There’s no question about it: humans love cats, and we always have. It’s thought that cats were first domesticated in the Neolithic period, and of course they were held up as sacred animals by the ancient Egyptians. Cats are adored worldwide – they’re good companions, comforting presences, skilled vermin hunters and beautiful creatures. Where there are people, there are housecats; they’re the most popular pet in the world, and have appeared in countless works of myth, legend and popular culture. While cat meat is eaten in some places, it’s a lot less common than the eating of other types of animal that are otherwise kept as pets. There is a special relationship between cats and humans – so much so that “are you a cat person or a dog person” is a perfectly ordinary question, and it seems from informal studies that the answer is ‘cat’ more often than not. Certainly more people choose to live with cats as their companions than dogs, worldwide.
Most cats are delineated by subspecies and physical characteristics, but Felis cattus is defined by its interaction level with humans. ‘Pedigree’ cats are of a specific breed and bear that breed’s characteristics with little to no variation, are highly socialised both with humans and with other cats, and are fed and sheltered entirely by humans. ‘Pet’ cats are of no specific breed, but are otherwise just the same as those of pedigree. ‘Semi-feral’ cats may be fed by humans, but are equally able to forage; they find their own shelter, but may be relatively friendly to humans although they do not live with them. ‘Feral’ cats avoid human contact as much as possible, are not socialised with or by them, will not approach them, and hunt or forage food themselves while finding shelter where they can – and in as secluded a way as possible.
Other than that, cats vary massively. Breed characteristics have an enormous variation, and cats who are ‘mixed-breed’ or ‘random-bred’ can have any number of hugely variant characteristics. They come in all manner of shapes, coat types, colours and marking patterns – not to mention face types, ear shapes, and bodily proportions.
Cats live everywhere, and have in their way managed to adapt to basically any environment – though largely as a result of living with humans, of course. It’s thought that the cats we keep as housecats today are mostly descended from the wildcats who continue to roam many parts of the world – known mostly as Felis silvestris. Domesticated cats and wildcats can and do interbreed, and as such the lines between the species are blurring; interbreeding threatens many wildcat populations significantly.
They’re pretty good at adjusting to cold, so long as they have somewhere to hide, and to heat, so long as they have plenty of water to drink. Their ancestors were primarily desert animals, however, and as such all housecats love the sun.
Domesticated cats are often very friendly, well-socialised animals. There’s usually a dominant cat in any group or pairing, but mostly they get along just fine; introduction of a new cat, however, can be intensely problematic. Cats mostly need to grow up together if they are to live together, and bringing a strange cat in in another way requires skill and effort on the part of the humans involved.
They’re often fairly vocal creatures, communicating via purrs, trills, hisses, growls and mews as well as body language and pheromones. If you live with a cat, watch its tail and ears – they are extremely expressive, and your cat communicates a lot with them.
Many cats display deep and sincere affection to their human companions, and it’s thought that this may be because they remain in a sort of state of extended kittenhood and imprint on the relevant human as though they were the cat’s own mother. There are multiple theories about this, though, and it’s difficult to be entirely sure – cat psychology is a surprisingly complex subject.
They’re mostly what is called ‘crepuscular’, meaning they they’re at their most active around dawn and dusk. They sleep for both the depths of the night and the height of the day, though they will of course adjust a little to the patterns of the humans who live around them.
It is simply not possible to deprive a cat of its hunting instinct. No matter how well-fed your cat it will – depending on its temperament and access to the outdoors – predate on rats, mice, birds and other small animals. Of course, not all domestic cats are actually very good at this; they’ve not all learned the best hunting techniques, and some never really manage to catch anything very much.
This of course stems from the fact that cats are primarily fed by humans. Their diet consists of various pre-packaged foods, which are usually at least passingly good for them. Cats are obligate carnivores, and cannot live without a steady supply of meat.
By nature, female cats will come into heat several times a year. Males will approach her and she will begin by fighting them off – after a while, however, she will allow him to copulate with her by assuming a mating position. Feline copulation is a loud affair, involving a certain amount of pain for the female.
After mating, the female will wash her entire body with extreme thoroughness. If a male attempts to mate with her during this time, she will attack him viciously; she takes approximately half an hour to clean and rest before permitting the process to continue or be repeated. It is entirely possible for one litter of kittens to have multiple fathers.
Domestic kittens are blind, deaf, miniscule and entirely helpless in every way when first born. Their mothers look after them with relative diligence, and they are usually ready to leave their mothers for other homes after about twelve weeks. They’re perfectly happy to live alongside their mothers for life.