Tuesday 13 July 2021

Study on pet wolf behaviour helps explain why wild cats don't make great pets

It is my contention that true wild cats like the serval don't make good pets because they are not backed up by 10,000 years of domestication. I believe that memory can be inherited. It is called genetic memory. This is why young offspring of wild animals such as wild cats or wild dogs immediately know how to do things completely instinctively. And it's why domestic cats have the memory of human behavior in their DNA.

Pet serval
Zena, a pet serval, and James Brown's partner? Photo: James Brown.

And I believe that domestic cats over thousands of years of domestication learn how to interact with people and that this memory is held in their genes to be passed on to their offspring. And the study on young wolves regarded as pets to their owners found that they could never quite pick up inferences from human behaviour as could domestic dogs. Therefore, they were unable to communicate with people in quite the same way.

Dogs are born with an innate ability to understand what humans want to communicate to them. Their ability is to read people because of perhaps 20,000 years of domestication. Dogs have been domesticated for far longer than cats because they were and still are working animals.

Because they understand people better, they form much better bonds with people than do pet wild dogs i.e. wolves. Across a range of tests in the study the dog puppies greatly outperformed their wolf cousins. For example, despite puppies, only a few weeks old, know where to find their food because the human is pointing at it whereas not one of the young wolves in the study did any better than chance. In other words, there was no background, inherited skills.

The pet wolf is a raw product without a history of interacting with human beings. Take that from the study and you get the same effect in living with exotic cats as they are called, which refers normally to the small and medium-sized wild cat species such as the serval, as mentioned, and sometimes the cheetah or even the mountain lion. I have seen people regard mountain lions as pets. They even go a step further and have lions and tigers as pets sometimes but the relationship between cat and person will never be the same as with a domestic cat.

Wild cats as pets are not able to create the same bond and understanding between themselves and their human carer as the humble domestic cat. That is not to say that bonds are formed. Some people say that exotic cats such as the F1 Savannah create strong bonds but that cat is half domestic cat.

P.S. The study referred to was carried out at the Wildlife Science Center in Stacy, Minnesota and published in the journal Current Biology.

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