Humans have gone to the moon and back and deciphered the human genome. The common house cat? Now that's a mystery we're not going to solve anytime soon.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/1/2015 (2304 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Humans have gone to the moon and back and deciphered the human genome. The common house cat? Now that's a mystery we're not going to solve anytime soon.

The Nature of Things documentary The Lion in Your Living Room provides some kibbles of interesting information to mystified cat owners, but many of the major questions about Sylvester and his species that leave people baffled remain unanswered after the one-hour presentation.

Narrated by David Suzuki, The Lion in Your Living Room is a followup to a similar documentary about dogs The Nature of Things broadcast in early 2014.

The program focuses on cats' hunting instincts and their dashes of wildness that keep their owners guessing and makes them so lovable. So many of their basic characteristics -- their sense of smell, sight and hearing, their whiskers, the way they wrestle with other kittens when they're young, and even the way they walk -- are all geared to make them better predators.

These domesticated house cats can be traced back to the wildcat that prowls around Europe, Asia and Africa: Felis silvestrus. These wildcats are not much different from today's ordinary house cat, Felis catus, and like the house cat, latched on to humans by clawing through our garbage and finding scraps of meat we left behind.

Next thing you know, explorers began carrying these feline stowaways to new lands and continents. Now they're everywhere, and are the most popular pet all over the world, including Canada.

"Cats didn't have a purpose then and they don't have a purpose now. I'm not sure they'll ever have a purpose, but they're good pets and that seems to have been enough to bring them all the way around the world," says Carlos Driscoll, a biologist who studies the evolution of cats.

Cats are the most popular pet all over the world, including Canada.

Cats are the most popular pet all over the world, including Canada.

That genetic background also gives house cats the ability to adapt to life on the street in a way few pet dogs could ever do. So in a way, the feral cat dilemma that plagues so many cities is an age-old problem.

One interesting tidbit should be a warning sign to cat lovers who become cat collectors: before being domesticated, cats were solitary hunting creatures and intuitively still are. The documentary suggests having more than one in a household could be detrimental to their well-being.

"It may be better for the owner, but the likelyhood is that it's not going to be better for the cats," British biologist John Bradshaw, author of the book Cat Sense, says in the doc. "If they're not introduced to one another very carefully, then those two cats will end up being more stressed for the rest of their lives than they would have been if they had lived apart."

Then there's the nine lives myth. Cats may be luckier than humans, but their skill of landing on their feet isn't just the stuff of legend, Bradshaw says.

A Scottish wildcat stalking along track in pine forest, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland.

RED EYE MEDIA

A Scottish wildcat stalking along track in pine forest, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland.

"Cats can fall from really quite high buildings and they've got a very effective, and presumably completely instinctive, spontaneous and very rapid strategy for dealing with that," he says.

Many of the other observations are stuff most humans already know: cats are able to smell better than us and they can see into the ultraviolet spectrum, giving them an advantage as night hunters. They also hear higher frequencies than humans, yet are still adept at hearing low pitches, such as the deep voice of a male owner offering a treat.

Despite leaving the feline puzzle mostly unsolved, the Lion in Your Living Room is, however, among the cutest documentaries ever. The doc provides countless close-ups of cats of all shapes, colours and sizes, and super slo-mo cameras show how strong and flexible that ball of fur sleeping on your duvet really is.

 

alan.small@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @AlanDSmall

Alan Small

Alan Small
Reporter

Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.

   Read full biography