The Journey: Looking Back Helps Us Move Forward

In an article titled Humans and Cats - A History, we looked into the early interactions between people and cats that led to domestication.

The start of this process coincided with the rise of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent 9,000-10,000 years ago and the need to protect harvests from grain-eating rodents.

While recent DNA research has identified five species as the closest group of ancestors to domestic cats, the African Wildcat is the cat that some experts believe is the first to be domesticated.

Despite the fact people and cats have shared spaces for thousands of years, there's still a lot people don't know about the cats we live with every day.

At Purina, we've gained so much knowledge about cats with all of the research we've conducted over the course of multiple decades. But we recognized it was time to not only identify what domestic cats do, but establish a link as to why they do it. 

We believe that by studying the African Wildcat, we'll gain a deeper understanding of domestic cats in order to strengthen our relationships with them.

So when a member of our team asked, "What are they like in nature?" it was time to hop a plane headed for South Africa to see for ourselves.

Taking a Closer Look

African Wildcats can be quite elusive in the wild. To encounter them up close, the team worked with a number of game reserves. Some were geared toward big game. Others focused on rescuing and rehabilitating indigenous cats from the region.

At first encounter, one thing immediately jumped out at members of the team, each of whom works with domestic cats.  

"They really weren't that different in size," said Sandra, our Behaviorist. "The thing that stood out was the length of their legs in proportion to the rest of their body. When most people think of a wildcat and something that's going to survive out here in the wild in Africa, they're thinking it's a lion, a leopard, a cheetah or something like that. And it's this little guy, your domestic housecat - just with a little longer legs."

Looking beyond the legs, the team noticed differences in coat color and pattern that varied with the surrounding landscape. They observed wildcats stalking and hunting for prey like small mammals, rodents or birds and eat them in their entirety, but learned that insects, grass and berries can also be part of their diet.

Further, they were intrigued by the wildcat's instinct to "see without being seen." The team observed the wildcats frequently taking high perches in trees in order to get a full view of their surroundings without being an easy target for predators.

Observation Leads to Inspiration

Despite all of the behaviors the team witnessed, the wildcats' actions inspired even more questions about their connection to domestic cats.

Deb, our Veterinarian, was intrigued about hydration and how it relates to their feeling of fullness while eating.

Fred, our Nutritionist, noticed that all of the wildcats appeared to be in ideal body condition. How could their activity and diet in the wild promote this level of fitness and what is different about our domestic cat's lifestyle?

As for Sandra, she was most interested in drawing parallels with interactions between cats and their owners and how could they be strengthened around feeding time.

Three different experts. Three ways of digging deeper. All brought about by their firsthand observations.

"What it allowed me to do is remind me of the importance of observational research," said Sandra. "You can learn so much if you just go and watch animals do what they do in their natural environment.

Then it's a matter of taking some of that observation back to see if you see that same behavior in our domestic cats, even if they're put into a more structured environment like a home. That has followed me because now, I'm observing cats in a different way."

She says this has impacted the way the team approaches their work back at Purina headquarters because they now know more about the source of the behaviors and other aspects of cat's lives that they had been studying for decades.

"That for me was very important to realize you can learn things from them that you most likely saw when you were in your environment, but you didn't see it as being important."

So how can cat owners get involved?

"Cat owners can do this," said Sandra. "Everyone can be a little observational researcher and post it on Facebook."

To check out the posts on observations from other cat owners or to post your own, click here to join our community on Facebook.