Feline Friends

Pet Tales
by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.

Our Feline Friends
Last time I wrote about "man's best friend", the dog and why it deserves this label. Well, now I think it's time to discuss cats. They are very good pals, as well. Indeed, if current trends continue, they may soon, if they have not already, win the title of "people's most popular pet". At least in North America the number of cats is estimated to equal or exceed the number of dogs that are kept as pets. This is quite a dramatic change from earlier in the twentieth century when dogs were far ahead as the most common pet. There are probably many reasons for this change.

Cat people - those persons who hugely admire and are totally and completely addicted to cats - say there is just no contest. Who in their right mind would favour the mentally challenged, fickle, fawning, weak-spirited canine over the proud, immensely more intelligent, self-determined feline? Anyone can get a dog, but to have a cat choose to live with you, now that is a true accomplishment! These arguments may have some merit but I suspect there are likely other more practical reasons to explain the increase in pet cats, as well. The increasing popularity of cats as pets certainly has coincided with the rise in the number of people living in urban areas. For many living in apartments, there is no choice. Dogs are not allowed while often cats are accepted even if sometimes surreptitiously.

As well, few would disagree that cats are an easier pet to look after. They come, as kittens, already housetrained. They have no desire to go out for long walks or a run in the park. You can stoop and scoop, for your cat, in the intimacy of your own basement or laundry room. There is little risk you will find your slippers chewed up by your cat. Muddy paw prints are much less likely to appear on your new carpet or sofa. Also, of course, if you go away for a weekend or a few days, arranging care for kitty will likely not be too difficult. Usually a friend or neighbour is willing to come in to serve some fresh food and water, perform litter box chores and offer friendly conversation and a chin tickle for a cat.

Our relationship with cats is quite a long one. The domestic cat was probably derived from a Felis silvestris libyca, a subspecies of the African wildcat. It has been estimated that the first domestication occurred 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. It is likely that the association between people and cats that led to this domestication was rather a fortunate happenstance of mutual benefit to both species. Cats would have been attracted to human settlements because they attracted potential prey like rodents; humans would have been grateful to the cat for controlling rodent populations. This mutualism did not require that humans modify innate feline behaviour. This is the reason that feline predatory behaviour and associated social behaviours in our pet cats has changed only slightly over the millennia. Cats have not had a great influence on human economics, compared with that of hunting or herding dogs, for example. Hence, less intervention by humans in their appearance, conformation and behaviour than with dogs. Coat colour patterns offer proof of this supposition. One of the most common feline coat colours, the tabby, has spread throughout the world, yet this colour is extremely similar to that of wild cats found in Europe and Scandinavia.

It has been theorized that humans and dogs may have "co-domesticated" with one another. Specific dog behaviours have been shaped to meet human needs because humans recognized a similar social system with dogs. Hounds are expected to be good at detecting smells, herding dogs demonstrate less ability to track by smell but excel at keeping cattle, sheep or goats from fleeing. In contrast cats do not have social systems so similar to those of humans.

The focus of feline social groups is usually that of a female and her kittens. Domestic cat groups, like lion prides, are composed of females who may be related and their offspring. A familiar male may be a part of this social group who will protect against intrusion by foreign males. Unfortunately, literature often depicts cats as being asocial or at least solitary animals. This is not accurate. Cats may be solitary but that does not mean they do not show social behaviour patterns. Any cat owner, I'm sure, can attest to the presence of such behaviour and often provide examples of its complexity.

No doubt about it, cats are "our other best friends". Are we not really lucky to be so doubly blessed?