Why Are Kittens Born Helpless?

It’s hard to believe that newborn kittens grow up to be predators. Cuteness is only part of it. These blind and deaf little furballs have a good sense of smell but little strength or coordination. They can’t even control their body temperature at first!

In contrast, a caribou calf can travel cross-country within a few hours of birth. Its lifestyle demands this.

People are somewhere in the middle. Unlike kittens, babies are born with eyes and ears open, yet it still takes us a while to develop the ability to sit up, let alone walk.

The technical name for animals that bear helpless young is “altricial.” It’s related to the word “altruism,” and the parents certainly do have to make sacrifices for their young.

Since there are obvious advantages to having youngsters that require less care after birth, like the caribou, why are some placental mammals altricial?

The short answer is brain size; also, the need to find a balance between feeding your young and protecting them from predators.

Here is more information.

How kittens develop

Adult cat brains are proportionately bigger than a caribou’s. But at birth the brain of a kitten weighs less than a quarter of its full-grown weight.

This probably comes as no surprise to anyone who has ever seen a kitten.

What’s inside those little heads will grow along with the rest of the body, and in the process, somehow acquire and store all the information they need to become apex predators (domestic cats are usually the dominant small predator in a human-dominated environment).

During the first month of life, a kitten learns about the world through smell and touch, developing attachment to the mother cat and interacting with litter mates.

By month two, the world is one big playhouse. The Internet community is not unaware of this life stage:

It’s adorable, but these kittens are instinctively learning and practicing survival skills–skills that the adult cats will never need if they stay close to loving and responsible human friends.

The outside world is harsher. Playtime lasts until about age six months for feral kittens–then Mom drives the males away from the den. If they can survive on their own, the young toms will eventually establish a territory somewhere else.

This seems horribly cruel, but such dispersal is common in mammals. It’s probably also a major reason why cougars have such a wide range today – from the tip of South America up into the Canadian Yukon!

Young domestic she-cats set up their territory closer to home, when they reach adulthood, and may become part of a feral cat colony.

Luckier kittens–those born indoors or found by someone–usually settle into their forever home around eight weeks, right after weaning.

However, cat breeders and savvy owners know that the kittens will be more comfortable around people later on if they are handled a little bit every day from around the ages of two to seven weeks.

No one knows why. But cats that don’t get that human contact at just the right time in early life tend to be a lot more anxious and wary; they even may have behavior problems.

Young cats don’t keep journals, so we have no idea what’s going on in their heads. But it’s obvious that the slower development of altricial animals, with its mysterious timing and unknown processes, has important long-term effects.

A cognitive buffer?

When feral kittens are about three months old, Mom starts bringing them live prey for hunting practice. It’s probably not a coincidence that this is also the age when a kitten’s brain reaches its adult size.

But even as the kittens stumble along, learning the age-old techniques of predation, they already see a slightly different world than their mother does.

Over the last three impressionable months, they have absorbed details of things as they are now, not as they were when Mom was born. Since the natural world is very complex and interconnected, these altricial youngsters have probably picked up on subtle changes and/or interconnections that not even their mother is aware of.

Some experts call this the cognitive buffer effect. It may or may not make a big difference later on in life, but it does raise a question.

Domestic cats always live near people, and we do make sudden, sometimes drastic changes in the environment. Could this built-in adaptability between generations be a reason why cats have kept up with us down through the years?

That’s an open-ended question. The benefits of having a relatively large brain aren’t obvious. It might also be connected to how animals forage for food (such an association has been found in bats) or even have something to do with social development.

But there must be benefits; otherwise, cats and other altricial animals would have gone extinct long ago–it’s very “expensive” in biological terms to develop so slowly after birth.

Too expensive, apparently, for precocial animals–those like caribou whose newborns (or newly hatched young’uns) are rarin’ to go.

Nourishing and protecting the young

Altricial and precocial animals are two extremes of a whole spectrum of developmental styles that researchers are trying hard to understand today.

And as mentioned above, people are roughly in the middle. So are parrots, oddly enough. Long ago in this dangerous and unpredictable world, our ancestors (and Polly’s) worked out a balance between feeding newborns and protecting them.

Finding food without becoming food yourself is quite a challenge for any living being in the wild. And on top of that, in order to avoid extinction, you must bring new life into the world and make sure that it survives long enough to reproduce.

