Cats Domesticated Themselves Because They Do What They Want

By Sarah Jeanne Terry

What's the difference between a domesticated modern cat and their ancient wild ancestors? Turns out, less than you'd think. Apparently, even though cats became domesticated over time, they didn't change much. That's because scientists suspect that cats chose to domesticate themselves.

Egyptian Cats with Papyrus
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A recent study in Nature Ecology & Evolution shows that the change in cats from wild to domestic isn't a major DNA shift, but likely a choice. And that makes sense. Our feline friends don't do anything unless they want to. Turns out that also applies to them becoming our feline friends.

The study examined the DNA of 200 different cats over 9,000 years. They studied mummified Egyptian cats, Romanian cat remains, and African wildcats. And what they found is that even though cats became tame and domestic, humans didn't accomplish that without the cats' permission.

Cats probably started hanging out around humans about 8,000 years ago.

cute ginger cat walking outdoor in the farm
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Cats lurked near farms to feed on the mice and rodents that were attracted to the crops. Humans noticed that cats were helping keep the pests away, and thus, a relationship was formed.

A coauthor of the study, Claudio Ottoni, explained, "This is probably how the first encounter between humans and cats occurred. It's not that humans took some cats and put them inside cages." Instead, cats helped out humans, and humans kept them around.

Petra: a cat on the red rocks seen walking in the canyon of the Siq, the Shaft, the main entrance to the archaeological Nabataean city of Petra
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Cats basically acted as the earliest exterminators, controlling rats, mice, and other pests.

Cat playing with little gerbil mouse on thetable
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And because cats were so useful, humans started bringing them along as they moved. Humans probably carried cats along with them as they moved on farms. And sailors took them on ships to control rodents. And we still see some of that. Even today, Disneyland encourages feral cats to live near the park to help keep rodent populations down in the park. And the cats roaming the theme park aren't so different from the cats that patrolled the early farms of prehistoric humans.

So why did dogs change so much, while cats stayed about the same?

Cat and dog sitting together in the yard
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In contrast to cats, dogs actually evolved a lot from their wild ancestors. But there's a clear reason. Turns out, ancient humans needed dogs to perform certain tasks. Humans helped select the traits in dogs that they desired, which led to the diversification of breeds over time. But they didn't need to do that with cats.

Eva-Maria Geigl, one of the study's coauthors, explained, "I think that there was no need to subject cats to such a selection process since it was not necessary to change them. They were perfect as they were."

Cute Kitten Wearing Princess Crown
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And we're sure every cat lover would agree.