The domestic cat, felis catus, is the third most common pet in the U.K., after freshwater fish and dogs, with about 8 million of them in the country and therefore they require little to no introduction from me. Cats are believed to be descended from the African Wild Cat, felis silvestris, and although the exact date of their domestication is lost in the mist of time, genetic studies have concluded that the domestic cat and wild cat became separate species around 10,000 years ago (8,000 B.C.).
Unlike dogs, domestication has not altered the morphology and behaviour of cats to any great extent. Indeed, the domestic cat can easily fend for itself in the wild and can interbreed with other felids. Hence, its somewhat ambivalence to domestication and its relationship to humans, veering between a commensal to a mutualistic relationship with their human ‘owners’, The difference between cats and dogs can be summed thus: A dog looks at a human and thinks: ‘It feeds me, it shelters me, it fusses over me: it must be god.‘ While a cat looks at a human and thinks: It feeds me, it shelters me, it fusses over me: I must be god.‘ Cats are, to this day, revered throughout the Muslim world but in the past cats occupied a far higher place in the hearts of the population, indeed in many cultures they have been worshipped as sacred animals. Most famously by the Ancient Egyptians due to their association with the cat-headed goddess Baste. In Norse mythology the goddess Freyja rode in a chariot drawn by cats and several ancient religions believed cats to be exalted souls, companions or guides for humans and this probably lead, ultimately, to their association with witches and persecution in medieval Europe.
According to many cultures, cats are endowed with multiple lives. Traditionally that number is nine, however, in some Spanish-speaking countries and in Germany, Italy and Brazil they have seven, while in Turkey and Arabic speaking countries the number is six. This multiple life myth is likely to derive from the natural dexterity of cats, especially coupled with the myth that falling cats always land on their feet. Although it is indeed true that cats exhibit an instinctive righting reflex to twist their bodies round to ensure that they land on their feet, they can be hurt or killed by a high fall.
The independent nature of cats makes them a relatively easily kept animal, they do not demand the same attention as a dog and will happily roam around a territory that can be as small as a garden to as large as the street that they live on, depending on the nature of the individual and the number of cats in the area. Cats are meat eaters and thus require at least 20% of their energy requirement to come from protein, no vegan cats please! Adaptations as a predator include heightened low light vision (cats require 1/6 of the light level that a human needs), excellent hearing (cats can hear from 55Hz to 79kHz – compared to a human’s 20Hz to 20kHz), acute sense of smell and the aforementioned righting reflex. Cats also have a skeletal structure that means that they can squeeze through any gap in which they can pass their head. This has got many a cat into trouble.
There are over 70 breeds of cat (depending on the national association definitions) but they all conserve energy by sleeping more than most animals usually between 12-16 hours a day, with some cats extending that to 20 hours! All cats use many forms of vocalisations to communicate, including purring, hissing and different forms of meowing. In addition to the vocalisations they also employ body language as an indicator of mood, including nuzzling, kneading and the position of their ears and tail.
Domestication gave dogs the capacity to form affectionate relationships and thus have been trained to hunt, guard, herd, etc while cats never evolved that dependency and thus have not been trained for such tasks. However, since the 1990’s cats have come into their own by taking over the internet. In terms of viral videos and internet memes, cats rule cyberspace and the ‘cat video’ is synonymous with frivolous internet surfing. This is, in part, due to the fact that dogs are loyal, want to be loved and thus interact with the camera displaying their feelings for all to see. Cats are more of a mystery; they are harder to read, they don’t give a damn, they are just a little alien and therefore the video, the picture, the meme allows a glimpse of their world and it becomes a blank canvas on which we can anthropomorphise. So, thousands of years after they were first venerated in Ancient Egypt, cats have returned to the exalted position they have always believed they should inhabit.