Are Cats Domesticated?

“The cat does not offer services,” William Burroughs wrote. “The cat offers itself.” But it does so with unapologetic ambivalence. Greet a cat enthusiastically and it might respond with nothing more than a few unhurried blinks. Later, as you’re trying to work, it will commandeer your lap, keyboard, and attention, purring all the while. A cat will mew at the food bowl in the morning and set off on a multiple-day trek in the afternoon. Dogs are dependent on us to the point of being obsequious, but cats seem to be constantly reëvaluating the merits of our relationship, as well as their role in domestic life. “Are cats domesticated?” is one of the most frequently Googled questions about the animals, based on the search engine’s autocomplete suggestions….

This relatively short and lenient period of selective breeding is manifest in the cat genome, Wesley Warren, a geneticist at Washington University in St. Louis, said. In a study published last year, Warren and his colleagues analyzed DNA from several wildcats and domestic cat breeds, including an Abyssinian named Cinnamon. They confirmed that, genetically, cats have diverged much less from their wildcat ancestors than dogs have from wolves, and that the cat genome has much more modest signatures of artificial selection. Because cats also retain sharper hunting skills than dogs, abandoned felines are more likely to survive without any human help. And in some countries, feral cats routinely breed with their wildcat cousins. “There’s still a lot of genetic mixing,” Warren said. “You don’t have the true differentiation you see between wolf and dog. Using the dog as the best comparison, the modern cat is not what I would call fully domesticated.”

A good book on this subject is Cat Sense by John Bradshaw.