Animals have solved this problem in different ways. Precocial caribou, for example, keep their young inside until they have developed enough to stand and walk. This is a very good solution to the predator problem, but it is physically very demanding on the mother. Too, it limits brain size.

As we’ve seen, altricial cats take months to develop after birth, ending up with comparatively big brains. But again, this is rough on the mother cat. She must hunt enough on her own to bring the kittens to term and then to produce milk for them. After that, she has to bring food back to the den as well as catch something for herself.

Including some rays now and then:

Life will always find some way to survive and reproduce, even if humans don’t fully understand it. Caribou continue to have calves because it works for them. Cats have kittens, and that works out, too.

People are in the middle of the spectrum, but unlike all other living beings, we just can’t resist wondering what it’s all about.

Featured image: Christian Holmér, CC BY 2.0.


Bateson, P. 2014. Behavioural development in the cat, in The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour, eds Turner, D. C., and Bateson, P. New York: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=m-NRAgAAQBAJ

Benson-Amram, S.; Dantzer, B.; Stricker, G.; Swanson, E. M.; and Holekamp, K. E. 2016. Brain size predicts problem-solving ability in mammalian carnivores. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(9): 2532-2537.

Bradshaw, J. 2013. Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You A Better Friend to Your Pet. New York: Basic Books. Retrieved from https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=iU8PAAAAQBAJ

Dukas, R., and Ratcliffe, J. M., eds, 111-134. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Ehrlich, P. R.; Dobkin, D. S.; and Wheye, D. 1988. Precocial and altricial young. https://web.stanford.edu/group/stanfordbirds/text/essays/Precocial_and_Altricial.html Last accessed April 20, 2018.

Gittleman, J. L. 1986. Carnivore brain size, behavioral ecology, and phylogeny. Journal of Mammalogy, 67(1): 23-36.

Isler, K., and Van Schaik, C. P. 2009. Why are there so few smart mammals (but so many smart birds)?. Biology Letters, 5(1): 125-129.

Pagel, M. D., and Harvey, P. H. 1988. How mammals produce large-brained offspring. Evolution, 42(5): 948-957.

Robertson, S. 2008. A review of feral cat control. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. 10:366-375.

Sol, D 2009. The cognitive-buffer hypothesis for the evolution of large brains, in Cognitive Ecology II, Dukas, R., and Ratcliffe, J. M., eds, 111-134. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Turner, D. C. 2000. The human-cat relationship, in The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour, Turner, D. C., and Bateson, P., eds, 193-206. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vonk, J. 2016. Bigger brains may make better problem-solving carnivores. Learning and Behavior, 44(2): 99-100.

Why Do Cats Have Long Hair?

There certainly are a lot of long-haired domestic kitties out there!

And their ancestor didn’t come from Egypt, because ancient tomb paintings in that land only show short-haired felines.

So where do long-haired cats come from?

It’s hard to say, Once Rome opened up Egypt shortly before the Christan Era dawned, Egyptian cats went both east and west with traders, as well as north into Europe with Roman legions.

There is no record of this crucial period in the domestic cat’s history, but some clues exist.

Genetic studies of today’s cats suggest that their Egyptian ancestors were especially popular in what is now western Turkey for a thousand years after the former little gods left their temples and homes. Other domestic cat lines were present, but the Egyptians outnumbered them 2:1. (Ottoni and others)

Other researchers say that the major gene affecting hair length – FGF5 – mutated in at least three different ways to give cats long hair. (Bach; Kehler and others)

The rarest mutation shows up in the Norwegian Forest Cat. The most common mutation, oddly enough, seems to have happened in a rare set of shorthair genes – in plain English, one small group of shorthaired cats developed a mutation for long hair that most of today’s longhairs carry.

No one knows for sure where it happened, or when, but the rare shorthair genes that mutated into long hair are most common in Iran’s cats today.

And the longhaired moggies of Turkey and Israel now have the highest frequency of that common FGF5 mutation.

None of this is “smoking gun” evidence, but it does raise chances for this region being the place where long hair in cats first developed.

As for when the common mutation happened (technically, when it became fixed in the cat line), it had to be earlier than the 1500s. That’s when longhaired cats first reached Europe, carried there as souvenirs by an Italian traveler who had passed through the Levant.

