In which we ask Jonathan Losos, evolutionary biologist and author of The Cat’s Meow: How Cats Evolved from the Savanna to Your Sofa, why our pet cats get stoned, eat socks, and knock stuff off counters.
Okay, catnip: What’s the deal? Why do cats love to get high?
Many cats go gaga over catnip, rolling in it, salivating, seemingly in a drug-induced euphoric state for about ten minutes. And it’s not just house cats: check out internet videos of lions, leopards, jaguars, and other felines getting high on the stuff. Recent research indicates that chemicals in catnip serve as a mosquito repellent, so it’s possible that this behavioral response evolved as a means of combating mosquito bites.
Why are dogs easier to train, and generally eager to please, whereas cats are known for having no shame and just doing whatever the hell they want to do?
It’s good to be king! Incidentally, it’s a myth that cats cannot be trained. They are very trainable—you can train cats to do many tricks and even to use a toilet (try getting a dog to do that)! Not to mention the amazing Savitsky Cats!
Follow-up: Do you think sometimes cats are assholes on purpose, or do they just not think or care about consequences? (Says the person whose cat likes to punch mugs off the counter.)
It is not for us to question the wisdom of such a higher being. Perhaps your cat is trying to tell you to study feng shui to understand why the mugs don’t belong on the counter.
What is the most surprising thing you learned while writing this book?
So many things! But a few highlights come to mind:
• The reason my two cats, Winston and Jane, look so different even though they’re from the same litter from a feral mom cat is that females will mate as many as twenty times a day for several days, with many different males, while in heat. So, it’s quite common for kittens in the same litter to have different dads.
• Cats don’t meow much to each other. The fact that they meow a lot to us is a behavior evolved during domestication.
• Cats use different purrs for different reasons, including an insistent, chainsaw-like purr they use when they want something (usually food). This purr contains elements similar to the cry of a baby, which suggests they have evolved to exploit our innate sensitivity to that sound.
• “KittyCam” studies (in which a cat wears a small video camera on its collar) demonstrate that pet cats often enter other people’s houses and make themselves at home.
• Dogs eat the body of their dead owners much more often than cats do.
What is your favorite wildcat?
Another tough question. There are so many great cat species (forty-two total!). I’m partial to beautiful spotted cats, so I’d say that it’s a tie between the long-legged serval from Africa and the ocelot, which ranges throughout much of the Americas.
Is there a responsible way to keep a pet tiger?
No! But toygers, a relatively new breed, are extremely affectionate house cats clad in tiger pajamas.
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Where and when were cats first domesticated?
Cats were domesticated in the area sometimes referred to as “the Fertile Crescent,” which wraps around the Mediterranean from Egypt up to Turkey and as far east as western Iran. Where exactly domestication occurred and when is uncertain. The oldest archaeological association comes from the island of Cyprus, near Turkey, about ten thousand years ago, where a person and a cat were buried together. Some people consider this evidence that cat domestication began long ago, but others suggest that the cat might just have been a tame African wildcat raised from a kitten. (The difference between domesticated and tame is that domesticated species have evolved genetic differences as a result of their interactions with humans, whereas tame animals are genetically no different from wild members of the same species—it’s the difference between nature [genetics] and nurture [upbringing]).
On the other hand, by thirty-five hundred years ago, we know from paintings on tomb walls and stone inscriptions that Egyptian cats were domesticated—they were portrayed wearing collars, eating from dishes underneath dinner-table chairs and going on family outings. For this reason, many believe that domestication occurred around that time in Egypt. However, we can’t disprove the possibility that domestication occurred earlier somewhere else and then domesticated cats arrived in Egypt about that time.
Current research examining the DNA of ancient archaeological cats—including the vast numbers of cat mummies from Egypt, as well as skeletons from Viking ports in northern Europe and many other sites in Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia—is attempting to find the genetic trace of when domestication occurred and how the domestic cat then conquered the world.
Most wild felines are solitary, unlike members of the canid family who tend to live in social packs. You can see all sorts of metacommunication at your local dog park. Would you say cats share an equivalent repertoire when it comes to using body language to communicate with one another?
First, it’s a myth that domestic cats are solitary. When they live in large groups—as occurs where food is plentiful—they live in social groups. Just as in lion prides, these groups are composed of related females that are very friendly to each other and even nurse each other’s young—they’ve even been observed to serve as midwives and help another female give birth. But . . . this friendliness doesn’t necessarily translate to nonfamily members, which is why pet cats have gotten their reputation for being asocial. Cats have a rich repertoire of social cues that rival those of dogs—think of a tail sticking straight up, which is a sign of friendliness, or ears back, which indicates the opposite. Other signals, though, can be more subtle, like a slow blink of the eye or a slight shift of the head.
Why does my cat leave dead mouse gifts for me?
Who really knows what’s going on in the mind of a cat? There are all kinds of fanciful explanations bandied about the internet—that they’re bringing us a present for being so good to them, that they realize we’re inept hunters and are treating us like kittens and trying to teach us to hunt—but questions like this are really hard to address scientifically.
If cats are obligate carnivores, why does my cat chew through the wrapper to get to a granola bar? Or eat all my wool socks?
Good question! As part of the domestication process, cats expanded their diet (and evolved longer intestines) to eat some plants. Nonetheless, cats really do need a diet that is primarily composed of meat. Also, put away your socks!
Are cats better than dogs?
Of course they are! As the saying goes, “Cats rule and dogs drool.” Having said that, I have to admit that I never understood the appeal of dogs until we got a new kitten a few years ago. Nelson is an incredibly affectionate, playful cat. You look at him and he starts purring; you come home and he comes running up to you. He brings toys and drops them at my feet, then looks up as if to say, “Playtime.” I toss the toy and he goes scampering to retrieve it. He is, in other words, a dog in cat’s clothing. Now I get what dog people like about their dogs.