A dog at your feet and a cat behind your head on the couch. Quite the familiar scenario that goes unquestioned. It simply seems like the natural state of things. Practically every aspect of the idiosyncratic feline charm can be explained when you look at them as animals that have adapted to being nearly the perfect predator, while remaining prey to larger carnivores. Retractable claws and strong forelimbs more adapted to climbing give our self-domesticated lions the anatomy to gain a better vantage point to ambush their next meal, while remaining safe from being made someone else’s. Social regulation, and even temperature control also make the top of your dresser a more appealing napping place than their expensive bed that goes untouched. These social and physiological attributes give reason behind how our beloved pets have come to take up their respective positons. This journey began when these too mammals diverged from their collective ancestor
All IN THE FAMILY TREE
Facing each other in a prehistoric forest of Asia, stood two civet like creatures. Their partially retractable claws twitching, and their long tail’s raised in aggravation. Phylogenic studies suggest a decisive move that would steer the course of evolution was made. One of these creatures scurried up into the canopy; the other walked way. These were the early miacids, as described by Casey Smith of National Geographic. The descendants of which would diverge into the order carnivoria. Staying grounded, the descendants of the latter would form the bulk of the mammalian meat eaters.This includes dogs, bears, and otters. Up in the trees, that particular miacid would branch off on its own to form its own specialized predator; which leads us to our purring fiends.
Pressure and time trudged forward. Giving that the fossil record is sparse and the picture is incomplete, the designation of the first true cat is debated. The mongoose like Proalurus seems to be the point in time where the feline like predators of the suborder feliformia began to forge their own path. It took ten million years for the shape and form of the modern cat to be more or less solidified in psuedaelurus. In, the evolution of cats, both Warren Johnson and Stephen O’Brian describe how the slow natural selection process. From Asia across the Bering land bridge to Alaska and back again during two different ice ages, the domestic cat emerged at the long journey’s end. Unlike their canine counterparts, cats remain largely unchanged from their wild cousins, and their natural instincts remain strong. Scientists have found, as Brian Switek from PBS reported, only thirteen genetic markers that set them apart. Form the beginning they made use of their natural traits to lie in wait for their meals. Along the way, these physical abilities were refined to make them expert beast of prey they are today.
THE TRICKS OF THE TRADE
A high vantage point is the preferred position of any good ambush predator or ninja. Sickle like and sheathable claws help the cat to get a better look at their surroundings. The shape lets them dig in, while the ability to determine where and how they are used allows control over their sharpness. Tucking them away prevents any unnecessary dulling, and ensures they remain sharp and in good climbing condition. One exception to this is the cheetah, who is honestly just out there doing their own specialized speedster thing. Being equipped with their own personal Swiss army knife is central to the feline identity and crucial for their survival, and has been since proalurus emerged to clamber up the evolutionary tree. Sheathing is achieved due to the unique way the middle and distal finger bone, or phalanges, fit together. This process is described in an article by Gonyea and Ashworth in the Journal of Morphology.The grove of the curved claw bone sits laterally alongside the elongated bump of the middle bone. Essentially, the dorsal elastic ligament connects from the center of the middle phalanx to the end of the distal phalanx, giving the leverage needed to pull the claw back. It gives a slight resemblance to a drawbridge of a castle; if the bridge were a giant spike, of course. For comparison, a dog’s ligament is short and attaches end to end, which does not yield much mobility. The contraction of two muscles,the forearm flexor and extensor muscles, are required for kitty to get his point across. When relaxed the elastic ligament pulls it back into place. Such a redundant set up allows for more delicate manipulation without their claws getting in the way, such as when they clean their face or ears. While it’s a handy trick, retractable claws are not the only adaptation cats use to gain the high ground.
