Cats and the Domestication of Humans, with Abigail Tucker

October 24, 2016

The cat. King of the jungle, emperor of the internet, overlord of our homes? Cats are easily among the most adaptable mesopredator, able to survive and thrive everywhere from the deserts of Australia, to the Arctic tundra, to a cramped studio apartment.

Abigail Tucker is a contributing writer for Smithsonian and author of the new book, Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World. Tucker explains just how wild the beasts that live among us really are. Known for their independence and convenience, cats need little house training, if any. Tucker asserts that while cats don’t require training, they may actually be the ones training us, monitoring our behaviors and teaching us how to keep them happy. So who, exactly, is domesticating whom?

Tucker delves paws-first into the feline mind, debunking cat myths and misconceptions, and shedding light on the role cats have played throughout history, as well as how we might be able to benefit from them in the future.

Today’s show is brought to you by Hello, Fresh. Please visit. Hello, fresh and use the promo code point. That’s p o i n t to save thirty five dollars off your first week of deliveries. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, a production of the Center for Inquiry. I’m your host, Lindsay Beyerstein. 

And my guest today is Abigail Tucker, author of the new book The Lion in the Living Room How House Cats Tamed US and Took Over the World. The world’s 600 million cats have changed little from their wild ancestors. How did these mini apex predators come to rural suburban living rooms? What does science tell us about the future and psyche in the human kitty bond? And how can we be the best possible guardians to these fascinating and sometimes frustrating creatures? I love the book, but it was really, really enjoyed reading. It is definitely the most honest book about cats I’ve ever read. Thank you. I feel like it’s going to appeal to both cat people and cat skeptics. 

Oh yes. I think that there’s a it’s a good time to start being honest about cats and sort of take this creature that seems so familiar to us and try to hold it at arm’s length a little bit and examine it as an organism as opposed to a member of our family. And I think that that’s not an unkind thing to do at all. I think when you look at the story of the house cat in an objective way, it actually becomes much more interesting. And these presences in our homes become only more impressive. 

I say I’m a cat person, the same kind of way that I said. I’m a kid person. I love visiting other people’s, but it sort of boggles my mind as to why anyone would want to have one. 

Yes. And the good news is that you don’t actually need to have a cat in your house to to have a cat. I know several people who just have these. I think they might be called sports cats. Technically, that just kind of drift over to their house and received some food and an outdoor way. And then they go on to the next neighbor’s house. And so they’re their community cats. So it is a big commitment to have a cat in your house. And that’s something that as a lifelong cat person, I hadn’t fully grasp. I did not realize that you are supposed to have a certain number of litter boxes per cat in the household. And that really, in an ideal circumstance, you would devote an entire room of your house just through the cats exclusive use. And then there’s a lot of other rules about things that you should and should not do. Like you shouldn’t speak above a certain level of decibels because it hurts cat ears. You should crank up the thermostat because the cat gets really cold. All these things that basically involves ceding control of your household to your cat. 

Why do feline behaviorists think it’s a good idea to give your cat its own room? 

Why do they? Well, cats are very solitary animals in nature. That’s holds for pretty much all members of the cat family, not just house cats, direct wild relatives. And that has to do with the way that they hunt and the way that they kind of work the environment to harvest the huge amounts of protein that they need. And they tend to sort of be the top animal in an ecosystem requiring very large amounts of space for their body size. And so they’re territorial animals and they find themselves kind of shoved into our houses. And people sort of think of them as these very convenient animals because they don’t need things like being walked and they can birds use a litter box and all these things. There’s not a lot of the hoopla that goes on with dogs. They don’t need to go to a dog park. However, they can find to the chaotic circumstances of the modern home to be very chaotic and can develop almost the equivalent of mental health problems, almost rampant mental health problems. And it’s good to note that, you know, we think of cats as these very commonplace animals curled up on our beds. It’s really only been the last 50 or 60 years that they’ve become so entrenched in an indoor way. And our houses, they’ve been affiliated with us for thousands of years. And that relationship has become deeper as time has gone on. But it’s only in the last half a century or so that we’ve seen this incredible transition to having the majority of American cats spending all of their waking hours indoors, where, as you know, that’s that’s a circumstance that’s completely alien to their biology, basically. So, yeah, you should give your cat its own room. And that’s kind of a hard to swallow for a lot of people living in studio apartments. But people do love their cats and they make it work. 

What drove the indoor cat phenomenon? 

