A somewhat horrifying view of cats and cat domestication

Cat Psychology & Domestication: Are We Good Owners?

From my title combined with the title of the linked post, I bet you can guess that the answer is: (A) Possibly we’re not overall doing great as cat owners. (B) More surprisingly: cats may not have been domesticated as vermin-killers. (C) One horrifying part: the real reason cats may have been domesticated. (D) A second horrifying part: we may be de-domesticating cats, with the cost of that de-domestication paid by the cats.

The linked article is REALLY long, so click through if you are interested and have PLENTY of time. But it’s certainly interesting and thought-provoking. It’s based on a book called Cat Sense by Bradshaw.

Let me provide a tidbit from the linked article that addresses each point above:

A) Are we good owners?

…cats’ emotional needs are still the cause of widespread misapprehensions. Cats are widely perceived as being far more socially adaptable than they actually are. Owners polled for a recent survey said that half of pet cats avoid (human) visitors to the house; almost all pet cats either get into fights with cats from neighboring houses, or avoid any contact with them; and half of the cats that share households with other cats either fight or avoid one another.1 Research confirms that cats find such conflicts highly stressful: they experience fear during the event itself, and anxiety in anticipation of the next encounter. They are constantly hypervigilant through cues we are unaware of, such as the odor of a rival cat. Chronic anxiety can lead to deteriorating health and may reduce life expectancy. Unfortunately, we do not know enough about how to mitigate this situation, made worse by the ever-increasing number of cats kept as pets.

How many of us really try hard to ameliorate the boredom and stress experienced by indoor cats?

Based on Bradshaw’s advice, I tried a number of things:

I replaced a noisy box fan & put rubber vibration-absorbing pads on the bottoms of all the fans/air-filters/⁣dehumidifiers/⁣computers (unclear efficacy);

I bought a Feliway cat pheromone diffuser spray (no apparent benefit and the Feliway-sponsored studies left me skeptical);

I bought a large water bowl to encourage drinking and moved his feeding station to a more hidden corner;

I bought two ‘puzzle treat’ balls, simple and complex, to put dry food or treat bits in for him to play with (a big hit, although use must be strictly rationed to avoid triggering cystitis again, and the simple treat ball, which was an empty sphere, turned out to be far too easy to get treats out of6);

I bought 2 ‘cat condos’ which are cubes similar to cat perches (which he frequently sleeps on although again I don’t know how much difference that makes);

I got red/blue/⁣purple/⁣green laser pointers off eBay to supplement the wand for playing chase (initially highly effective but he quickly lost interest & I think limitations of cat color vision may make some colors much less effective7);

I got a Sphero Mini (cool toy but he remained afraid of it so after a year I gave it to my sister for her ferret); [snip]

The vet, during the next visit which went poorly (as usual: Volk et al 2011/⁣⁣Volk et al 2014)9, gave me a 3-pill sample of gabapentin10 to try during relatives’ visits or future appointments (when I tried one dose, it made a little difference but not a lot, so I reserved the remaining 2 for the next vet visit, and 2×100mg turned out to be much more effective although the visit was still difficult for both of us); a

and I replaced the opaque cardboard/foam insulation around the cat-flap with an acrylic sheet from Lowe’s I cut to fit so he could more easily watch outside while laying on the window ledge.

I also began periodically putting him in the cat carrier and carrying him around either by hand or in my car to try to gradually reduce his aversion to it.

One particular success was using ‘videos-for-cats’: I had a hard time getting him to pay attention to the computer monitor long enough to realize that it was displaying videos of birds, but when I turned on the sound, he noticed and instantly became addicted.

Of these, the most worthwhile changes seem to be the wet cat food, puzzle treats, cat condos, videos-for-cats and exposure therapy.

In total, this owner took more than a dozen substantive steps to try to improve his cat’s life by reducing the boredom and stress of daily life and also reducing the stress of going to the vet. How many of us have done this much? I bolded the most useful tips in case anybody would like to try this video-for-cats thing, which I have never heard of.

B) The common assumption I shared, that cats were naturals for domestication because they are such good vermin exterminators, is apparently not well-supported as there were many alternatives, some superior to cats in ways. Instead, Bradshaw suggests that the key to their domestication may be—and this is speculative, I should caution—their essentially arbitrary role as popular sacrifices, requiring countless ‘catteries’ attached to temples, and at least millions of sacrifices on a scale staggering to contemplate: … We will never know how many cats were sacrificed this way. The archaeologists who discovered these sites wrote of vast heaps of white cat bones, and dust from disintegrating plaster and linen blowing across the desert. Several other cemeteries were excavated wholesale, and their contents ground up and used as fertilizer—some was used locally, some was exported. One shipment of cat mummies alone, sent to London, weighed nineteen tons, out of which just one cat was removed and presented to the British Museum before the remainder were ground into powder.

Mummies, by the way, do not weigh very much. They are desiccated objects.

