Wednesday 14 April 2021

The cat: humankind's most interesting friend

The dog is often referred to as "man's best friend" so perhaps it is fair to say that the domestic cat is "humankind's most interesting friend". We have to drop the word "man" nowadays because of equality policies, rules and in all fairness to be honest. It's about time the word was dropped. In 2003 Linda P Case said that the cat had surpassed the dog in total numbers as a household pet in the United States.

Ginger tabby domestic cat
The domestic cat. Photo: in public domain.

I'm not sure that we know that for certain. I've always considered the number of cats and dogs to be very similar in America and indeed in the UK and other developed countries. In less well developed countries the dog surpasses the cat because the dog is utilitarian i.e. working animals.

In the West it is also more common for people to share their lives and their homes with two or more cats at the same time. And it is known now very clearly that cats provide a range of benefits to their human carers, the most important of which are emotional and psychological. Domestic cats are perhaps more important than people realise in society today.

The domestic cat is probably a distinct species today. Some people refer to the domestic cat is a subspecies but I would call the household cat a species in the same bracket as the African wildcat, the Chinese desert cat, the European wildcat, the jungle cat, the sand cat and the black-footed cat. They are described as the "domestic cat lineage" in terms of the taxonomy of the cat family by two distinguished authors (the Sunquists).

The cat, although similar in terms of status with the domestic dog, has an entirely different relationship with their human caretakers and co-specifics within the human society. Doctor Bradshaw says that the cat is barely domesticated which means that they have retained to a large extent their independence, certainly of mind and their ability to hunt effectively. So although they develop enduring bonds with humans they have a necessity to express these innate desires.

Perhaps in another 1000 or 2000 years of domestication they will have lost this mentality and at that time they will behave more like a domestic dog. Domestic cats are somewhat of an anomaly in that they are beloved members of the family as well as being feral in far too great a number. This is only due to human carelessness. It is a great shame that humankind has been so careless in the domestication of the cat.

This was never envisaged at the beginning of domestication of the North African wildcat about 10,000 years ago. It wasn't part of the deal. And feral cats are the cause of so much argument among people as to how to deal with them and invariably there is a large section of society who want deal with them in an inhumane way. I am referring to the politicians and administrators of the continent of Australia as a sharp example.

The cat is a member of the order, Carnivora. This includes a diverse group of animals all of which are predators. They are named because of their carnassial teeth. These are at the back of the jaw where the human molars are. They have a shearing action a bit like scissors to tear flesh from the bodies of the animal that they've killed.

Cats evolved during the Eocene epoque. This is about 54 million years ago. Many of these animals were tree dwellers. They had long slender bodies and short legs with a long tail.

About 30 million years ago the miacids split into two groups: the viverines and the miacines. The former are now known to be the oldest ancestor of the domestic cat whereas the latter are the ancestors of the dog, bear, raccoon and weasel. The viverines branched into two primary lines. One of these lines produced several very large prehistoric cats including the sabertooth tiger. The other line included a small cat, Dinictus, which later evolved into several distinct cat species. The evidence suggests that Dinictus is the main ancestor of all cat species alive on the planet today including our beloved domestic cat.

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