Cats are the world's most popular pets, outnumbering dogs by as many as 3 to 1. This popularity is undoubtedly helped by the fact that cats are simultaneously affectionate and self-reliant: They need virtually no training; they groom themselves; they can be left alone without pining for their owners, but most nonetheless greet us affectionately when we get home.
In a word, they are convenient.
Even so, cats remain aloof and inscrutable. Dogs tend to be open, honest and biddable. Cats, on the other hand, demand that we accept them on their terms, but never quite reveal what those terms might be.
I've studied cats for years and shared my home with quite a few, but I don't feel that this has taught me very much about what they are really like. But science has begun to provide some answers, especially about their relationship to humans. Why are cats so choosy about their objects of affection? And what does it mean when they hold their tail straight up? Read on.
Cats and humans go back a long way. DNA evidence identifies the pet cat's ancestor as the Arabian wildcat Felis silvestris lybica and places its origins between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago in the Middle East.
It is likely that the first people to tame wildcats were the Natufians, who inhabited the Levant from about 13,000 to 10,000 years ago and are widely regarded as the inventors of agriculture. As such, they were also the first people to be bedeviled by a new pest: the grain-loving house mouse. Wildcats probably moved in to exploit this new resource. Realizing how useful this was people probably encouraged them to hang around.
These were not pet cats as we know them. They would have been more like today's urban foxes, able to adapt to a human environment while retaining their essential wildness.
Of course, the cat's other qualities probably did not go unnoticed. Their appealing features, soft fur and ability to learn to become affectionate toward us led to their adoption as pets. Yet cats still have three paws firmly planted in the wild.
In contrast to almost every other domestic animal, cats retain remarkable control over their own lives. Most go where they please and when they please and, crucially, choose their own mates. Unlike dogs, only a small minority of cats has ever been intentionally bred by people. No one has bred cats to guard houses, herd livestock or assist hunters.
Social behavior probably started to evolve as soon as cats began to congregate around granaries. Even today, wherever there is a regular source of food, a colony of feral cats will spring up, assuming local people allow it. Colonies can build up until several hundred cats are living close to one another. In these colonies, society tends to be based on cooperation between genetically related females. Mothers often drive away their male offspring after a few months to avoid inbreeding, leaving them to lead solitary lives.
John Bradshaw is the director of the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol School of Clinical Veterinary Science in Britain. First Published October 19, 2013 8:00 PM