Source: New York Post (Extract)
Posted: June 24, 2023

What do cats mean when they meow? Why do modern cats look so different to cats from a few decades ago? And would your cat really eat you if it was a few feet taller?

These are all big questions — but we are living in a golden age of research about cats, according to a new book, “The Cat’s Meow: How Cats Evolved From the Savannah to Your Sofa” by scientist and cat-lover Jonathan Losos.

He writes that scientists are now using techniques learned from the study of wild animals including genetics, GPS tracking and “kitty cameras” to understand more about cats.

In the thousands of years since cats originated from a single species of African wildcat, humans have transformed cats (even in the last few decades: a 1938 National Geographic photo of a Siamese cat looks wildly different from today’s animals), and cats have transformed the world, becoming one of the most successful species on the planet.

But in many ways, cats (whether big or small, wild or domesticated) remain similar to their wild ancestors, and to other species of cat.

Although your cat will not actually eat you, Losos says (in fact, your dog is more likely to). 

“Zookeepers have told me the same thing: if you can read the expressions and body posture of your cat, you can understand what a lion or tiger is thinking,” says Losos. “A cat’s a cat,  whatever its size.”

Where did cats come from?

In total, human beings have tamed 14 species of cats in the last few thousand years, including lions.

But taming is not the same as domesticating an animal — taming refers to controlling an animal’s behavior, whereas domestication is genetic change which leads future generations to be friendlier.

Genetics show that domestication happened once, in north Africa.

From there, cats took over the world.

In Egypt, people tamed everything from cheetahs to servals — but the African wildcat was domesticated, and became the ancestor of every domestic cat on Earth.

Interestingly, in a poll of zookeepers, these African wildcats still rank as the friendliest among wild cat species today.

In the reign of Thutmose III, 3,500 years ago, the city of Bubastis rose to prominence along with the half-cat goddess Bastet.

Good times rolled for cats.

Killing a cat was a crime potentially punishable by death, and families would shave their eyebrows in mourning when a cat died.

Once cats had been domesticated, they became highly desired — and the Egyptians jealously guarded their “discovery” with the Egyptian army using soldiers to retrieve cats while on military expeditions.

“Why cats were desired elsewhere is not clear,” writes Losos.

“It’s possible that their initial spread was solely as a result of maritime activity — sailors valuing cats for their pest-control activities — which served to spread them around the Mediterranean.”

From there, cats went global, spreading along trade routes through the Red Sea, north into Europe and along the Silk Road, reaching India, China and finally Japan.

What do meows mean?

Interestingly, most of us can’t really understand the average cat on the street, but we do (mostly) understand whether our own cats are hungry, lonely, or just want company.

Owners can identify the context of a cat’s meow 60% of the time, while non-owners can identify what a meow means just 25% of the time, according to Losos.

Cats meow to other cats, not just us, his research found — and sometimes even to dogs.

A researcher found that African wildcats — the ancestors of all domestic cats — meow in a “constant din,” but that the sounds are more urgent and aggressive than those of domesticated cats.

“Short, higher pitched sounds are more pleasing to our auditory system, because young humans have high-pitched voices, so cats have evolved to curry our favor,” writes Losos.

Over the thousands of years people have owned cats, purrs have also evolved to sound “nicer” to our ears.

What do your cat’s habits mean?

Some of the habits your cat has — such as ‘kneading’ your chest, like a baby kitten with its mother —  are another way for your cat to bond with you. Hand-raised African wildcats and ocelots will also do the same thing, but it seems likely that domesticated cats evolved the behavior further to build bonds with their humans.

But what about more unusual feline habits? When author Losos noticed one day that his beloved cat Nelson had fetched his wife’s cashmere glove, he thought he had uncovered something new.

“None of the previous seven cats had done this, and I had never heard of such a thing,” Losos writes.

“My head filled up with fabulous ideas: a national tour, The Tonight Show, the Nelson YouTube channel. Fame and fortune to follow.”

Alas, 22% of cats fetch objects, and domesticated cats have also evolved behaviors such as being able to follow a pointing finger and recognize their names. Other behaviors seem to show that humans are treated as very important cats.

One example is when a cat’s tails point aloft like an aerial, which translates roughly as, “I come in peace” in the cat world.

The posture is “a great tribute, indicating we’ve attained honorary cat status,” writes Losos.

What does your cat do when you’re not around?

Using a GPS tracker on his cat, Losos used the GPS location to surprise Winston in places far from his home, such as bushes and yards: Winston was, Losos writes, “sometimes clearly not so happy to see me.”

Researchers now track cats with commercial GPS units and kitty cameras, and volunteers around the world send in logs of where cats go. So where DO cats go when people are not around?

Some cats travel huge distances: a 1-year-old cat in a hilly undeveloped area of Wellington, New Zealand, covered a range of three square miles.

Amusingly, a study found that in Australia, 39% of cats who were not allowed outside at night went out regardless.

Cats entered storm drains, crawl spaces under houses — and other houses, to be fed, with one cat in a recent study frequently returning home smelling of smoke.

Cats also hunt, even if they are well-fed.

If you ever worry about the amount of prey your cat brings home for you, think about this: less than one in four prey killed by cats are taken home to be eaten or deposited as a gift to the homeowner.

Why cat breeds are different (and which are most affectionate)

Nelson, one of Losos’ own cats, is a European Burmese, ranked as the second-most affectionate of all cat breeds, after Sphynx.

“Before he arrived, I never understood what people saw in dogs,” says Losos, “but it’s heartwarming to live with an animal who seems pleased to see you and enjoys your company.”

Losos is a frequent cat show attendee, which he says is an opportunity to see just how much change breeding has wrought on today’s cats. Weird looks win contests, driving breeders to create ever more unusual appearances.

“The typical Siamese cat in the mid-1960s was a slender feline with a somewhat wedge-shaped triangular head,” writes Lesos. “In just a few decades, breeders have transformed that cat into something otherwise unknown in the animal kingdom.”

Most of these breeds have been developed from individuals with unusual appearances — for instance, the short-legged Munchkin came from a pregnant cat found under a pickup truck in Louisiana in 1983 — but some, such as the Savannah cat, come from interbreeding with wild cats (in this case, servals).