C) While on the subject, let me also draw your attention to this paragraph of the linked article:

Kittens have a much shorter window of plasticity than puppies, who can tolerate lack of human contact for up to seven weeks with any harm, but by that point, kittens have already been damaged. … Similarly, kittens raised as litter-mates will get along closely, as indicated by things like grooming each other or laying touching another or happily eating side by side; while cats who met as adults will rarely or never do those behaviors no matter how cordial. And kittens raised with friendly dogs will be fine with dogs in the future, which is not something which could be said of all (or even most?) cats who encountered dogs as adults…

Not everyone realizes that kittens MUST BE SOCIALIZED VERY YOUNG or they do not get properly socialized at all. When I picked up those two adorable stray kittens last summer, they were about five weeks old, which is very young to separate from the mother BUT NOT TOO YOUNG TO BE SOCIALIZED. That is in fact the ideal age to socialize kittens. They hiss; you ignore that and pick them up, cradle them securely, pet them, and put them down again one zillion times a day. Two days later they are no longer hissing. Two days after that, they are coming to you for attention. If you don’t get this done before seven weeks, it does not work properly and the kitten’s ability to socialize to humans has most likely been permanently impaired. This is something to keep in mind when adopting kittens.

Cat respiratory viruses are a major killer in kittens and therefore some shelters keep kittens separate from each other and avoid handling the kittens and you know what that does? It crushes socialization, which cannot be made up later. In my opinion, it’s much better to risk kittens getting sick and dying rather than permanently stunting their socialization.

Also, always get two. Either littermates or age-mates. It’s very unlikely you can get two unrelated adult cats to ever be buddies the way littermates will be. Two kittens are four times as cute as one, and half as much trouble as the exercise and entertain each other. Two kittens, every time.

Moving one: Here’s an interesting point I never thought of, though it’s obvious:

D) Where do cats come from? Given that we sterilize almost all our pet cats and hardly buy from cat breeders, pedigree or otherwise, they must come from somewhere.

I don’t know where my family’s two cats or my cat came from, beyond “the animal shelter”; my neighbor’s cat was definitely a feral cat’s offspring; my aunt’s cat was from a pet cat’s litter but almost certainly had an at least semi-feral father; on the other side of the family, my uncle’s farm cat was definitely a semi-feral cat tolerated for its assumed pest hunting; more pointedly, as far as I know, no one within two degrees of separation of me has ever bought a purebred or pedigreed cat, while I can offhandedly recall 10 purebred dogs (and counting) which were bought specifically from dog breeders and 3 or 4 of which were even registered. (I eventually asked my grandmother, “has anyone in our family ever bought a pedigree cat, or from a cat breeder at all?” She could think of no examples either over the last century, but agreed that there were at least a dozen dogs bought from breeders.) Those dogs definitely were not accidents or fathered by stray feral dogs. I do not know how much reproduction feral cats account for or how much de-domestication it is responsible for, but it does seem like it could be a lot, and could be enough to drastically slow any domesticating process or even reverse domestication.

… I acknowledge that Ragamuffins might be too dog-like for many people, but I do not think that things like stressing oneself to death via cystitis or being terrified of strangers are intrinsic to cats’ appeal, nor do I think any owner actively desires those things, and it should be possible to improve social skills & plasticity & anxiety while preserving the things we value about cats, like their perennial curiosity, watchfulness, clever trial-and-error, enjoyment of playing chase, purring etc without having to keep their problems like exploding kidneys or adult cats’ inability to befriend.

… “if a dog breed were as unhealthy, neurotic, unable to adapt, and stressed out by interaction to the point of routine life-threatening kidney failure, as normal cats are now, buying such a dog would be considered more immoral than buying a pug or English bulldog is now”; and so on. But because they are cats, it’s taken for granted and just the ‘catus quo’. (“Oh cats—isn’t it so funny how cats spend all that time staring out the window? Or won’t stay in the same room as the family dog? Or hide whenever someone visits? Or pee in your bed? Or bite you for no reason? Adorable!” No. No, not really.)

Basic conclusion of the linked article: cats are barely domesticated, possibly less domesticated than pet rats and definitely less domesticated than those Russian foxes; and lots of people do not know how to handle cats and routinely subject their cats to unnecessary, accidental, repetitive stress. And every problem currently experienced by cats may be getting worse, as shy feral and half-feral cats are by far the cats that are permitted to reproduce.


An interesting and certainly thought-provoking article. It’s made me think differently about how and where to get a couple of kittens in the future, something I very much would like to do eventually, when I have fewer dogs.

Image from Pixabay https://pixabay.com/users/olgaozik-11540328/

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2 thoughts on “A somewhat horrifying view of cats and cat domestication”

  1. Are cats known to have been domesticated solely in ancient Egypt? Because I’m pretty sure they were the only culture doing large-scale cat mummification. And I don’t know when that started, but I’d be surprised if Egyptologists don’t have a good idea. I have a vague impression that domestic cats go way back to the predynastic era, but that may just come from my general prejudice that animal domestications take so long they mostly get pushed back into prehistory.

  2. Well, animal domestication doesn’t actually take that long; see “Russian Fox Experiment.” If you breed for tameness and there’s genetic variability for that trait, you get tameness pretty fast. You don’t have to deliberately select for tameness as such, either. You just need people to generally prefer individuals who are tamer, which people just do, consistently; and for animals to benefit from living close to people and not being afraid of people, which under the right circumstances, they do.

    And if you breed animals for shyness, I would expect that you get “lack of tameness” equally fast. And the moment I read this article, I immediately agreed that there’s a plausible case that this is exactly how modern people are breeding cats: selecting consistently and strongly for shyness and fearfulness.

    It’s not that I think this is easy to solve. Cats are really difficult to keep as indoor pets unless they’re neutered or spayed. If everyone neuters and spays cats that make friendly, nice pets, then the only cats breeding are going to be feral strays who are mostly unsocialized and shy. And … there you go.

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