Of all the animals we’ve domesticated, most provide some sort of benefit, be it offering protection, producing food, or serving as transportation.
But there’s one prominent exception to this rule: Felis cats, otherwise known as the much beloved, common house cat. Unlike dogs, who have been our hunting partners, security guards, shepherds, and faithful companions for 30,000 years, and possibly even longer, cats serve none of those purposes.
Well, at least not on a regular, or on-demand basis. Yes, house cats provide companionship and help with pest control. However, and as most cat owners will attest, nothing a cat does is on terms other than his own.
So, the real questions are, just how domesticated are domesticated cats? And, how did they become part of our lives in the first place?
About 10,000 years ago, right around the time we started cultivating and storing our own food, wildcats made an appearance in our lives. Early agricultural activity attracted small pests and vermin.
Wildcats, attracted to the easy meals those vermin provided, began lingering around agricultural settlements. In fact, archaeologists have found cat skeletons full of rodents that had dined on cultivated grains produced at those early agricultural sites.
To this day, house cats bear remarkable similarities to their closest living wild relative, Felis silvestris. With the exception of the latter’s larger size and shorter intestinal tract, there’s very little difference between the wild and domesticated versions. The only meaningful difference between house cats and wildcats is in their surroundings.
Their close connection to their wild relatives is only reinforced by the fact that, perhaps with the exception of the most coddled among them, house cats can transition back into a wild lifestyle with relative ease.
Shacking up with humans hasn’t dulled their killer instincts, changed their hypercarnivorous diet (upwards of 70% meat), or made them any less aloof or more trainable…and it’s been 10,000 years.
So, just how domesticated are domesticated cats? The jury’s still out. What’s clear, though, is that compared to the rest of our domesticated, distinctly purpose-serving animal friends, cats are the exception that proves the rule.