How cats tamed us and took over the world

From Nine To Noon, 10:11 am on 31 August 2017

In New Zealand, we have an estimated 1.4 million owned cats and 14 million feral cats.

What led us into a “domestic tango” with such an asocial and environmentally disruptive animal?

Charisma, says wildlife writer Abigail Tucker. Over thousands of years, cats have used theirs to become one of the most powerful animals on the planet.

Historically, humans and felines haven’t got along. We tend to wipe them out because we are afraid of bigger ones and we compete with them for food, Tucker says.

“It’s very rare in human activities that we think to ourselves ‘Why do we have a billion of this one kind of animal hanging around on the planet?’"

The domestic cat's journey from pest to pet took about 10,000 years, Tucker says.

When the early humans of the Near East started leaving the hunter-gatherer lifestyle behind for something more sedentary, they built settlements and began to leave trash around them.

Foxes and wild cats – which looked then and still look much the same as house cats now – started turning up for meat scraps, and even though they were neither social animals or good communicators, the cats stuck around.

Why did humans grow dependent on having them around?

A large part of the cat’s appeal is their cute human-esque faces, Tucker says.

Yet even though their facial composition echoes our own – rounded head, small jaw, skinny nose – they are no more closely related to us than any other mammal, says Tucker.

The big round eyes charmingly placed in the centre of their faces provide excellent depth perception – critical for their hypercarnivorous hunting strategy.

Cats are largely solitary partly because they have to control territory in order to get enough meat.

To get this need met in domestic situations, they’ve learnt how to communicate with humans, scientists have learned.

Domestic cats not only meow more than wild cats, many seem to create their own intimate language with their owners.

The purr is a perfect example of how cats have actually tamed us, Tucker says.

“A purr is something we see as a pleasant sound that soothes us. We kind of like it – or at least we think we like it.”

Yet scientific analysis of the purr has found that embedded in it is a plaintive sound suggestive of a request or demand.

“These are more or less asocial animals that are so good at surviving that they even learn to talk to us in the way that we simpleton humans can understand.”

If you want to make your cat happy, respect its asocial nature by not snuggling it 24-7 and building it its own realm, Tucker says.

“Give the cat a space – often an entire room – just for its exclusive use. It has to be able to get away from you because even though it may like a little bit of you, in its asocial core it’s a solitary animal that likes to have its space and its stuff and is very territorial.”

If you really love your cat, don’t set it free as they can and do hunt for fun, she says.

“If you let your cat outside in an unsupervised way – even if it’s well fed on Fancy Feast or whatever brand of cat food – it’s safe to assume they are likely catching some prey animals.”

And keep in mind that cats can wreak havoc outside not only by killing native wildlife.

“Just the presence of a cat, even if it doesn’t kill anything, can change the breeding habits of birds and frighten them out of doing things they normally would.”

Apart from putting a bell on your cat and keeping it indoors at night, the best thing you can do to prevent your cat hunting is make your indoor environment as feline-centric as you can.

It can help to construct a ‘catio’ – an enclosed space where cats can get some fresh air, feel the grass and watch things.

 “You love [the cat], so you need to make it work. The way to do that is to bend your own environment to the cat’s will, essentially.”

Abigail Tucker’s new book is The Lion in the Livingroom.