Did you know that the domestic cat is the only feline species to form social relationships with humans, and that, with the exception of the lion (and in some cases the cheetah), it’s the only cat to form social relationships with each other? Cats in the wild are generally solitary, so how did the domestic cat become more social? A new study suggests that cat sociability arose with domestication between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago.
There is no evidence of social behavior in the ancestor of the domestic cat. When this ancestor (Felis silvestris) began to self-domesticate by hanging around human agricultural settlements and hunting small mammals like mice and rats, it also began to form social groups. These tended to be groups of related adult females that cooperate in the raising of kittens. Today’s domestic cats (Felis catus) still form these social groups when left to their own devices, such as in feral cat colonies.
Unlike dogs and other canine species, cats don’t have ritualized behaviors indicating dominance and submission. While they do develop “pecking orders” through exchanges of aggressive and defensive behaviors, cats maintain their social cohesion through scent-exchange behaviors like rubbing, head-butting, and grooming each other. As any cat owner knows, they will also rub, head-butt, and groom with us.
Social groups provide today’s stray and feral cats with the same advantages as they did for ancestral cats that began to live around humans: access to permanent food sources, safe birthing sites, and protection against predators and roaming male cats (who may practice infanticide).
Cats moved from barns and granaries to our homes where they became pets about 4,000 years ago. So their social behavior with each other evolved into social behavior with us. Animal behavior experts note that cats interact with us in specific ways. They use species-typical actions like jumping, kitten-to-mother behaviors like meowing and kneading, and also those cat-to-cat behaviors of rubbing and grooming.
Anyone who’s ever watched domestic cats interact with each other know that the feline social relationship is not always smooth. While feral females may group together for survival, an individual housecat may or may not be interested in having any sort of social relationship with other cats.
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