Cats are everywhere on the internet providing the perfect procrastination technique and let’s face it, everyone has at least one friend who is crazy for cats. I have quite a few but one in particular wins the cat obsession prize. She would dress up as a cat for Halloween, wear anything cat related (preferably space cats), would yell out from the back of a lecture theatre on a talk about cats and dogs “YAY CATS” and entice two cats into her household with catnip. Her hen party was consequently cat themed.
To honour this obsession and all those feline fanatics, this blog article focuses on recent scientific cat news.
From Wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica) to Domesticated Cat (Felis silvestris catus)
It turns out cats were not originally domesticated in Ancient Egypt. The first feline remains were from a Neolithic site in Cyprus dated to 9500 years ago unearthed by the archaeologist Jean-Dean Vigne from Paris in 2001. But cats are not native to Cyprus.
Carlos Driscoll from the National Cancer Institute, USA led a study examining wildcat DNA (from around the world) to determine where cats were first domesticated. He found that of the five distinct wildcat lineages: the European, South African, Central Asia, Chinese desert and the Near Eastern, it was the Near Eastern lineage that gave rise to domesticated cats. Interestingly, the study highlighted that domesticated cats are genetically closer to wildcats from the Israel desert, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and (as my cat-obsessed friend would love if she knew) the UAE. It has thus been suggested that people from Turkey brought domesticated animals with them when they settled in Cyprus.
The first cat that had its full genome sequenced was in 2007. She was an Abyssinian cat called Cinnamon who lived at the University of Missouri, USA. The study published in Genome Research described the structure of the cat genome with an emphasis on genetic diseases, as cats have about 200 genetic diseases similar to humans including type 2 diabetes, asthma, leukaemia and the cat version of HIV; feline immunodeficiency virus. This was followed up by a study in 2014 which sequenced additional cat genomes and identified genes and traits selected for in domesticated cats. These included genes for fear conditioning, reward/stimulus behaviour, and within the past 200 years when cat fancy took off, aesthetic qualities such as hair colour, texture and pattern began to be selected for. Now a sequencing initiative led by Leslie Lyons at the University of Missouri aims to sequence 99 cats as part of the grand project 99 Lives to improve cat health care. They revealed their initial results at a meeting in San Diego, California in January. Anyone with a cat can participate if you can get your cat to remain still long enough to get a DNA sample!
I iz giving u present human
As much as cats may have become more docile since they have been domesticated, they are still highly temperamental creatures ready to pounce and kill any poor unsuspecting bird or animal, and then drag it into your kitchen, or worse place it conveniently on your pillow which you wake up to. But why do this? Researchers in Washington suggest that it could be because they are trying to teach you hunting skills. Female cats are more likely to bring back dead animals and it is in their nature to try and teach their litter to be effective predators. They will do this by bringing back small mammals at various stages between life and death to be mauled by the kittens as practise.
To capitalise on this, the animal charity in London Wood Green teamed up with the cleaning and DIY service Handy to provide kittens and cats at the rescue service to Londoners to get rid of mice. The idea has been welcomed as a way for kittens aged between 2-8 months to get used to new environments which they will eventually move into, dramatically reducing the cat’s stress on arrival.
Soft kitty, warm kitty, little ball of fur, happy kitty, sleepy kitty, purr, purr, purr
In a new environment, a cat will always get to know its surroundings and would like to feel in control of it before it can completely chill. Even the charity Wood Green suggests adding a piece of cloth with the scent of their old home into the new one just to make the cats feel relaxed. Cats do experience stress and it can affect their immune systems. Suffice to say, they certainly know how to de-stress… by taking refuge in boxes! Dr Claudia Vinke at the University of Utrecht, Netherlands conducted a study comparing stress levels between two groups of new feline arrivals at a shelter, and found that those who could take refuge were a lot less stressed. It is not just boxes though; it could be any container, just take a look at this video.
Faster, human, feed, feed!
As it turns out, cats have their own language when communicating with us as research by Sharon Crowell-Davies at University Georgia, USA revealed at a conference this year. It appears as though cats will try a certain vocalisation on us and if it gets the desired result, they will continue to use it (BBC Video). A cat’s meow is the perfect example of how they can so easily manipulate us. Dr Karen McComb at the University of Sussex investigated why we just can’t ignore a cat’s purr. The “cry” contains a low and a high frequency element to it. Remove the high frequency and this removes the urgency.
If that wasn’t enough to manipulate you, then perhaps you need to be infected by the uni-cellular parasite Toxoplasma gondii. When it infects rodents, it makes them fearless and more prone to take risks, like taking a stroll near a cat which will ultimately meets its doom by said cat. The parasite reproduces in the cat’s digestive system and continues to infect the cat in cycles. People can be infected by the parasite through kitty litter or contaminated water, but it can’t reproduce in us. In pregnant women, it can lead to miscarriage. If we are infected we will experience flu-like symptoms but once that passes we remain carriers for life, and it will rewire our brains. Interestingly it has different effects in men and women. It makes men more introverted, suspicious and rebellious, and it makes women more extraverted, trusting, obedient and friendly, something that the cat could benefit from. This certainly gives a new meaning to the term Crazy Cat Lady!
Now I don’t own a cat even though I remember my childhood cat that lived to the grand old age of 19. I am not obsessed with them but I can see the allure of the cute kitty (I had a cat-fling just last year with my neighbour’s cat Theo before he disappeared in November). Despite the science revealing why the little critters will always bring dead animals into our homes or how they actively manipulate us, these fur balls on four legs will always be dear to our hearts, and even if you don’t have one, well there are always YouTube videos.
This blog piece is dedicated to Karima Steele 16 May 1983- 3 February 2015. She is the friend who wins the cat obsession prize. She was doing her PhD at the Neuroscience department, University of Sheffield. Her memorial service was held on 9 May 2015 at the Sacred Heart Church, Hillsborough.