The conventional wisdom is that cats became domesticated in Egypt about 3,500 years ago. Bradshaw believes that it happened earlier, in widely separated locales - although the progeny of many of these cats didn’t necessarily remain domesticated. Cats’ teeth and bones, dating between 7,000 and 6,000 BCE, have been excavated in several Middle Eastern cities. While it might be argued that these were wild cats, not domesticated, there is ample evidence that cats were caught and transported to the island of Cyprus around the same time. The most likely reason for attempting to tame them was to control vermin. In the early days, they might have been confined to granaries and human settlements so they did not escape. Eventually, they would have become accustomed to the easy access to food and would have thrived in a warm, dry and protected environment.
With many wildcats evolving in different parts of the world, Bradshaw claims that only one was successfully domesticated, the Arabian wildcat Felis silvestris lybica. This is confirmed by the DNA of all domestic cats today, whether they are purebred or random-bred. The other subspecies, while similar in appearance, were perhaps less inclined to be tamed. According to Bradshaw, “Domestication can start only with animals that are tame enough to raise their young in the proximity of people. Those offspring that are best suited to the company of humans and human environments are, perhaps unsurprisingly, more likely to stay and breed there than those that are not; the latter will most likely revert to the wild. Over several generations, this repeated “natural” selection will, even on its own, gradually change the genetic makeup of these animals so that they become better adapted to life alongside people. It is also likely that, at the same time, humans will intensify that selection, by feeding the more docile animals and driving away those prone to bite and scratch.”
The Egyptians had a complicated relationship with cats. Starting out as useful predators for rodents as well as snakes, cats became treasured companions and then gradually became revered for their spiritual significance. Herodotus reported that when a pet cat died from natural causes, all members of the household shaved their eyebrows as a mark of respect. Nevertheless, cats eventually became sacrificial objects as the Egyptians placed a great emphasis on the afterlife. Millions of cats, along with many other animals such as lions, dogs, cattle, birds and snakes, were mummified as offerings to the gods. Cats, however, remained the favorite offering for the afterlife and a whole industry evolved to breed cats specifically for this purpose.
Bradshaw believes that the cat’s involvement in Egyptian religion may have been important in helping cats transition from wild hunter to domestic companion. While most died for the spiritual cause, he believes that some must have escaped to the general population where their descendants would have inherited improved skills for living in an urban environment.
Three chapters are devoted to the biology of cats and how this affects their interactions with other cats as well as people. Many interesting facts are disclosed about their acute senses. Bradshaw believes that we must try to visualize their world in order to truly understand them.
Sight - Their eyes, huge for the size of their head, give them superior vision with the pupils expanding to three times more than ours in the dark. They have a remarkable ability to detect small movements through the visual cortex of the brain which processes and compares what they’re seeing sixty times each second. One drawback of having such large eyes is that they are not easy to focus. So cats have poor close up vision and often might not see something 4-5 inches in front of their face if it’s not moving! Cats, like dogs, are also color blind to red and green. They have two types of cones which allow them to see blue and yellow.
Hearing - Their hearing extends two octaves higher than ours which includes the ultrasonic pulses from a bat flying in the dark. In total, their hearing range is higher than any other mammal with a range of eleven octaves, enabling them to also hear the lowest notes.
Touch - Their sense of touch is magnified with many receptors on their paws as well as from the nerve endings in their claws to tell them how far their claws are extended. The skin around their whiskers is also packed with receptors so they know how far the whiskers are bent to help them during a fight or to judge the size of an opening through which they want to squeeze.
Balance - Their excellent sense of balance comes from the vestibular system in the inner ear. When they jump or fall, the balance organs and reflexes cause the forelegs and hind legs to rotate to extend and point downwards. At the same time, the back curves and arches in preparation for a landing. Bradshaw claims that a high fall might be less harmful than a short fall as the cat needs a second or two to assume the correct landing position and also because a cat can even form itself into a parachute by spreading all four legs out to slow their speed before adopting the landing position at the last moment!