Well, I think it’s a few things. The most immediate thing, I think in 1947, kitty litter was invented and that was a big deal and it allowed these animals to transition more elegantly indoors. However, I think there is deeper social trends that drove this transition as well. And one has to do with the way that people have flocked into the cities in the last half a century and more and more now, actually. And it’s urbanizing areas that tend to see huge growth in cat populations. And that is because of the reasons that we’ve discussed that they can live in little spaces. And you can they’re just very adaptable animals. They can they can live in a tiny hazard. If you live on the hundred and first story of an apartment building, you don’t have to take the elevator all the way down and take your cat outside. So urbanization is a big deal. I think that actually the the rise of the two income household is also very helpful to cat populations because, again, there’s these hassle involved with owning a dog and letting it outside in the middle of the day. And if there’s nobody at home to feed Blassie, then it’s harder to have Lassie. And then, you know, there’s also even issues about aging populations and how these animals don’t involve the physical rigor that having a dog involves. And in fact, it’s even been shown that people who own cats, actually. Tend to walk less and be less healthy than people who have no pet at all. It’s kind of astounded me as a lifelong cat owner. 

You found that cats are pretty much impervious to humans training them, but they very adept at training us. 

Yes, I think that’s true, even though cats are a social animals for a large part. That’s not to say that they aren’t marvelously adaptable animals and that they’re extremely good at getting along in whatever environment, whether that be, you know, a desert in the middle of Australia or an subarctic island or on a volcano in Hawaii. They can get along pretty much anywhere. And cats that live in our houses have been shown to do certain things, like they meow more often in different ways than stray cats or feral cats that live outside. And indeed, the wild ancestor of the housecat feel as though they’re stressed. Levuka, with still lives in the Middle East today, doesn’t really matter much. Cats have learned ways to manipulate and condition and pretty much Pavlovian manner, their human owners. And they’re very good at that. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a completely harmonious relationship. They can do so by knowing in a certain way or running to a certain side of the room that they want something and they have to do this because we’ve locked them away in their houses and they can’t do all the things that they’re so good at, especially hunting. They depend on us for food. So they have to kind of scramble and figure out another way to get the resources that they need. And it’s incredible that they’re able to do that. And so people have done experiments and shown things like people who own cats can understand the meow patterns and signals that their own cat issues, like when your cat meows, you say, oh, that’s the food, meow. But the guy next door who has his own cat can’t listen to your cat’s meow and understand what it means. So cats and owners do develop a kind of language between each other. But that language doesn’t translate to the house next door because it’s basically invented from scratch by your cat with dogs. 

It’s easy to see or sort of imagine, you know, how dogs and dogs became domesticated by humans, but cats, it’s much more mysterious. What do we know about how this dance of domestication proceeded? 

Well, basically, there’s a lot of different theories about it. But it seems like when humans in 10000 years ago or a little bit longer ago started making their first permanent settlements in the Near East, they basically carved out these pieces in the environment. And a couple of things happened. Humans tended to kill off top predators in those areas, which might have eaten smaller predators hanging out. And then humans also created these huge surpluses of food and garbage, basically just this big pile of garbage that were just outside the doors of their settlements. And these conditions, the lack of big predators and the surplus of garbage created what I’ve heard referred to as a mezo predator release. So a spike in mid-sized predators. And we actually see the same thing happening in modern cities today, like foxes in central London and raccoons in Brooklyn basically recreate these conditions with their right for these mid-sized carnivorous animals to come in and have a sort of a little population explosion. The interesting thing about cats is that while they were attempted by our garbage and enabled by the conditions that we we created, we don’t really have pain. We don’t have domesticated foxes. Today in our household, cats sort of of their own accord were able to go one step farther and become so closely affiliated with the human sphere that they began to undergo some of the physiological changes that we associate with domestication. They didn’t undergo all of the changes that we associate with domestication. We don’t see cats with floppy ears and sort of shrunken faces like we see in dogs and other animals like pigs. But they underwent over long periods of time. The key change in domestication, which is the shrinking of the fear and flight parts of their brain. And so they became just by almost their choice by hanging out with us more and more. And they became less than most afraid. And they got more and more of our food. And then they made it with the other cat hanging over at the other garbage pile that was also not afraid. And then they had Super Bowl babies. And so it just became kind of a cycle where they underwent a natural selection for something that we often think of as an artificial selection. Josh Zepps, which is domesticated. Which is when humans go out to a herd of sheep and say that she pulls the wool that I like and toes that one, I’m going to meet them together. Humans basically never. And still, to a large part, have never controlled cats breeding or mating at all. 

