Unlike Dogs, Cat Resemble Their Wild Ancestor

Dogs don’t look like they evolved from wolves (though they did). Cats still closely resemble their African wildcat ancestor both in form and behavior.

First, let’s meet the wildcat.

In this cute little video, look carefully for the only two clues that prove Sid and Louise here are true African wildcats, not domestic cats–the reddish-brown fur behind their ears and their very long legs (hard to see because both cats keep their “elbows” bent; wait until around 5:35, when one of them walks past the camera like a cheetah–the typical African wildcat walk is something shorter-legged domestic cats can’t do).

Besides the physical resemblance and a shared taste for rodents, both African wildcats and domestic cats:

  • Are widespread and can adapt to different habitats.
  • Supplement their main diet with other prey items
  • Are solitary and, unlike lions or cheetah males, don’t cooperate during a hunt.
  • Spray urine.
  • Divide up their territory the same way: females base theirs on food, while a male wildcat includes as many females as possible in his territory.
  • Are born blind and helpless, though their developmental milestones may be a little different (at least for captive African wildcats–it’s hard to study this in the wild)
  • Captive female wildcats sometimes bring food for a nursing mother, just as domestic cats will occasionally.
  • Interbreed. Wildcat/domestic cat hybridization is a serious conservation concern in some regions, like Scotland, but thus far it seems to be limited in the Kalahari.

Unlike their relative, the European wildcat (F. s. silvestris), African wildcats will sometimes approach human settlements. But they never do something that is very common among feral domestic cats–form colonies.


Linda Tanner. CC BY 2.0.

Increased tolerance of its own kind is one of the few permanent marks that domestication has left on our cats to distinguish them, even when they go feral, from their beautiful but wild African ancestor.

Domestication has affected dogs much more strongly.

Dogs and cats

Wolves are sociable. So are dogs. So why aren’t there more feral dog packs?

Apparently we “broke” their pack behavior somehow by stepping in as a substitute pack leader during domestication.  (With cats, it was more a combination of “yes, you may hunt here” and blatant bribery.)

Now feral dogs live in groups of breeding pairs, with membership in the group constantly changing. They no longer hunt as a functional pack. Also, feral puppies aren’t taught to hunt the way wolf cubs are, and the adults have tragically poor parenting skills.

Dogs have been domesticated at least 9,000 thousand years longer than cats, and it shows. Besides the loss of pack behavior away from us, they now have fewer developmental stages between puppy and adult.  Even as an adult, a dog’s face is more like a juvenile wolf’s face, with a shorter mandible, steeper forehead, and smaller molars.

This process of juvenilization in domestic animals is called neoteny.

Of course, modern dogs come with a variety of looks, because people have developed them down through the millennia for many different uses.


Possibly including use as a fashion accessory. (Eli Christman. CC BY 2.0.)

We left cats more on their own during domestication, since their major function was pest control.

Human beings have played some role in domestic cat evolution but mostly in terms of coat color and a few other appealing physical features (taillessness in the Manx, for instance).

Unlike dogs, cats are only semi-domesticated. We do control their breeding and food to some extent, but not completely. Cats will be cats.

And people will be people, which is why most cat registries have added the household pet category to their show competitions.


“There’s no need for a piece of sculpture in a home that has a cat” – Wesley Bates. (Image source. Public domain)

How much more will the domestic cat drift apart, physically and in its behavior, from the ancestral African wildcat? Only time will tell.

Featured image: Helena Jacoba. CC BY 2.0.


Driscoll, C. A.; Menotti-Raymond, M.; Roca, A. I.; Hupe, K.; and others. 2007. The Near Eastern origin of cat domestication. Science. 317:519-522.

Goodreads. Wesley W. Bates quote. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/115194-there-s-no-need-for-a-piece-of-sculpture-in-a Last accessed March 28, 2018.

Herbst, M. 2009. Behavioural ecology and population genetics of the African wild cat, Felis silvestris Forster 1870, in the southern Kalahari. PhD thesis, University of Pretoria.

Montague, M. J.; Li, G.; Gandolfi, B.; Khan, R.; and others.  2014.Comparative analysis of the domestic cat genome reveals genetic signatures underlyling feline biology and domestication.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, USA.  111(48):17230-17235.

Sunquist, M. and Sunquist, F. 2002. Wild Cats of the World. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. Retrieved from https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=IF8nDwAAQBAJ

Wikipedia. 2018. Southern African wildcat. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southern_African_wildcat Last accessed March 28, 2018.

Wright, M., and Walters, S. 1980. The Book of the Cat New York: Summit Books.

Yamaguchi, N., Driscoll, C. A., Kitchener, A. C., Ward, J. M., and Macdonald, D. W. 2004. Craniological differentiation between European wildcats (Felis silvestris silvestris), African wildcats (F. s. lybica) and Asian wildcats (F. s. ornata): Implications for their evolution and conservation. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society. 83:47-63.

Zeder, M.A. (2012) Pathways to animal domestication, in i>Biodiversity in Agriculture: Domestication, Evolution and Sustainability, Gepts, P., ed., 227–259. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.