A study of the feline genome is providing new insights into how and why cats became domesticated. Compared to dogs, cat domestication is a relatively recent occurrence (30,000 years for dogs vs. 9,000 for cats), but researchers can still find signs of domestication in their DNA.
The lure of treats
Key findings from the cat genome project show that domestication created changes in genes related to memory, fear and reward-seeking. Reward-seeking is particularly important in the domestication process. The promise of a food reward enticed cats to hang around human settlements. Shy, solitary wild cats became more approachable and calm.
Analysis of the genes of purebred cats reveals that cats were bred primarily for hair color, texture and pattern, as well as facial features and docility. Researchers point to the Birman (pictured above) as an example. Humans selectively bred Birmans for their white paws. All Birmans have the genetic signature for this trait, and researchers believe this happened in a relatively short period of time.
Designed for hunting
Cats are strict carnivores, and researchers have found specific fat-metabolizing genes that help them digest fatty meats. These genes are not present in humans or animals that eat a more varied diet. Cats have evolved into expert hunters, as reflected by genes for superior hearing and night vision. Interestingly, their sense of smell is more sensitive to the chemical scents of other cats than it is to prey animals.
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