At least one person forwarded me links to Ferris Jabr’s New Yorker article examining the question of whether or not housecats are a domesticated species.
At first, the cat was yet another opportunistic creature that evolved to take advantage of civilization. It was essentially a larger version of the rodents it caught. Somewhere along the line, people shifted from tolerating cats to welcoming them, providing extra food and a warm place to sleep. Why? Perhaps because of the cat’s innate predisposition to tameness and its inherent faunal charm—what the Japanese would call kawaii. Look up photos of the thirty-eight or so wildcat species and you might be surprised at how easy it is to picture one curled up on the couch. Dogs likely initiated their own domestication, too, by prowling around campfires in search of food scraps. Whereas our ancestors quickly harnessed dogs to useful tasks, breeding them to guard, hunt, and herd, they never asked much of cats. We have also been slow to diversify cat breeds. Many dog, horse, and cattle breeds are more than five hundred years old, but the first documented cat fanciers’ show didn’t take place until 1871, at the Crystal Palace, in London, and the most modern cat breeds emerged only within the past fifty years.
This relatively short and lenient period of selective breeding is manifest in the cat genome, Wesley Warren, a geneticist at Washington University in St. Louis*, said. In a study published last year, Warren and his colleagues analyzed DNA from several wildcats and breeds of domestic cat, including an Abyssinian named Cinnamon. They confirmed that, genetically, cats have diverged much less from their wildcat ancestors than dogs have from wolves, and that the cat genome has much more modest signatures of artificial selection. Because cats also retain sharper hunting skills than dogs, abandoned felines are more likely to survive without any human help. In some countries, feral cats routinely breed with their wildcat cousins. “There’s still a lot of genetic mixing,” Warren said. “You don’t have the true differentiation you see between wolf and dog. Using the dog as the best comparison, the modern cat is not what I would call fully domesticated.”
Not all researchers agree. “I don’t think it makes sense to talk about animals as semi- or fully domesticated,” Greger Larson, a paleogeneticist and archeologist at Oxford University and an expert on domestication, said. “Any threshold you try to define will necessarily be arbitrary.” Larson tends to agree with the views of Melinda Zeder, an archeologist at the Smithsonian Institution, who has written extensively on the domestication of both plants and animals. Zeder characterized domestication as an ongoing symbiosis between humans and another species—“a sort of pact that ends up being mutually beneficial,” she said. This relationship, she argued, can follow many paths and result in somewhat different outcomes, which she has catalogued. Sometimes people gradually domesticate a prey species—sheep, goats, cattle—or deliberately remove non-prey animals from the wild and breed them for a specific purpose, as we’ve done with horses. In other cases, hunger draws a wild animal—dogs, chickens, guinea pigs, cats—to human society, where it becomes increasingly tolerant of people. Even a single domestic lineage can contain varying degrees of dependency and a range of temperaments.
I’m inclined to say that they are whatever they want to be.