March 24, 2015

Were the original domestic cats not so defiant?

I came across a series of these "cat shaming" pictures that show a cat with a note explaining what trouble it got into, and why it's not sorry.

One thing stood out about these cat mugshots -- hardly any natural looking cats (tabbies). The few that were shown, had not crossed much of a boundary with their owner -- licking some butter, for instance, rather than tearing up a roll of toilet paper. At one site that had a sample of 30, 10 of them were either black or black-and-white. Orange ones were there, too, including calicos. The ones with tabby coloring almost always have large swaths of white as well, not fully natural looking tabbies.

Today's tabby cats look like the wildcats that were domesticated thousands of years ago, so I'm guessing that those first however-many generations did not steal and hide sharp objects around the yard, did not sneak their way into the granary and treat it like a great big litter box, and did not climb up on the roof and start shredding the thatching.

If they were wary of human beings, they must have still had a more helpful and submissive attitude, at least compared to the terrorists in the cat-shaming pictures. It's hard to imagine hardscrabble farmers continuing to domesticate an animal that only wanted to flop down on their work space so they couldn't get anything done.

The mischievous ones look more like what you'd see, not in nature, but in an artificial urban environment where feral colonies form. There are plenty of black, black-and-white, orange, and heavily white-spotted cats there, much more so than tabbies. These are the cats that have evolved to thrive in a setting where human feeders and caretakers can be taken for granted, hence where good manners aren't very necessary.

In fact, it must have paid off in Darwinian terms to be a little more pushy toward their adopters, who had begun to take care of them out of a sense of duty or stewardship (and so, more likely to thrive among a pastoralist group). They would therefore care for the creatures on a more unconditional basis, compared to the early domesticaters who tolerated cats on a quid pro quo basis, such as keeping the mice away from the grains. If your relationship with the semi-wild animal is conditional, you won't find it difficult to shoo it away if it starts acting too big for its britches and assuming an air of authority and entitlement.

Appearance and temperament are linked in all animals, so that selecting for certain personality traits will alter their looks as well (see Belyaev's foxes for the classic case study). As cat adopters shifted from farmers who allowed barn cats to hunt the mice on their land, to the urban crazy cat lady who takes care of the feral colony no matter how bad they misbehave, the tabby coloring has been slowly weeded out.

Black coloring is generally associated with aggressiveness in animals (including homo sapiens), so it may not come as a surprise to see the change move in a darker rather than lighter direction. I'm not sure why it's also selected for heavy patches of white as well -- perhaps to increase visual contrast and be more attention-getting in a dense, competitive urban setting.

Whatever the reasons, it's worth bearing in mind if you decide to adopt in the future. Tabby color looks like a good predictor of not acting like a dictator around the home.


  1. I've got a large splotches of white and dark gray cat. Sure enough, he's kinda demanding. Hard to bitch about any cat, though. It's not their fault that some of them were bred for insolence.

    The cat got passed on to me by a cousin. Didn't have any other pets at the time. I do like the coats of the full tabbies more. Guess it's an added bonus that they're more useful too.

  2. Interesting idea, and perhaps along the right lines.

    Maybe an alternative or complementary idea (not sure how different it is) would be that cats with bold eye catching coats have been bred for that by humans.

    Humans who'd breed for eye catching coats might also breed for generally eye catching and exciting behaviours. As opposed to cryptic behaviours, which could bred for along with drab / cryptic (or ancestral) behaviours.

    Or at least those humans breeding colorful bold cats would be more tolerant of cats who behave boldly but badly, as exciting pets.

    Such cats might also be under selection for bold behaviours that aren't necessarily pushy - just whatever makes the animal eye catching or exciting to the owner.
    Not so sure about the melanism idea in cats, it could be true though. Orange toms are stereotypically very bold and irritable characters - pheomelanin?

  3. My hunch is that the bold coloration among urban feral colonies has more to do with competition amongst the cats themselves, or cats vs. other animal competitors / predators, not so much their signal to people. Human caretakers tend to give them food, shelter, etc., fairly indiscriminately (seen in a distilled form with the crazy cat lady).

  4. " Orange toms are stereotypically very bold and irritable characters - pheomelanin?"

    Like Garfield, for instance.

  5. Other research backs up the association between black hair and aggression. Lions with black coloring in their manes are found to have higher levels of testosterone, and were found in experiments to be preferred for mating.

  6. I feed ferals at my house in the burbs. Despite the bold coloring (a calico, an orange & white, and a gray tabby with lots of white) and the fact that I feed them, they still prove useful. They've brought me many rats over the years. (I live in a poor area with lots of empty houses.)

    Ferals have their uses, bold coloring or no.

  7. Hurrah for farmers and their eugenic conditionality of affection!

    Rushton was once caught bullshitting on the link between coloration & aggression. I'm not aware of any such failings on the part of Jensen, so it's a bit unfortunate the two might be lumped together at times.

  8. Cats are primarily companion animals.


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