Pretty much anyone ever tried to breed cats for temperament and friendliness to keep that ball rolling like they did with those famous Fox experiments in Russia, enjoyed breeding the friendliest cats in the calmest cats over and over again. 

You know, that is a really good idea. Anybody who is listening wants to try that. I’ve talked to cat geneticists who believe that that is the way that cats breeding will kind of begin to become a more advanced science. There are cat breeds now, not not only about a quarter as many cap rates as dog ridden, purebred or pedigree cats are much rarer than pedigree dogs because we’ve hardly exercised any control over these animals. There’ve been different forms of dogs bred for particular purposes or, you know, more than a thousand years and probably thousands of years as we kind of picked particular specialties for four dogs, four cats. We never really had any specialties for them to pursue, nor did we have any control over their breeding. So we we didn’t really do that. And so what we have now is this very recent development of cat breeding, where the overriding impulse is to find strange looking alley cats or breed in breed them or take cats with really exaggerated physical features and breed them. Not for any not so they can be better at saving. Drowning. People are missing out a disease like certain breeds of dogs can do, but ended up at a time. 


Just so they can get, you know, kind of striking looking animals. So if people say, though, that if you were to focus on breeding the most friendly cats, then that act might actually give rise to a more varied feline physique. 

And that you might bring if you actually focused on this underlying issue of temperament, which is what’s always been in play and cat domestication. It was the bold animals that came into our settlements. If we humans artificially bred for that trait, those cats could start looking kind of weird and interesting. 

And so that’s really cute. Yeah. Even cuter. 

Some of the things that we like about cute domesticated animals are their baby faces and their floppy ears, and they seem to go with less fear and more engagement with us. 

Exactly. And it’s just a kind of a freak accident that that cats happen to have a lot of the features without being domesticated at all. The the wild cat, the Near Eastern Wildcat, that pattern basically descended from looks almost exactly like, you know, the average domesticated tabby that you see. And they happen to have this set of very compelling features that I think is sometimes called baby Rhodesia’s because they look so much like the traits that we see on human young. And it’s these big eyes and rounded cheeks and small noses and big soreheads, and it’s just this kind of oxytocin cocktail for humans. And we just love it. And it just happens that cats have these traits naturally. 

And they didn’t have to undergo this whole bother’s domestication process and all of its rigors to get them. 

And now we’d like to thank our sponsors for the episode. 

Hello, Fresh is the meal kit delivery service that makes cooking easy, fun and convenient. Each week they write up new recipes and package them with step by step instructions. So whether you’re a hardened home cook or a novice who barely knows how his 10 facing the stove, you can get a healthy meal on the table in about half an hour. All the ingredients are sourced from the freshest possible sources and they’re packaged in the exact right ratios. So they’ve all come together into the dish you’re trying to make with no food waste. Plus, health Rush has dietician on staff who abuse every recipe so that you know that it’s nutritionally balanced for you and your family and everything comes to you in the special insulated case delivered to your doorstep at no additional charge. They gave me some pockets to try and I was really impressed. My favorite dishes worthy braised mushroom ravioli with crispy gratin topping and the farrowing black bean salad with citrus Charlotte vinaigrette and crispy apple slices looks beautiful on the plate and tasted great. So my boyfriend and I were able to come home from a hard day at work and have a delicious dinner on the table in about half an hour that we knew was healthy so we could feel good about it. Thanks. Hello. Fresh to get your hello fresh discount coupon, go to Hello Fresh and use the promo code point. That’s p o i n t to save thirty five dollars off your first week of deliveries. Happy cooking. 

It’s fascinating that a lot of functionalist explanations about how humans and cats paired up that have to do with pest control. And you’re your book debunks a lot of those. 

