Will Cats Ever Be Like Dogs?
September 4, 2021 3:30 AM   Subscribe

Given enough evolutionary time and selective breeding for more social cats, could they ever end up, on average, as social as dogs?

I learned (via this video: How We Domesticated Cats (Twice)) that it was only in the 19th Century that people started to selectively breed cats. This isn’t to say that cats are new. They have been proven to be valuable to Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, for example. Their role in human society is obvious: pest control.

But we are in a society now where we kinda treat dogs and cats as two equal flavors of pet, like the two flavors of ice cream: chocolate and vanilla. This isn’t how we used to treat cats.

So here is my theory:

Dogs have a leg up already due to their wolf pack animal nature, but they have also been with us for many tens of thousands of years longer than cats have been with us.

That time matters.

It matters because it is time that we used to, generation by generation, faze out the less desirable wolf/dogs and select for the more desirable dogs.

I hope this doesn't sound like I want to "delete" less sociable cats. Hope this doesn't come across as some Nazi eugenics thing. Just as I can blanket-statment say I love all dogs, I also love all cats. I just love some dogs more than others and I love some cats more than others. It's just that anti-social cats don't have a desirable link to the average human.

We haven’t had as much time with cats to do such a thing.

On top of that, cats for a long time through much of the world just counted as wild animals that helped kill the pests. So you wanted those wild animals around.

Our attachment to cats is much newer than our attachment to dogs.

This is all to say that I can possibly see, hundreds or a thousand years down the line, cats acting more or less like attached puppy dogs around us.

Reason being: the standoffish cats won’t be picked in the litter, or in the pound. The more social cats will be picked. The more standoffish cats will die off more often than the social cats, which will be picked up by humans, will have a healthy home, and will thus have a larger likelihood of breeding.

Selective breeding.

That’s why we already have social cats like my last cat that acted like a dog, and why a ton of cats aren’t as standoffish as actual tigers.
posted by ggp88 to Pets & Animals (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You may find it interesting to read about a relatively recent experiment that resulted in domesticated silver foxes. In each generation, the researchers allowed only the tamest 10% of foxes to breed. After 40 generations, they had a group of foxes who were tame, socially intelligent, and had a number of physiological changes (for instance, floppy ears, spotted coats, lower rates of stress hormones, and different reproductive patterns).

You could also compare how dog breeds have changed through selection pressure in the last 100 years -- the changes are dramatic, as humans have selected for more and more extreme appearances in dogs like the Boston Terrier, Bull Terrier, and pug.

I doubt if cats have ever been bred for the wide variety of tasks that dogs have (scenthound, herding, guarding, etc.), since many of those capabilities are dog-specific traits that were just strengthened through selection. But I'd guess that cats could potentially be bred for things like hunting. We already know that exerting strong selection pressure for tameness over multiple generations can result in friendlier cat breeds -- see, for instance, the Ragdoll breed, often called "dog-like".

Cats are interesting in that feral and semi-feral populations exist side-by side with domesticated populations, and routinely interbreed. I wonder if that has had an influence on the temperament of the average (non-purebred) cat.
posted by ourobouros at 4:19 AM on September 4, 2021 [7 favorites]

In theory you can selectively breed for just about any trait, so it is technically possible that over a few thousand years you could selectively breed cats for social traits that you want.

However, cats are the one domesticated animal whose recent evolution has not been directed by selective breeding by humans. All of the other mammals we refer to as domesticated - dogs, cows, sheep, pigs, oxen, horses, etc - are the way they are now because of us. To put it bluntly, cats sleep with whatever cats they want to, and other domesticated animals generally don't (or if they do, it's with animals from the same herd/group that already have the traits we've bred for).

Cats are also (again, as a generalisation) the only domesticated animals that has free reign to go where they like without supervision. This makes selective breeding virtually impossible without a significant change in our behaviour towards them; essentially we'd have to lock them up all the time. (I believe however that in the US keeping cats indoors and never letting them out is fairly common? Whereas in the rest of the world it's less so.)

So to answer your question: Yes, it's possible in theory, but in practice it's probably not going to happen without a huge sea-change in human-cat relationships. And as ourobouros alluded to above, without a good reason to selectively bred cats, that sea-change isn't going to happen.
posted by underclocked at 5:18 AM on September 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Ourobouros and Underclocked, that makes total sense. I kinda figured that the feral cat population figured into this equation in a significant way.

I'm from Texas, USA, and I've had many cats and dogs over my short life. All cats and dogs have been inside animals, except one - Binky the calico. I loved that cat to death, which is why it was devistating when my dad found her dead laying alongside a dead racoon. I can only guess they met in mortal combat and killed one another. Binky, her ashes are in a box on my parent's shelf.

She's the shortest lived pet we ever had, which is why we stuck to a strict indoor pets only policy going forward.
posted by ggp88 at 5:31 AM on September 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

Somewhat mutually exclusive answers:
(A) Cats domesticated us already.
(B) Apparently the non-feral ones just happen to like hanging out with people. They like us. No need to domesticate.
(C) Dogs have human-like facial expressions. Because of their anatomy and their wiring, cats are expressing joy in being our presence but they’re doing it with their ears and the way they are moving but we don’t recognize it. They’re already domesticated.
posted by Peach at 6:44 AM on September 4, 2021 [4 favorites]

I think the reason this could not happen at this point is that even if we overwhelmingly preferred more social, dog- like cats as pets (which is itself debatable as a universal; as a cat owner, I personally like the elegant stand-offish ones and get enough of the eager bonding from my dog) ... even IF that were true, the cats we keep as pets now tend to be spayed/neutered. Even the feral rescues get neutered once they become pets. Natural selection wouldn't work in this scenario. The most desirable cats in this scenario don't have kittens that have kittens. I'm not counting fancy cat breeders who can make gene magic happen, but we tend to forget that natural selection isn't about having a benefit in general, it's about having those genes dominate into the likelihood of subsequent generations' reproduction.
posted by nantucket at 8:35 AM on September 4, 2021 [8 favorites]

Another one for 'cats domesticated us'. I think we don't have a good grasp of how the following three things interact: evolution, tool-making and education sharing knowledge. We're obsessed with the idea that we're at the tip of nature's evolutionary reach on Planet Earth with its follow-on thought that intelligence will be recognisable to us.

Corvids train their young touse tools as well as to act socially, including teaching them to avoid and abuse bad humans, Dolphins play with us, Cats choose their people and could be out murdering their way through local food webs but instead stay for purring and food. That's intelligence you can't measure on an English-speaking intelligence scale.
posted by k3ninho at 1:24 PM on September 4, 2021 [3 favorites]

I heard a disturbing theory once (sorry, cannot find the source) – because of the success with the spay/neuter programs, the number of previously “feral” cats and their offspring up for adoption is generally decreasing. Because of that, in the (near?) future, most cats will be obtained through breeders having lived with humans for generations, and therefore – yes, will become more like dogs due to selective breeding. Much like you mention in your last paragraphs, but due to the lack of feral cats (apparently, as the silver foxes example shows, friendliness is a dominant trait?).
posted by Dotty at 6:33 AM on September 7, 2021

I think you are also severely underestimating how many people love "anti-social" cats. Like its a feature not a bug to many cat people.

(my cat is a jerk, and I like that about him)
posted by Julnyes at 11:33 AM on September 8, 2021

Cats and dogs Darwinically domesticated themselves via Survival of the Friendliest.
posted by y2karl at 7:39 PM on September 8, 2021

« Older Best website for mood board WITH comments/lists   |   Why is AskMetaFilter Not As Popular As Reddit? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.