In this lesson, we will discuss domestic animals and the ways in which cats are, or are not, domesticated. We will talk about how cats use meows to interact with humans.
Are Cats Domesticated?
Who rescued who?If you know anyone who is enthusiastic about rescue cats, you might have seen that slogan, perhaps on a bumper sticker. But that simple idea- that both cats and humans have domesticated each other- has scientific truth behind it.In fact, some argue that cats are still not completely domesticated, or that their domestication is less than 200 years old. Unlike every other domesticated animal, cats will revert to a solitary lifestyle if they are feral.
Cats have a lot more genetic diversity than most domestic animals, and they are nearly indistinguishable from their wild relatives except for the greater diversity of their coat color. Cats still do breed with their wild relatives. Though specialized breeds of dogs arose about 3,000-4,000 years ago, specialized breeds of cats only arose in the last 200 years.
Communication and Meowing
So it seems that cats meow because of humans! What do cats gain from meowing to their human friends? As much as we might like to think otherwise, meowing is probably not a complex language in the way that human languages are. Cats probably don’t know exactly what they are saying when they meow. But meows, though they aren’t especially articulate, do convey some degree of meaning.
A Cornell researcher, Nicholas Nicastro, studied cat communication in 2002. He recorded 100 cat meows and had humans rate them for their pleasantness. He then had a different set of humans rate the same cat sounds for their urgency. He found that meows were rarely both pleasant and urgent; a pleasant sound was not rated as urgent and vice versa. Pleasant sounds were shorter, registered at both low and high frequencies, and usually started low and went higher. Urgent meows were longer and dominated by the low frequencies of sound.It may benefit a cat to make an urgent meow, say, in the morning when it is trying to remind you to fix breakfast.
However, it may benefit a cat to make a pleasant sound in a cat shelter, as this may increase its chances of adoption.Nicastro also recorded the sounds made by wild African cats. He reported that none of the wild cat vocalizations sounded pleasant. To humans, wild cats sound angry.
Artificial selection, in which humans breed for desired traits, may be responsible for the more pleasant, adorable cat’s meow that we hear today.Artificial selection is in great part responsible for domestication of animals in general. Breeding by humans is responsible for the difference between a husky and a Chihuahua, and it’s responsible for the difference between broccoli and cabbage (which originated from the same plant, wild mustard). However, as we have seen time and again, the domestication of cats is just plain weird compared to the domestication of other animals.
Cat domestication can be seen almost as a business partnership between the rat-destroying cats and the food-and-shelter-providing humans. As such, some scientists have argued that the domestic genes in cats were the result of natural, rather than artificial, selection. That is, the ancestors of your pet cat were selected for because they were the best at surviving in a human environment- not because humans had control over them.
Not everyone thinks cats are fully domesticated, because, unlike most domestic animals, they are capable of living a solitary lifestyle.
Cats are unusual for domestic animals because they are solitary, territorial carnivores that generally don’t take orders. Cats probably more-or-less domesticated themselves, moving in to human dwellings to eat rats, and finding humans to be an easy business partner.Feral cats rarely meow. When domestic cats meow, they are often attempting to interact with a human. Researchers have studied human reactions to cat meowing and believe that the modern domestic cat’s meow has been artificially selected to sound pleasant. However, natural selection has probably also played a part in the domestication of cats.