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Sunday, December 11, 2016

As one who has rarely owned fewer than a half-dozen dogs and cats, people who don’t like pets make me uneasy. Often it’s about control issues. The sheer otherness of domestic animals offends their self-importance. How dare a mere cat ignore them?

Equally common are worries about cleanliness. No, you don’t know where that dog’s nose has been, but probably somewhere you wouldn’t put your own. Dogs, see, have very different opinions about what smells good. Even we country folk sometimes wish they weren’t so fond of fresh cow pies.  

But if you’re too fastidious for dogs, you’re too picky for me. A house without hair on the sofa cushions and scratch marks on the legs is as barren as a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Today’s subject, however, is felis domesticus, the ordinary house cat. Writing in Slate, David Grimm outlines an amusing dispute among academic scientists about whether or not the world’s most popular house pet is a domestic animal. As usual, it’s partly semantic. What exactly does “domestic” mean?

“Our feline companions don’t really need us, after all,” writes Grimm.

They can hunt for themselves, and they go feral without human contact.” Indeed, quite a few cats live wild, a threat to songbird populations that lifestyle commissars like to blame on house pets—at least partly, one suspects, because scolding cats themselves is so futile.

Cats appear quite indifferent to human wishes much of the time. That’s partly because, unlike dogs, they read your body language instead of your face. But it’s that sphinx-like quality that lends resonance to the argument.

Professor Wes Warren is a Washington University biologist who participated in a recent study tracing specific genome changes that distinguish the Near Eastern wildcat from my orange tabby friends, Albert and Martin—aka Inspector Clouseau and Kato the Houseboy.

Professor Warren is of the non-domesticated school, pointing out that house cats hunt small rodents as effectively as their wild ancestors, while dogs can’t fend for themselves in the wild. (Actually, I used to have a three-beagle pack that caught and ate rabbits and field rats all the time, but that’s a quibble.)

Dog breeds are among the oldest and most sophisticated forms of human bio-engineering. Dogs began following hunter-gatherer tribes contemporaneous with the discovery of fire. They’ve been selectively bred for centuries to perform an amazing variety of jobs from guarding livestock (my Great Pyrenees) to holding down couches (the basset hounds).

Cats arrived many thousands of years later with the development of agriculture, volunteering to do pest control in the granaries of ancient Egypt. As they were already awfully good at the one thing humans needed them for, cats have always been treated more like independent contractors—rodent control consultants, if you will.

Cats hunt, therefore they are. Unlike dogs, they’ve pretty much been in control of their own genome. Selective breeding came late, and mainly for cosmetic rather than behavioral reasons.

Even so, other scientists, such as Oxford University’s Greger Larson, think it’s foolish to call cats “semi-domesticated.”

“I’ve got two cats at home, and they’re as domesticated as any animal on earth,” he told Grimm. “There are homes where cats just sit on the couch, ignoring the dogs and primates that should be a major threat to them. That’s asking a lot of a wild carnivore.”

Which brings us back to my cats, Albert and Martin. The first time Albert met Maggie, our aggressive 110-lb. Anatolian-Great Pyrenees cross, she stuck her muzzle in his face and he jumped on her head. He was 12 weeks old. She adopted him as an honorary puppy, and that was that.

Albert’s other nickname is “The Orange Dog,” on account of his spending much of his time with our three-dog security team and other decidedly un-catlike behaviors. Such as following me out into the pasture to check on the cows and coming when he’s called—often on the run.

One time, I got really angry with the big dogs for picking on my wife’s elderly basset hound. I ran at them, intending to give somebody a swift kick. Albert ran with me, fluffed-up, back arched and bouncing sideways—ready to throw down. If there was going to be a fight, The Orange Dog had my back.

Domesticated? Many dogs wouldn’t do that.

Albert gave me a nasty bite the first time he discovered young Martin in my lap—a tiny abandoned kitten the dogs found in the woods. You’d never know it to watch Inspector Clouseau and Kato the Houseboy play-brawling now.

But here’s the thing: it was entirely their decision, an aspect of feline behavior the professors appear to have ignored. Fortunately, their demands are quite simple: in, out, feed me, pet me.

They are largely benign little tyrants, but make no mistake: Cats train people, not the other way around.

Photo courtesy of the author.

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