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Are cats domesticated?

The cat does not offer services,” William Burroughs wrote. “The cat offers itself.” But it does so with unapologetic ambivalence. Greet a cat enthusiastically, and it might respond with nothing more than a few slow blinks. Later, as you’re trying to work, it will commandeer your lap, keyboard, and attention, purring. A cat will mew at the food bowl in the morning and set off on a multiple-day trek in the afternoon. Dogs are dependent on us to the point of being obsequious, but cats seem to be constantly reëvaluating the merits of our relationship and their role in domestic life. “Are cats domesticated?” is one of the most frequently Googled questions about the animals, based on the search engine’s autocomplete suggestions.

“Cats are domesticated,” Zeder said. “But I think what confuses people about cats is that they still carry some of the more aloof behaviors of their solitary wild progenitors. Sometimes they don’t give a damn about you, but they are very much part of your niche. Cats have us do everything for them. We clean their litter, stroke them, admire them, but, unlike dogs, they do not have to constantly please and satisfy our needs. They are probably the ultimate domesticate.”

When I was growing up, in California, I had a tuxedo cat named Jasmine. When I called her, she would sometimes stop in place and stare at me for a few minutes before trotting over, as though she needed to preserve the pretense that this meeting was entirely her idea. She was incredibly affectionate when she wanted to be, but she spent most of her time in solitude. Like so many of her ilk, she loved to perch herself on or near a windowsill, surveying the outdoors for hours. It strikes me now how quintessentially feline that behavior is: a docile carnivore balanced on the border of a human home, alone and content, yet with all its senses tuned to the world beyond.



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