They rule the internet. They rule the alleyways. For many pet owners, they rule the house. With 74 to 90 million pet cats in the United States, they have become one of the most popular pets in human history. Yet many owners would be surprised how few practical benefits they provide.
“All of us who have cats have seen what amazing hunters they are,” says Abigail Tucker, a correspondent for Smithsonian Magazine and author of The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World. “But the idea that cats can make any kind of dent in a vermin population, such as house mice or street rats, is a little misguided.”
“It’s one of these little things in our society where we make up reasons of why we keep these animals around, even though we have no idea why we keep them around,” says Tucker.
So why have humans taken such a liking to cats?
“Cats have this very specific set of facial features: big eyes in the middle of the face, small noses, round faces; these are what scientists call baby releasers,” says Tucker. “They remind of us baby features and prime us to take care of them. However, these features are all adaptations that cats use for hunting.”
With some cats coming and going from pet-owner’s homes whenever they please, the distinction between wild cats and domesticated cats can sometimes be blurred. Experts feel the same way.
“Cats, at least superficially, resemble their wild counterparts. So much so that even experts at a distance can’t tell,” says Tucker.
While their appearance may be similar to that of wild cats, the house cat has adapted and evolved in the ways in which they think and act.
“House cats can live solo in the wild, but they can also live in family groups, like lion prides. So they’ve adapted their social skills as well,” Tucker explains
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