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How Cats Transformed From Wild Animals to Cuddly Companions

Genetically, there’s not that much separating feline pets from jungle beasts

(Photo: Hanna Jeppsson/Matton Collection/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Domestic dogs have faithfully been by our side for at least 30,000 years, whereas cats have been with us for only about 9,000. Even so, we have almost no idea how we managed to domesticate cats and why their behavior as human companions is so different from our loyal canines.

To begin to answer these questions, scientists undertook a cat genome project, in which they sequenced the DNA of an Abyssinian cat—a short-haired breed with brown markings—as well as of a Birman—a Himalayan look-alike, with white paws. They compared those two cats' genomes with those of several other species, including humans', tigers', cows', dogs' and wild cats', the Los Angeles Times reports

Domestic cats, they found, really aren't that much different from their wild relatives. Domesticated cats' diets, hunting behaviors and senses are pretty much the same as they were before humans stepped into the picture. So in a way, it's more accurate to say that house cats are only semi-domesticated, the LAT writes.

The few ways that humans did make a dent in the cat genome at first seem pretty superficial: fur color and pattern, for example, are obvious changes. But there's also an extra set of genes associated with tameness, Wired reports, which include factors such as aggressiveness, memory and the ability to undergo fear or reward-based learning. These few genetic tweaks were likely the crucial changes needed to separate Boots from bobcats. Delving more deeply into these differences, the team told Wired, might help veterinarians and scientists come up with better methods for treating cat-specific diseases—many of which are similar to ones found in humans. 

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