On the other side of the Eurasian continent, paintings from China’s Tang period (618-907 CE) show long-haired cats as aristocratic pets at least six centuries before these felines reached the West.

Some think that Iranian traders brought the longhairs into China along the Silk Road. (Rio Wang)


Got room for a clowder of cats! Shorthairs on the left, longhairs on the right.

Those traders could have brought the kitties westward along this famous trade route, too, since silks and other East Asian luxuries were very popular in Rome. However, the Roman Empire collapsed in the fifth century CE and so did Europe’s connection to the Silk Road.

So all we can say is that FGF5 mutations that give domestic cats long hair probably happened in or around what are now Turkey and Iran, some time after Rome conquered Egypt and before the Tang dynasty began showing off its beautiful pets seven or eight centuries later.


Featured image: Imperialiss at Pixabay. Public domain.

Camel caravan: Nikola Belopitov at Pixabay. Public domain.


Bach, L. H. 2004. Analysis of FGF5 and construction of a high-resolution radiation hybrid panel for the domestic cat. PhD thesis, Michigan State University.

Kehler, J.; David, V.; Schäffer, A.; Bajema, K.; Eizirik, E.; and others. 2007. Four independent mutations in the feline fibroblast growth factor 5 gene determine the long-haired phenotype in domestic cats. Journal of Heredity. 98(6):555-566.

Ottoni, C.; Van Neer, W.; De Cupere, B.; Daligault, J.; and others. 2017. The palaeogenetics of cat dispersal in the ancient world. Nature Ecology & Evolution. 1:0139.

Poemas del Río Wang. 2010. Chinese cats. http://riowang.blogspot.com/2010/05/chinese-cats.html Last accessed November 25, 2017.

Species Facts: The Andes Mountain Cat


Not many facts about the Andean mountain cat are available.  It’s presently known to science as Leopardus jacobita.

This little feline resident of the Andes is so good at avoiding people that, even in 1998, only two sightings had been reported. (Johnson and others)

By the end of the twentieth century, all scientists had to prove that this cat wasn’t a figment of their imagination were three skulls and less than forty museum specimens, each one at least sixty years old. (Johnson and others)

By 2002, things hadn’t changed much. Experts reported that the only proof of the Andean mountain cat’s existence was the occasional pelt appearing in local fur markets. (Sunquist and Sunquist)

Now, with the help of technology, the Internet, and many devoted scientists willing to do what it takes to get up into the mountain cat’s home ground, this has happened!

Only one question remains: What did they put in that bait?

Featured image: Jim Sanderson. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Johnson, W. E.; Culver, M.; Iriarte, J.A.; Eizirik, E.; and others. 1998. Tracking the evolution of the elusive Andean mountain cat (Oreailurus jacobita) from mitochondrial DNA. The Journal of Heredity. 89(3): 227-232.

Sunquist, M. and Sunquist, F. 2002. Wild cats of the world. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Egyptian Mau and Persian Cats Are Losing Their Roots

That’s genetic roots, not hair coloring.

Researchers have discovered that two of the most popular fancy-cats – the Egyptian Mau and Persians – are losing genetic links with their original feline races. (Lipinski and others)

After cats were domesticated thousands of years ago in the Near East and Egypt (Driscoll and others, 2007; Serpell), they developed eight races as they spread out over the world.  These included the race from modern-day Iran/Iraq. (Kurushima and others, 2012a)

Many cats stayed in ancient Egypt; today’s Egyptian cats are descended from them and their ancient forebears. (Kurushima and others, 2012b.

“Plumy Persians,” as English writer G. K. Chesterton called the long-haired beauties, became so popular in France and England after their arrival in Europe during the 1500s that they were bred intensively for an increasingly extreme appearance.  As a result, today’s genetic tests place the Persian in the European race of cats, not those from Persia. (Kurishima and others, 2012a; Lipinski and others)

The Egyptian Mau still retains some of its original genetic heritage, but its genes show a strong European influence. (Lipinski and others)


Featured image: Egyptian Mau (left) by Nickolas Titkov. CC BY-SA 2.0. Persian cat (right) by Si Griffiths. CC BY-SA 3.0.

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.

Kurushima, J. D.; Lipinski, M. J.; Gandolfi, B.; Froenicke, J. C.; Grahn, J. C.; Grahn, R. A.; and Lyons, L. A. 2012a. Variation of cats under domestication: genetic assignment of domestic cats to breeds and worldwide random-bred populations. Animal Genetics. 44:311-324.

