Book Preview: Some fancy-cats are losing their genetic heritage

There are many DNA tests for dog breeds, but cats? Not so much.

This isn’t anti-feline discrimination.

It has taken us thousands of years and lots of selective breeding to turn gray wolves into chihuahuas. But fanciers have been focusing on cats only since the 1870s.

There just hasn’t been enough time to develop DNA changes that register on today’s testing.

Geneticists are off to a good start, though–they’ve identified multiple feline races. But along the way, they have also uncovered evidence that intensive breeding has erased the genetic heritage of some fancy-cats.

House cats have races?

Short answer: It involves molecular markers in their genes, not fur color or length. Because of the way domestic cats first spread across the world, they now show differences that can be traced back to Asia, the Mediterranean region, Western Europe, or Africa.

More specifically, geneticsts have found eight original populations (a/k/a races):

  1. Egypt (of course)
  2. Iran/Iraq
  3. Eastern Mediterranean
  4. Western Europe
  5. Arabian Sea
  6. India
  7. Southern Asia
  8. Eastern Asia

Details: The early history of domestic cats is strictly an Old-World story. This particular group of small kitties is not native to the Americas.

In the Old World, after the last ice age had ended, some African wildcats began the long journey into domestication alongside people in the Fertile Crescent, which includes much of what we call the Middle East today.

A few millennia later, thousands upon thousands of domestic cats were living in private homes and temple catteries along the banks of the Nile River. Some of the glory of Ancient Egypt rubbed off on these pets, and they became must-have status symbols for the international elite.

As early as 1700 BC, pharaohs outlawed cat exporting, and even sent officials out to retrieve smuggled felines. Nevertheless, geneticists say, Egyptian cat lineages spread around the eastern Mediterranean, starting around the 8th century BC. By the 5th century AD, they were fairly common here and in Asia Minor.

Back then, the equivalent of our Internet was a network of trade routes. It ran on plodding beasts of burden and harnessed the restless wind on rivers from Continue reading


Book Preview: Fact #18. The cat-dog split goes almost all the way back to the K/T (K/Pg) extinction.

Cats and dogs are with us today; that is, they’re domesticated animal members of the human family.

But they are also predators by nature, just like their wild relatives, which include but aren’t limited to lions, tigers, wolves, and bears.

These particular members of the order Carnivora all have claws, fangs, and powerful hunting instincts, but a few others get by without such tools. This is why biologists trying to classify animals look for a set of specialized meat-slicing teeth (called carnassials) that all carnivorans have.

That’s just step #1. The boffins then must file each of the world’s 280-plus carnivoran species (and over 350 fossil groups) into one of Carnivora’s two natural suborders: feliform and caniform.

“Form” here doesn’t refer to the animal’s outward appearance. It involves some dental features as well as certain cranial structures around the ear and skull base that only a zoologist or paleontologist could love.

These anatomical details are all one way in cats and other feliforms and all another way in caniforms, including dogs.

Scientists don’t understand why such a difference exists. But they do know that it has been around for more than 60 million years.

Do cats and dogs go back to the K/T extinction?

Short answer: No, but Carnivora probably does (its origin story isn’t completely known yet). However, while early small, weasel-like carnivorans already had some feliform/caniform distinctions, they had to play second-fiddle to a group of apex predators called creodonts for tens of millions of years.

Details: Today, Feliformia includes hyenas, oddly enough, as well as civets, meerkats and other mongooses, Asiatic linsangs, and a few other groups in addition to the cat family Felidae.

A young Asiatic linsang:

Caniforms other than dogs include, but aren’t limited to, bears, raccoons, skunks, weasels, foxes, otters, badgers, and (believe it or not) seals and walruses.

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Book Preview: A group of small African and Eurasian cats shares the scientific name Felis with house cats.

Am making good progress on the final draft of “50 Facts About Domestic Cats (And Where They Come From).” This is Fact #14. Thanks for your interest and patience!

When Linnaeus set out to classify all life on Earth back in the late 18th century–you have to admire the man’s “can-do” attitude–he named the whole cat family Felis after its most popular member, the domestic cat.

He was Swedish but wrote in Latin–a language that scientists still use for what’s now called Linnaean classification. This system includes a genus name like Felis followed by a species name, say, leo for lions.

Down through the centuries, zoologists have broken down that very broad Felis category as they learned more about the various cats and how each group evolved. There are still some controversies, but almost everyone agrees on these genus names:

  • Felis
  • Lynx
  • Acinonyx (cheetah)
  • Neofelis (clouded leopards)
  • Panthera (the big cats). Lions are now Panthera leo

At the time of writing, there are at least nine other cat groups, depending on which authority you check. The house cat is well settled into Felis and it has four other adorable (but very wild) little companions.

Why “Felis”? Why not “cattus”?

Short answer: Actually, ancient Romans used both words. Perhaps Linnaeus went with “Felis” because another great scholar with a can-do attitude–Pliny the Elder–used it in his late-first-century master work The Natural History.

Details: There will always be mysteries about the house cat. One such puzzle is where cats went right after they left Egypt.

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Guest Video: Official “Kedi” Trailer

I just discovered this while researching a part of the book about cats and Islam. Am not connected with the movie in any way, but I’m definitely going to watch it!

If the words “cats and Islam” ring a bell, perhaps you have seen some 2016 images and videos of the imam who opened up his mosque to stray cats in winter. Kindness towards cats is a tradition in the Muslim world, as the above linked article explains.

Perhaps you saw this video, too. That mother kitty is carrying her kittens through a mosque right up into the “pulpit” where the imam usually stands. And everybody loves it!

She needed that place and they gave it to her. Wonderful!

Featured image by brewbooks, Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0.