It is thought that today’s domestic cats are descended from the African Wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica). Domestication probably began in the vicinity of ancient Egypt, some four thousand or so years ago. The domestic cat’s ancestors were first attracted to human dwellings because there was a plentiful supply of rodents. And because the rodents were a pest, humans befriended these cunning little rat-killers – a hugely beneficial development for both species!
When it flares up with rage or in alarm, any domestic cat will give a vivid impersonation of its ancestral Wildcat. The cat will bare its teeth and make itself look as frightening as possible.
It is possible, and it is happening – through breeding. In various areas, such as Scotland, where the Wildcat is already rare, and in the French and Swiss Alps, male domestic cats are mating with female Wildcats.
Not really – the fierce, wild qualities dominate.
Q. Our neighbourhood is being terrorised by a particularly fierce torn cat. Does he pose a threat to our kitten?
An unneutered tom can be very territorial, a throwback to its wild origins, and might attack a kitten if he felt his territory was being threatened.
During the long period of its domestication, differences have evolved between the cat and its wild ancestor. These differences have helped the cat to become such a numerous and popular pet today. Wildcats have a very tightly defined breeding period, raising just a single litter per year, whereas domestic cats are potentially far more prolific, capable of having up to three litters a year.
Naturally, the domestic cat has become accustomed to human contact, although something of the Wildcat’s wariness is still not far below the surface. This can be seen in feral kittens, which will invariably remain shy, even if they are brought into the home at an early age. Friendliness is an increasingly vital attribute for the domestic cat, now that its role as a rodent-killer has been largely superseded by other control measures.
The old hunting instincts remain more in evidence in some cats than others. For example a farm kitten that has watched its mother catch quarry is more likely to dispatch prey effectively in later life than a Persian reared in a cattery. But the endearingly playful nature of almost all cats is largely based on the hunting rituals of its ancestor – the stalking, ambushing and mock kills which are such a feature of cat games. Although cats are forced to live at much greater densities than their wild ancestors, territorial behaviour is still displayed: scratching trees, spraying urine and even fighting with a rival, if necessary.
- Though all domestic cats trace their ancestry to the African Wildcat, the Bengal is also related to the attractive Leopard Cat (Felis bengalensis).
- The Wildcat’s tabby markings are still common in domestic cats. They provide what is termed ‘disruptive camouflage’, breaking up the line of the body.
- Domestic cats that have reverted back to living in the wild (so-called feral cats) are fierce and shy, preying on local wildlife. Like Wildcats, they shun humans.