Smell - Much more work is needed to understand how cats use their noses but Bradford believes that their olfactory skills are similar to those of dogs in many ways, including locating prey from scent marks. They also have a second olfactory apparatus called the vomeronasal organ or VNO, which functions somewhere between our senses of smell and taste. Like lions in the wild, cats distort their faces and open their mouths slightly to engage the VNO. Scientists believe this allows them to push their saliva up into their nasopalatine canals where it is then pumped to the VNO and interpreted by the brain!
Bradford attempts to summarize their many skills and demonstrate how they all work together, ”They have quite an arsenal at their disposal: they can locate prey visually, their eyes effective in the half-light of early dawn and late dusk; aurally, detecting high-pitched squeaks and rustles; or olfactorily, through detecting the odors that rodents leave in scent marks. As they approach their prey, cats’ exquisite sense of balance and the sensory hairs on their cheeks and elbows allows them to do so silently and stealthily. As they pounce, the whiskers on their faces sweep forward to act as a short-range radar, guiding the mouth and teeth to precisely the right place to deliver the killing bite. Cats evolved as hunters, something domestication has done little to change.”
In order to truly understand cats, Bradshaw believes that humans must appreciate the cat’s relatively short period of domesticity. The “socialization period” of kittens, starting in the third week of life and progressing to eight weeks, is the most critical period to determine if a cat will become well adjusted to domesticity. Kittens need a lot of daily exposure to people during this period to form attachments to the human race and not be fearful of people. Bradshaw believes that a cat’s social brain changes at eight weeks and it becomes very difficult to alter its social inclinations afterwards. “The importance of the socialization period to a kitten’s future welfare cannot be underestimated. In just six short weeks, beginning as it turns two weeks of age, this period constructs the foundations for all its subsequent social life. If the kitten is unlucky enough to have no brothers or sisters, and has no other kittens nearby, its view of what it is to be a cat is incomplete.”
Few topics are more controversial than predation by domestic cats. While Bradshaw believes that the numbers of birds, small mammals and other animals killed by cats is wildly inflated, he does not dispute the fact that we must attempt to control the predation in order for cats to have a more assured future. He believes that, “Cats now face possibly more hostility than at any time during the last two centuries.” Although there are many theories why cats continue to hunt and kill when they are not hungry, Bradshaw thinks that too few generations have passed for their instinctive needs to have disappeared.
While training can help cats adapt to indoor living and domesticity, Bradshaw believes there are three reasons that cats are more difficult to train than dogs:
1) Their behavior “shows less intrinsic variety than that of dogs, so there is less raw material with which to work.” Basically cats will not do something that it doesn’t consider to be natural (i.e. retrieving a ball, jumping through a hoop).
2) Cats are naturally less attentive toward humans. Dogs are much better at observing and interpreting what humans want from them.
3) Cats appear to find less reward in physical contact from humans. By contrast, dogs are strongly rewarded with touch and verbal praise.
According to Bradshaw, the domestication of the cat is progressing with two steps forward to each step backwards. “Genetic evolution is a much slower process than cultural evolution, and the 4,000 years over which cats have adapted to living alongside humankind is not long enough for any major change in sensory or mental abilities.” Cats have essentially the same senses, brains and emotional responses as their wildcat ancestors. All that has changed is a new ability to form bonds with people if initiated during the early weeks of life.
Bradshaw believes that genetic changes will need to take place before cats truly find their place in human society. Although there is no single set of genes which will insure that cats transition to a completely harmonious relationship with humans, Bradshaw thinks that it would be more desirable to breed for personality and temperament than for appearance. As a scientist and avid cat-lover, he worries about their future if people misunderstand their actions and intentions. He closes the book with an appeal to all of us, “Cats need our understanding – both as individual animals that need our help to adjust to our ever-increasing demands, and also as a species that is still in transition between the wild and the truly domestic. If we can agree to support them in both these ways, cats will be assured a future in which they are not only popular and populous, but are also more relaxed, and affectionate, than they are today.”
Published by Basic Books, a Member of the Perseus Books Group, New York 2013