Whenever I sit down on the couch, one of my two Abyssinian cats will quickly trot over to me, toy in mouth. She drops the faux-fur mouse at my feet and looks up expectantly—ready for me to throw the toy across the apartment so that she can run and fetch it. When she races back with the toy, ready for another go, it’s easy to mistake her for a puma hunting for her lunch. When she stares out the window, stalking the finches that congregate around our birdfeeder, she chatters with anticipation and frustration. Suddenly, she’s not just a pampered ten-pound housecat; she’s a ferocious predator ready to pounce.
We feel a strong kinship with our pets, especially the dogs and cats that live in about 63 percent of American homes. We don’t, however, have the same loving thoughts about badgers, komodo dragons, or seagulls. So what makes our pets so special? And of all the millions of species of animals on the planet, what made early humans choose which animals to domesticate?
Man’s Oldest Friends
Humans developed agriculture about 8500 years ago, but long before we grew crops or tended fields, we were cuddling with puppies. UCLA researchers hypothesize that dogs were domesticated about 100,000 years ago, if not before, when canines were more like wolves. The dominant theory is that human tribes took in the cuddly, cute pups and they became comfortable living among people. Although they were ferocious predators, the friendlier, tamer animals were very successful as pets, and passed down those genetic traits, resulting in today’s dogs, who are gregarious and friendly by nature. Dogs are naturally social animals, which probably made domestication easy, since humans only had to fulfill the role of “top dog” to instill obedience from the rest of the pack. Besides friendship, dogs offered their services in hunting, retrieving, and herding.
Cats, on the other hand, have a more mysterious history, and it’s hard to tell exactly when they first became domesticated. Although the prevailing story is that the Egyptians started keeping cats to kill rodents around their grain storage, scientists have found feline remains as old as 9500 years, predating the Egyptians by about 4000 years. Ancient cats were revered and honored, and in return, they helped keep the rodent population in check. Remains found in human gravesites indicate that they held a very special place in society, not just as working animals, but as pets and companions. Cats are solitary and not easily trained, but their affinity for food and shelter probably helped them overcome their objections to domestication.
Life on the Lap of Luxury
Some experts feel that even though they gave up their freedom, animals prefer domestication. Living in captivity, animals have easy access to food and don’t have to compete for scarce resources. They are well cared for by their humans, who have a vested interest in their survival, and their lifespan is longer. Certain species are more amenable to living in captivity, explaining why humans have only domesticated a tiny portion of the species on the planet. Jared Diamond of UCLA Medical School writes that in order to be successfully domesticated, a species must fit a certain set of criteria. They must eat a cheap, plentiful diet, since humans often can’t provide special food for picky eaters. They must have a cheerful temperament that allows them to be friendly with humans, they must have a social hierarchy that lends itself to being influenced by dominant animals, and they must breed fast enough to provide a return on the humans’ investment of raising them. Picky pandas, solitary eagles, and unpredictable hippos make poor candidates for domestication, as humans have learned from experience.
However, domestication is not without its drawbacks. Modern animals have markedly weaker hunting and survival instincts, traits that have been bred out over thousands of years. They also have smaller brains and less refined senses. While these abilities would be of paramount importance to wild animals, pets don’t usually need them for survival. Domestic animals also tend to have different mating habits and physical characteristics from their wild counterparts, including an increased incidence of obesity.
In primitive societies where food was rare, domesticated animals had to serve a purpose in order for their human caretakers to benefit from the arrangement. Eventually, as humans started living in cities and growing in affluence, having pets around the house—companion animals who did no work—became a mark of prosperity and wealth, since the household obviously had the resources to feed these extra mouths. The idea of a pet as an animal that was solely for companionship is a development of the past few millennia. Pets tended to be animals who were low-maintenance and easy to take care of. Dogs and cats have long histories with humans; we know that Romans kept birds and rodents as pets, and in the seventh century, the Chinese began cultivating ornamental koi ponds. Although early pets survived by killing pests or scrounging for scraps, commercial pet food became popular in America after World War I, marking the first time that pets were fed a special diet. Dogs were the most common American pet until 1947 when cat litter became available. This development made it easier for cats to live indoors, and they skyrocketed in popularity, overtaking dogs. The American Pet Products Manufacturers Association estimates that there are eighty-eight million cats in the country, compared with seventy-five million dogs.
Nowadays, few household pets have to forage for their own food, and my two cats live an enviable lifestyle, demanding that their wholesome organic kibble be presented on time. For a moment, it’s easy to mistake them for two little mountain lions on the prowl, but when they snuggle next to me at night, it always makes me wonder—when it comes to humans and pets, who chose who?