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How Domesticated Are Cats — And Does It Really Matter?

The New Yorker consults experts on the question that downright fascinates this cat owner.

Keith Bowers  |  Oct 26th 2015


Cats get me. I get cats. This has held true since I was quite young. To be sure, a critter is a critter in ways that matter. I see love and hope and cuteness and The Big Universal Force of Life and Connectedness in the face of a cat, a dog, an otter, a capybara, or a seal. In fact, I sometimes call seals “kitties of the sea” because of their cat-like faces and playful nature. This illustrates my point. My love for animals often finds its way back to cats. Because I get them. And they get me.

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A “kitty of the sea.” A young harbor seal by Shutterstock

A New Yorker item I read today asking the question “Are cats domesticated?” helps me understand why I feel such a familiarity with cats. In the story, Ferris Jabr illustrates the difference between cats and dogs. He begins by recapping how dogs and humans bonded some 40,000 years ago, stating that dogs depend on humans “to the point of being obsequious.” That’s not a bad thing — humans enlisted dogs for work and protection in addition to camaraderie, after all — but it does mean dogs have shed much of their wild nature. Dogs live to please humans, seeking near-constant validation, whereas cats do not.

Some people misinterpret this, claiming that cats merely tolerate humans, and only because we give them food. Anyone who has formed a close bond with a cat knows that’s an oversimplistic (and, I would add, rather insecure) interpretation. Jabr speculates that humans first welcomed cats more than 5,000 years ago (some say it was 10,000) because of cats’ “innate predisposition to tameness and … inherent faunal charm,” adding that unlike with dogs (who hunt, guard, and herd), our ancestors “never asked much of cats.” Hence they retain a bit of the wild.

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The ancient Egyptians, it turns out, were not the first society to embrace cats. Egyptian hieroglyphics by Shutterstock

He cites a 2014 study from Washington University in St. Louis confirming this.

“There’s still a lot of genetic mixing,” geneticist Wesley Warren told Jabr. “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.”

Other researchers, including Oxford University’s Greger Larson, discount the domestication question, saying, “Any threshold you try to define will necessarily be arbitrary.”

In other words, “It doesn’t matter.” I disagree, at least as it applies to the concept of domestication, because it helps us understand cats and our bond with them.

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Cats have a melancholy quality despite their energy and playfulness. A cat sit on a windowsill by Shutterstock

Jabr quotes Smithsonian Institution archaeologist Melinda Zeder as saying cats “still carry some of the more aloof behaviors of their solitary wild progenitors.” Jabr then describes some of the aloof (and alternately affectionate) behaviors of a tuxedo cat from his childhood, including her tendency to perch near windowsills and watch the outside world.

“It strikes me now how quintessentially feline that behavior is: a docile carnivore balanced on the border of a human home, alone and content,” he writes, “yet with all … senses tuned to the world beyond.”

Reading that sentence brought a minor epiphany. I understood a little more about cats’ nature as well as my own, and why the two mix so well. I’ll explain.

I moved a lot as a kid. I was a “Navy brat” whose dad faced the possibility of transfer every 15 months. When that happened (and it happened a lot), my entire world was upended, forcing me to surrender house, friends, school, town, and even regional joys such as New England antique shops, North Florida lakes, and Northern California culture.

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The USS Intrepid, shown here in 1966, is among the numerous aircraft carriers my dad called “workplace.”

As a result, I was the perpetual outsider, at home in the margins, yet I also developed inner strength possessed by few peers. I learned to recognize like-minded people with whom I could form strong connections. I became adaptable, outgoing, and socially agile, while ever on the lookout for big change — not cynical, mind you, because negativity would immobilize me by pushing people away. A life so capricious required alone time and contemplation whenever possible. Mine was a balance of seeking connection and needing solitude.

Now is my epiphany more clear? The New Yorker item showed me that cats felt like family when I was young because we were so much alike. We each sought loving connections and were prone to playfulness, but we needed to be agile and constantly observe the surroundings in case the unexpected arrived. We each needed time alone to process and evaluate, which some mistook for aloofness or uncaring. Over the years I’ve changed and grown, but this basic nature has not. Things have worked so well between me and cats because we get each other. In a way, we are each other.

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A man and his cat, both looking sharp.

How about you? Do you feel a kinship and familiarity with cats in this way? Are they fully domesticated? Are you? Does it matter?

[Top photo: Bengal cat by Shutterstock]

About Keith Bowers: This broad-shouldered, bald-headed, leather-clad motorcyclist also has passions for sharp clothing, silver accessories, great writing, the arts, and cats. This career journalist loves painting, sculpting, photographing, and getting on stage. He once was called “a high-powered mutant,” which also describes his cat, Thomas. He is senior editor at Catster.