Yeah. The pest control stuff is is really interesting because it is totally the conventional wisdom that we have cats around to kill mice. And I actually think it’s really compelling that we feel like we have to invent this story for why we have this animal around us. And that’s the story that we’ve come up with. And, you know, I mean, anyone who’s had a cat knows that they are remarkable hunters and they can kill pretty much anything from pelican’s to wallaby’s to all, you know, all kinds of songbirds. They really are just totally formidable predators. And they do kill mice and rats to some degree. However, they don’t seem to kill them in numbers that would necessarily make a difference to rodent populations around a home and especially around a city. They’ve done these really interesting experiments in Baltimore down at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health has a long, I think, more than 50 year long rap study going on. And scientists have kept tabs on the rats in the alleys in Baltimore and for in the 80s. They spent a lot of time watching to see what these stray cats dwelled, in particular alley alleys, how they interacted with their rats. And they basically found that you did find huge numbers of cats living where you found large numbers of rats. But that was not at all because the cats were preying on the rats, as you sort of expected, according to the story that we tell ourselves, it was because the cats and rats were together gobbling up huge amounts of garbage. And those were sort of the richest garbage alleys. And there are these really funny pictures of cats and rats basically sitting just, you know, less than a foot apart, you know, and these alleys, they’re not there’s no animosity between these animals. The cats are not steadfastly protecting human from these big growth. Norway rats carry so many diseases. And that’s a story that has a lot of implications. Over time, there’s this whole big narrative that I’ve heard about how it was a decree by the Catholic Church in the 12 or 13 hundreds that associated cats, especially black cats, with the satanic mischief that tipped off this cat killing spree. And somehow the Europeans had nothing better to do than to hunt down these huge numbers of cats in Europe and kill them all. And that’s why we had the Black Death. 

And it was conditioner’s a very sick, secular crowd. They’re going to be so disappointed that this is amazing. 

I know it’s it’s it’s a really interesting idea. And I actually bought it. And so I was just kind of doing my research. And I emailed a couple of scientists who study plague, which still exists in pockets in the American Midwest. And, you know, said, have you ever heard about this role of the great cat deficit in the historic Black Death? And they said no. And in fact, have you read this paper that shows that in modern America, something like almost one in 10 cases of plague is transmitted to humans directly by housecats. So they are these carriers of this disease. And if it was the case, even if best case scenario, we find our brave feline allies out there battling rats and trying to keep them away from from human habitations. Those cats would inevitably get plague and bring it closer to our our household. So I thought that was really kind of interesting. And so basically, I don’t want to say that they don’t ever kill rats and mice. They do kill mice. But mice and rats are extremely hardy animals that in their own way. They’ve been affiliated with humanity for the long haul, they breed in staggering numbers, and you really can’t make a dent in their populations unless you employ something that either really systematic about killing rats like a rat terrier. That’s not just going to kill a rat because it’s bored or it’s hungry because it desires to please you and cares. 


You can do its job. And then the other thing that I think is really interesting is that we talked a little while ago about the spike in cat popularity that’s happened in the second half of the 20th century and only seems to be accelerating more now. And basically, that’s that spike happened just about the time when rat poisons became a lot better. And so basically, you find that even though the advent of really good rat poison should have basically housecat, that a business that there is important. That’s exactly the time when they became more popular. And in fact, it’s also around the time I believe it was in nineteen sixty nine or 1970 when scientists finally figured out that this crazy disease that they’d been seeing under microscopes that was harming human young and causing miscarriages and major birth defects called toxoplasmosis, that that was actually a cat borne exclusively cat borne disease. So you have these two things that you know are totally against the conventional wisdom that, you know, we we started having more cats just as rat poisons became far more efficient. And, you know, these we found out that these great stalwart protectors of the human immune system cats actually carry these very widespread diseases. None of that stopped us. We said, you know, bring on the cats anyways. And I think to me, that’s really good evidence that that there is something deeper going on and that we have this fascination that just defies logic pretty much. 

What is the science about toxoplasmosis? I’ve heard conflicting things. Oh, it’s no big deal. Or whether it’ll rot your brain. 

Yeah. I mean, the fascinating thing is that I don’t think people completely know how this single celled parasite works and what it does once it goes into our bodies. Basically, it’s been known for a long time that it’s the parasite which is transmitted through cat droppings and then also eating another animal that has had contact with cat droppings. You can get it in these two different ways. It’s been known that it’s very harmful to pregnant women and their fetuses and that that fetuses can develop this infection that basically runs roughshod over their bodies because they don’t have fully developed immune systems yet. And it can do things like cause brain damage and blindness and even kill the fetus. So it’s an extremely serious disease. It’s only been recently that people have clicked more closely at what the disease does to adult people. And during the AIDS epidemic, it became clear that toxoplasmosis was actually killing a large number of AIDS patients because their immune systems were compromised, but also harmful to cancer patients who have to take special drugs to keep it from spreading into their brains and causing really big lesions there in healthy adult people. The verdict is still out about what this disease can do to you. There’s different strains of it and it matters where the disease ends up in your body. Some people think that it toxoplasmosis is what makes the world go round and that it impacts things like people’s personality traits. And I should say that this is a staggeringly widespread sickness. You know, the the official line is that one in three people globally have this perfect, which is so common in large part because of the global spread of the housecats in America. I think it’s more like one in ten people or something like that. But anyways, it’s unclear whether this this parasite really does cause things like personality changes and really serious mental health problems. It’s been closely studied as a link to schizophrenia. And people don’t think that that’s schizophrenia is only caused by by toxoplasmosis. But they think if you have certain genetic predisposition to this disease, it could kind of tip you over the edge. And it’s unclear whether this is an example of a parasitic manipulation which might be going into too much detail. But basically, there were these really classic experiments done in the 1990s that showed that the infection made prey animals like. Afraid of of cats and particularly there their urine and change the way that they behave and the idea ideas that if one of these prey animals gets eaten by a cat, then the infection that’s been inside the prey animal gets to get back in the stomach of the cat, which is where it can reproduce and make a billion copies of itself and then gets spewed back out into the environment to infect more things and then get eaten by more cats. And the cycle goes on and on. 

