Planet Earth

Breeding a better companion cat

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanSep 9, 2013 2:22 AM

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John Bradshaw, author of Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet, has an intriguing observation:

GROSS: You know, so many people get their cats from shelters, and so many of the cats in shelters - well many of the cats in shelters are the offspring of feral cats. And so many housecats are neutered. Are we breeding cats who succeed on the streets, more so than we're breeding cats who are successful domesticated pets? BRADSHAW: Well, I think we are accidentally favoring the cat that lives on the street, because it's the cat that lives on the street who produces offspring. Many of those, you know, do sadly die of injury or disease or whatever, but some of them end up in rescue, the lucky ones, and then become pets. Now if we're going to neuter a large majority of our pet cats, that means that the most successful cats, and the most successful cats that are best adapted to living in people's houses, never leave any offspring. And so where the next generation of cats comes from is from cats that are - whose parents, anyway, were adapted to living on the street. Now that's OK for a while, and I'm not saying there's an imminent crisis, you know. It's over the horizon. But it's going to be there. I think that cats are going to become very, very slightly less friendly with every generation. And eventually we're going to come to the point where cats become less attractive, less appealing, because they're much harder to socialize. At the moment you can do a huge amount, probably everything you need to, by handling the kittens and treating them the right way. I'm just hopeful that we won't ever get to the point where some kittens really just don't respond to handling in the same way that wild kittens don't. The kittens of wild cats don't respond to handling. They just go wild again, eventually.

This is standard quantitative genetics logic. The devil here is in the details, though it's not implausible on the face of it. But if true the solution is also available via evolutionary genetics: instead of selecting for salient aesthetic characteristics breeders should pick particular amiable individuals lacking in species typical ferocity.

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