Aby-a-Day – December 9: People-pleasing felines (Serious Sunday)

Our friend Sparkle posted on Friday about a recent research study that she disagreed with. The study basically found that purebred cats are more “human-oriented” and friendly than random-bred cats.

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The actual study was published in Volume 7, Issue 6 of the Journal of Veterinary Behaviour (November 2012) titled “Do cats from established breeds behave differently toward humans than outbred cats?” The conclusion? Yes, they do; they tend to be more attached to humans, more dependent on them, and “friendlier” towards them.

Sparkle took offence at the article, mainly because it made it seem like random-bred cats aren’t as friendly as purebred cats as a whole. But actually…I think the researchers are correct – I do agree that in general purebred cats are more attuned to people than random-bred cats, and this is actually what I tell people when they ask me why Jake is so tolerant and patient, unlike “most cats.” This is a subject I’ve read a lot on, as it’s near and dear to my heart: feline genetics. But there’s a couple of factors that do make purebred cats tend to be more human-oriented than random-bred cats:

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Part of the problem is that people inevitably compare cats as human companions to dogs as human companions, and dogs have a decidedly unfair advantage. They’re been domesticated a lot longer than cats have; the current consensus is that dogs have been domesticated for about 12,000 years, while cats have been domesticated about 4,000 years. But cats became domesticated in a very different way than other domesticated animals.

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In other cases of domesticated animals, humans decided to tame and use the animal for a purpose, Dogs, for hunting first, then protection, and then, as humans developed farming, herding; cows, pigs, chickens, goats and sheep, as a ready supply of fresh meat, milk, eggs, leather and wool; and horses, for transportation. These animals were selectively bred by humans to suit their intended purposes better: Cows were bred to produce more milk or meat, chickens more eggs, sheep more wool. Dogs were bred to be better companions to humans: better hunting partners, better farming partners, better guardians to our property and our children. As a result of this long partnership, dogs can read human emotions and facial expressions as well as a human baby. There was a study done that found that dogs will follow your gaze and look where you’re looking, something even our closest ape relatives can’t do. It’s thought that in order to help humans hunt or herd, they needed to understand humans, and this was how they learned to do that. The dogs who best understood humans were selected to breed to produce more puppies who understood humans, generation after generation for 12,000 years.

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Cats, on the other hand, discovered humans later on, after agriculture had been firmly established.
Cats decided to live with us rather than humans deciding to “use” cats to fulfill a specific human need. This is a pretty key difference in the way cats became domesticated, because cats basically domesticated themselves, and chose their own mates, for much longer than any other domesticated species. Humans didn’t intervene with cats’ domestication for the first, they didn’t breed cats to fit a specific purpose or meet a certain standard for the first 3,850 years they coexisted.

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Friendlier cats found it easier to live with humans, but even unfriendly cats could still survive and reproduce. Breeds of cat did start to evolve, but these were based more on physical genetic mutations (length or type of hair, taillessness or short tails, partial albinism, unusual patterns or colours) rather than on personality traits.

At least, not until the mid-1800’s, when the cat fancy started and humans started developing breeds of cats with a purpose. Maybe they weren’t bred to be hunters or herders, but all of a sudden, humans were starting to breed them with a plan in mind. But even then, many of the breeds were still based on a simple physical genetic mutation rather than on personality (long hair for the Persian, curly hair for the Rexes, no tails for the Manx, stubby tails for the Japanese Bobtails, and partial, thermo-restrictive albinism for the Siamese). Of the three oldest recognised breeds of cats, Persian, Siamese and Abyssinian, only one is not based on a physical mutation so much as its based on temperament (guess which one)? Also, many breeds have allowed outcrosses to random-bred cats that meet the breed standard during their development – even now, this is allowed with some breeds.

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But one thing about cats is that kittens “inherit” the personalities of their fathers, even if they never meet them or spend time with them in person. Even if the father’s input is strictly genetic, father cats who are friendly to humans beget friendly kittens. Random-bred male cats aren’t really “kept” by humans as much as they are “hosted.” Purebred stud cats are hard to keep and there are fewer of them than there are breeding queens, and because of this, they’re generally hand-picked to be the “best” cats. Stud cats are highly “selected” and one of the traits they’re chosen for is their personality. The kittens inherit this friendlieness, and the males selected from this generation to pass on their genetic material will be the most personable of these kittens. It may not always be the main trait the breeder is selecting for, but a side-effect of selectively breeding cats is that the males, being harder to keep in a breeding situation, became limited. Fewer purebred males are allowed to pass on their genetic material, but of the males who do reproduce, they father a larger number of kittens. And thus the succeeding litters of purebred kittens were friendly and personable.

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We’re still almost 10,000 years behind them, but the older breeds of purebred cats, I believe, have or are developing the same attachment to humans that dogs have, so yes Abys, Siamese and Persians are more personable and friendly then your average random-bred cat. Of course, “more personable and friendly” can also be interpreted as “more clingy and high-maintenance.” These cats need to have their humans around a lot more than your average moggie from down the road. Generations of human intervention may have made them more friendly, but it also made them less self-sufficient. Imagine a purebred Persian out hunting in the woods. Between the sticks and leaves tangling his fur and the shortened muzzle, making it harder to deliver a killing bite to a mouse, a Persian would have a hard time trying to survive without humans even if his mother was able to teach him to hunt.

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Of course, none of this is to say that random-bred cats can’t or will never be friendly. Of course they can be; they’re cats, after all. But there’s no predictability, especially since feline “friendliness” is so dependent on the father, and the fathers of random-bred felines are seldom known. Furthermore, it’s possible for kittens in the same litter to have different fathers, meaning even littermates can be genetically diverse…and harder to predict, personality-wise. Basically, random-bred cats are just that: random. You can’t predict what you’re going to get.

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To bring it down to a personal level, take Kylie and Angel. Kylie is a random-bred cat; her mother was an odd-eyed white cat named MaryJane, and her humans did not know who the father was, but one kitten in the litter was a tabby. But we raised her from the age of 7 weeks, she was pampered, doted upon, played with and loved, but she’s still an aloof cat. She doesn’t like to be held or to sit on people’s laps. She’s very attached to my husband, but still only on her terms.

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On the other hand, we have Angel. We don’t know who her parents are either, but she’s a purebred. She had a very traumatic kittenhood; we don’t know how much she was cuddled or paid attention to as a kitten, but we do know she was in the shelter for at three nights and was sick much of the time. She had two eye surgeries (one to remove her eye and put in a prosthetic, and one to remove that prosthetic when she rejected it) plus her spay surgery before she was a year old, and she had to live in an upstairs bedroom at her foster home because one of the family cats bullied her. All this before flying across country to live with us. There’s no doubt that she’s damaged. Yet she will run up to greet strangers, she’s not afraid of the vacuum, she cuddles and headbutts and purrs like crazy, and she’s not afraid of strange places and situations. Despite her kittenhood experiences, she’s still an Aby, with the personality and bravery her breed is known for. Odds are, her father was a friendly, brave Aby, too.

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Abys have only been bred for 150 years, and they’re already amazingly attuned to humans. Imagine what they’ll be like in another 10.000 years or so.