Kurushima, J. D.; Ikram, S.; Knudsen, J.; Bielberg, E.; and others. 2012b. Cats of the pharaohs: Genetic comparison of Egyptian cat mummies to their feline contemporaries. Journal of Archaeological Science. 39(10):3217-3223.

Lipinski, M. J.; Froenicke, L.; Baysac, K. C.; Billings, N. C.; and others. 2008. The ascent of cat breeds: genetic evaluation of breeds and worldwide random bred populations. Genomics. 91(1):12-21.

Serpell, J. A. 2014. Domestication and history of the cat, in The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour, eds Turner, D. C., and Bateson, P., 83-100. New York: Cambridge University Press.

The Little Big Cat

Someone has said that the domestic cat gives us an opportunity to safely caress the tiger. How true!

Except for size, cats are all built pretty much alike.  They act alike, too.  (Turner and Antón)

Paleontologists are still working out exactly how that beautiful shape evolved (Werdelin and others), but it’s ideal for stalking and ambushing prey.

The cheetah is the only specialized pursuit predator in this family (Andersson and Werdelin), but all cats are good at short sprints. In general, feline leg length is a compromise between short legs for power and long legs for speed. (Kitchener and others)

The fact that cats are meat specialists has shaped their mouth and skull. (Holliday and Steppan)

They have lost most teeth that aren’t used for processing flesh. Adult house cats only have 30 teeth, while dogs, who can grind food as well as slice it, have 42.

Cats have shorter faces than other carnivores because meat is 70% or more of their diet. (Holliday and Steppan)  Since they use their fangs to kill prey, this shortened distance to the jaw joint protects the teeth and increases the overall bite force. (Kitchener and others)

Unlike other domestic animals, house cats haven’t changed much. (Hart and others; Van Neer and others)

They are more colorful and a little more nimble than their closest wild relative, the wildcat (Montague and others), but the biggest difference is that a house cat raises its tail in a friendly greeting, something no wild cat has ever been seen doing. (Bateson and Turner)

Image:  By JusBen at morguefile.com


Andersson, K., and Werdelin, L. 2003. The evolution of cursorial carnivores in the Tertiary: implications of elbow joint morphology. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B (supplement). 270:S163-S165.

Bateson, P., and Turner, D. 2014. Postscript: questions and some answers, in The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour, eds, Turner, D., and Bateson, P., 232-240. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hart, B. L.; Hart, L. A.; and Lyons, L.  2014.  Breed and gender behaviour differences:  relation to the ancient history and origin of the domestic cat, in The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour, eds, Turner, D., and Bateson, P., 155-165. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Holliday, J. A., and Steppan, S. J. 2004. Evolution of hypercarnivory: the effect of specialization on morphological and taxonomic diversity. Paleobiology. 30(1):108-128.

Kitchener, A. C., Van Valkenburgh, B., and Yamaguchi, N. 2010. Felid form and function, in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, ed. D. W. Macdonald and A. J. Loveridge, 83-106. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Oxford.

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

Turner, A., and M. Antón. 1997. The Big Cats and Their Fossil Relatives: An Illustrated Guide to Their Evolution and Natural History. New York: Columbia University Press.

Van Neer, W.; Linseele, V.; Friedman, R.; and De Cupere, B. 2014. More evidence for cat taming at the Predynastic elite cemetary of Hierakonpolis (Upper Egypt). Journal of Archaeological Science. 45:103-111.

Werdelin, L.; Yamaguchi, N.; Johnson, W. E.; and O’Brien, S. J.. 2010. Phylogeny and evolution of cats (Felidae), in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, ed. D. W. Macdonald and A. J. Loveridge, 59-82. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Starting tomorrow, I will be posting at least one fact a day here about house cats, fancy cats, the big cats, all those other wild cats, and/or the awesome sabertoothed cats.

This is in aid of a series of 50 Facts About Cats ebooks that I will self-publish this fall as a retirement project.

By liking or commenting on a post, you can help me decide which facts should go into each book.  Or you can just sit back and enjoy some insights into one of the most amazing and popular animal groups on this planet – the cat family Felidae.
IMAGE:  Featured image is by Harrison Weir in Our Cats and All About Them, 1889.