And so some people going off the fear centers in the brain. So the cats get eaten. 

Yeah. And so. Right. So it’s it’s basically making animals move their fear of cats. So they’re more likely to become prey. So this is a very sort of specific puppeteering idea that is really not seen in any other kind of there’s no other parasitic manipulation like this in mammals wherein Annam mammals, sophisticated mammal is induced to change its behavior, to become eaten because it’s got this parasite in its brain. And it’s really compelling. And there’s a lot of scientists who think that, yeah, there there’s there’s evidence that these animals are actually being induced to sacrifice themselves to cats. And maybe we as humans have the same malady and we explain some of our bizarre behavior towards cats. 

And I wonder why humans just sacrifice themselves to cats just because of cats. Right. In that area such as that. 

Explain it right. There’s this widespread parasite. Can it possibly explain away some of our bizarre and inexplicable carbon taxes? Some scientists say, yeah, maybe it does. However, there’s a major counter point, which is that a lot of other people think that really having this parasite doesn’t. Why are you up to or wire a mouse up or any other kind of creature to offer itself as prey to your cat? But it does make you feel really ill and kind of off your game. And just because you’re just a little less sharper and amasses a little bit less sharp than it would normally be, it does become more likely to be eaten by a cat. So it doesn’t really matter from the cat, from a cat perspective or the periscopes perspective, as long as an animal gets eaten and the parasite gets to reproduce, it really it’s insignificant. But it’s kind of interesting to us to understand the mechanism. And because it’s a disease that impacts so many people to say, oh, well, how does this this parasite sculpt our behavior or does it not actually do that? 

So at the end of the day, after all this research, if you had to sort of put your finger on what it is that humans get out of cats, how cats have become ingratiated in the way that they have. What would you say that is? 

Yeah, I mean, I think that what’s interesting about it is that this this is the story of feline strengths and human weaknesses. 

So cats are just I can’t stress enough how amazing and adaptable they are, particularly compared to other members of the Cat family, which are in dire trouble today. I think I mentioned in the book that more lions are. I mean, there’s more house cats born in America every day than there are lions left in the entire world in the wild. So it’s really, really staggering. And part of what makes that the case is that has cats are supremely adaptable animals, even though they they eat meat almost exclusively. They can hunt almost and so many different kinds of animal which are in the right sort of range of sizes. They can live in an extraordinary array of environments for that. Because of that, it can live inside of our houses in a tiny little space, or they can live in the middle of a rainforest and, you know, hundreds of acres of space they really can make, do they? They both can sort of get the best out of close relationship with humans while at the same time being able to abandon it completely if they have to. So they’re in need. Power is something that I hadn’t really fully considered. The flipside of that is that humans have weaknesses. And we talked a little bit about how cats have this set of facial features that makes us go gaga basically for them. And it’s just our biology that we are. It’s also that, you know, cats have, even though they behave nothing like humans and are not terribly closely related to us. Cats have these human cases and humans are these weird sort of compulsive communicators. And we look at these animals that look like us and we cannot stop assigning them human emotions. And we love to feed on that. And I think, you know, probably you could make a case that in a fractured. When people are alone more than they ever were before and families, they’re broken up and people have less kids. I mean, having this all human, like face to look at and to bounce your own emotions off, I mean, that is a potent thing. And I think that’s part of what we see going on online. Why cats have become the mascot of the Internet. I think it has to do with the way that they project the ideas and feelings that we assign to them. 

I think that’s all the time we have. Thank you so much for coming on the program. 

Thank you so much for having me. 

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The NationMs. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.