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Is there a tiger in your tabby?

Original Publication Date: January 11, 2016
By C. Sue Furman, Ph.D.

Recent archeological evidence suggests the introduction of farming may have nudged humans and cats to form cooperative relationships as much as 9,000 years ago.

Researchers speculate cats congregated near farms to feast on the abundant rodents attracted to stored grain. Farmers tolerated the feline exterminators and perhaps offered extra food to encourage them to stay and guard their harvest. Evidence cats were actually tamed and domesticated at this point is sketchy at best.

The human-feline bond was definitely in place 4,000 years ago as evidenced by Egyptian pyramid wall art depicting cats cavorting with humans. The fact that cats were deified, celebrated with elegant statues and even mummified and buried with their masters highlights their importance to humans at this time.

Dogs diverged from their wolf ancestors about 30,000 years ago and began to hang around with humans and become domesticated.

Generations of selective breeding for various behaviors, sensory capabilities and physical attributes have produced about 400 officially recognized dog breeds.

The question remains if cats were simply opportunists that took advantage of favorable situations offered by humans over the last few thousand years or if they were really domesticated. Wes Warren, Ph.D. of the Genome Institute at Washington University, posits cats are only semidomesticated compared to dogs.

Warren and collaborators recently took steps to determine how, why and when cats may have started on the path to domestication. The researchers mapped the genome of Cinnamon, an Abyssinian cat, and compared her genetic sequences to those of the tiger, cow, dog and human.

Willow rests her tiger genes as she snoozes Willow rests her tiger genes as she snoozes
(click image to enlarge)

Cinnamon's DNA was distinctly different from that of the cow, dog and human. However, the domesticated cat had a difference of only about 13 genes from that of the tiger. The researchers found cats retain many of the hunting, sensory and digestive traits of their wild relatives. This preliminary evidence seems to indicate the genetic profile of domestic cats is not that far removed from cats that live in the wild.

Unlike dogs, cats have not been bred to perform specific jobs for humans. It appears people have had an effect on the genetics of cats as they have been bred for coat color and pattern. In addition, a set of genes thought to be associated with tameness has been influenced. Due to the limited scope of feline breeding programs, there are only 38 to 45 breeds of cats.

Whether cats began the road to domestication 4,000 years ago or earlier, their genomes have changed little since they split from wild felines. The sound of kibble plunking in a bowl or the aroma of tuna being released by a can opener may quickly get your cat's attention, but like his wild cousins, he can still stalk a mouse or bird to get an unscheduled meal.

Sue Furman, Ph.D, has published two books and a DVD on canine massage and teaches classes in pet massage, acupressure, first aid and CPR. See her schedule and submit questions at