched and without any physical harm, only with a significant amount of swearing that came from their little beaks. This was purely a sport hunt, the cat definitely didn’t suffer from hunger, since she would go to eat up the bowls even of the neighbour’s cat.

Of course, that this manifests itself with different strength in each breed and even in each individual cat. But generally, it is true that cats are remarkably resilient to efforts of domestication.

On the other hand, it is interesting, where the house cat genome differs from the genome of the wild one: in the area connected with adaptation to fear and to memory. This means, that thanks to these changes, the house cats get scared less frequently. Better memory is connected mainly with rewards and punishments. Today’s house cats will more quickly form a connection between a reward or a punishment and the situation that lead up to them. It’s basically a better sensitivity to human behaviour.

What’s also interesting, all these genetic changes that have taken place in cats so far, are identical with those from the beginning of domestication of dogs. Therefore, it is possible, that in course of a century or a millennium, cats’ behaviour will still change and it will start to resemble dogs’ behaviour. If you are interested in the whole study, you will find it here.

And what about you, have you also got a sovereign at home, or one of the nice, adaptable cats?