Gazette Vet: Your Cat’s Inner Wildcat

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by John Andersen, DVM

If you’ve read my column enough, you’ll know that I love considering the link that our domestic dogs have to their ancestor the gray wolf. As we try to understand why dogs behave the way they do, we can always look back to the original design to get some insight.

What about cats? Where did the domestic cat come from? Can we also gain insight into their behavior from a wild ancestor?

Recent DNA evidence as well as archeological evidence traces the origin of the domestic cat back to the Fertile Crescent (current day Iraq) about 10,000-12,000 years ago. DNA analysis has specifically linked our modern day domestic cat to five species of wildcats: the Central Asian wildcat, Southern African wildcat, European wildcat, Chinese desert cat, and the sand cat.

The theory is that as human civilization started to grow, we built homes, storehouses for our crops, and areas for refuse. These areas attracted rodents, which in turn attracted these cats. And so, cats essentially domesticated themselves. We tolerated them because they controlled the rodents, and they tolerated us because we provided them food. Eventually this relationship grew more intimate and soon the domesticated cat was here to stay.

Interestingly, the domestication of dogs and horses was really the other way around—we would seek out and capture wolf pups and horses and then train them to fill a need for us (e.g. protection, travel, hunting). Isn’t that just typical…cats just went ahead and domesticated themselves.

Back to our little wildcats. In researching these five species of wildcats, they are very similar to other species of wildcats in the world, including our bobcats here in Virginia. These wildcats are close in size to our domestic cats and their facial features are strikingly similar. Wildcats tend to hunt small mammals like rodents and rabbits, but are able to hunt a wide variety of prey including birds, reptiles, and fish. They mostly hunt at night, using their stealth to get close to their prey until they are close enough to pounce and capture it.

They are also a prey species themselves, vulnerable to attack from larger animals such as wild dogs. This gives them a very cautious and sometimes nervous approach to life. Wildcats are usually solitary hunters, but are social when mating or in families. They communicate their boundaries with other cats via urine marking, feces, and scratching trees and other objects.

Young wildcats learn to hunt by playing with their siblings. Most of their play involves pouncing, pawing, biting, and chasing.

Any of this remind you of your little wildcat?

How about all the nervous cats out there? Many cats will jump with loud noises and are often “on edge.” Or they walk around always on guard as if someone is going to get them. These guys remember that they are both predators and prey.

Or your cat that wakes you up at 3 a.m.? Unfortunately we never got the nocturnal nature out of them. They still seem to just sleep all day and stay up a lot at night.

Have you had a kitten before? You can probably remember being pounced on, play-bitten, and scratched up. That was just your little wildcat learning how to hunt.

Have you ever had a cat who was urinating or defecating inappropriately? Well, it may be inappropriate for you, but perfectly normal communication for your cat. We are very fortunate that cats use litter boxes. We are simply taking advantage of an instinct to urinate in that type of surface with no training at all. Watching a six-week-old kitten walk into a litter box, go to the bathroom, and then try to cover it up is really an amazing sight as bizarre as that may sound. Often cats are urinating and defecating outside of the box when they are either stressed or sick—i.e., communicating in their own special way.

We can also learn a lot about their diet. Wildcats are strict carnivores, preferring small mammals. A mouse is a meal high in protein, low in carbohydrates, and consists of about 75 percent water. Most people feed their cats dry cat food, which is usually not so high in protein, often contains 40-50 percent carbohydrates, and 3-5 percent water! It is no wonder we see such a high incidence of obesity, diabetes, kidney, and urinary problems in our domestic cats. Canned cat food is actually much more optimal nutrition for cats. Regular canned cat foods such as Fancy Feast contain higher protein than dry food, usually all meat-based protein (whereas many dry foods add in vegetable-based protein which is not the same), much lower carbohydrate levels (usually 5-10 percent) and much higher water content (often around 75 percent). It seems that the old conventional wisdom was to feed cats dry food because it’s good for their teeth. And although that may be partially true, there is no evidence that canned food is bad for their teeth and the health benefits of a canned food diet outweigh any dental benefits.

The next time a nature program comes on that is about wildcats, be sure to watch it. I recently saw one program following a family of mountain lions and it was simply astounding to see all of the similarities between them and my own little wildcat. I just wish she’d stop the whole nocturnal hunting thing.