Having hand spikes does little good if there is not enough force behind them; as Arvid Pillai of the blog finstofeet observes. Shorter forelimbs adds the greater grip strength needed for when vaulting up trees. The greatest disparity can be seen when comparing the long hand and radii bones of the land based cheetah, to the much shorter ones of the mostly arboreal jaguar. Putting all these traits together, specialized claws and arm bone structure, is why you might find yourself shouting at your feline friend to, ‘get down from there,’ for the hundredth time. Behind these traits lies the mentality of one who hunts, and who is hunted. It’s a mentality that has remained largely unchanged for millennia; from prehistoric forest, to your couch. Constantly being on alert can certainly take its toll on the nerves. Taking the highroad relieves a lot of these environmental pressures.
ABOVE IT ALL
Being a cat can be a little stressful when you consider that they often live with two of their main predators, humans and canines. Physically separating themselves from the situation is their primary way to avoid conflict. They are constantly looking for multiple escape roots. Simply having these options is enough to reduce a lot of tension. If you ever stayed in your room to evade your sibling as a kid, or avoided the break room when a difficult coworker was there, then you and your cat have more in common than you think. Providing these safe havens may mean less vet visits. As Dr.s Fosterand Smith describe, reducing stress helps with health and behavior problems. If your whiskered pal is having continued urinary tract problems, or not using their litter box appropriately, a little quiet space may just be the thing they need.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
While the importance of having vertical spaces cannot be overstated, it can certainly be a challenge. Both room and funds can be a limiting factors. In more cramped households, rearranging the furniture maybe all it takes. Don’t be afraid to use what you already have. Put the nightstand next to the wardrobe, for example. Clear off the top of the bookshelf, and place the couch next to it. Windowsills are, of course, the prime spot; or a shelf or table can be added underneath the window in its absence.While you’re at it, selves are an easy way to allow access to otherwise unreachable areas. However, make sure to add a grip liner so your friendly acerbate doesn’t go sliding off. To make these spots even more appealing, a well-placed pillow or blanket goes a long way. Lastly, your cat has most likely already told you about the places they would like to reach, you just need to listen. The lack of human speech capabilities make it difficult, but you’ve probably already noticed your cat getting or trying to get up to certain places. If you wake up one morning to be surprised by a tail hanging down from on top of the cupboards, that’s a helpful hint. A failed attempt to reach a ledge, likewise, is quite informative. Try making these places more accessible, so long as they are stable and safe, of course.
For a more inexpensive feline haven, consider purchasing a bookshelf at a thrift store. If you have access to the correct tools, holes can be cut in the shelves so your cat can freely move from level to level. Storage cubes, the kind that you put together from mesh or wire panels, are another relatively affordable solution. These allow you to form whatever shape bests suites your needs. Place floor mats for the cat to walk on, secure with zip ties, add some weight to the bottom, and the kitty condo is complete. This makes for an especially versatile outdoor tree. Senior cats need special consideration, they won’t be able to get around as easily, and may need a few extra steps or a ramp to help them along. Adding this enrichment may not always be easy, but it helps to connect with the primal cat that resides in them, making for a happier feline and a happier home.
Ever since they decided to insert themselves into the domiciles of Homo sapiens, cats have always forged their own path. Being well equipped for climbing, coupled with the natural instincts of an ambush predator that have been unfazed by time, means they are usually more comfortable up off the ground. All this got me curious about other animal behaviors and how they can be connected to their biological adaptations.
And you know what they say about curiosity; it leads to questioning, which can result in answers, and answers breeds understanding.
O’Brian, S. and Johnson, W. (2007). The Evolution of Cats. [online] Bio-nica.info. Available at: http://www.bio-nica.info/biblioteca/O’brien2007EvolutionCats.pdf [Accessed 16 Sep. 2018].
Smith, C. (2017). Cats Domesticated Themselves, Ancient DNA Shows. [online] News.nationalgeographic.com. Available at: https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/06/domesticated-cats-dna-genetics-pets-science/ [Accessed 16 Sep. 2018].
PILLAI, A. (2010). Evolution of the Felidae, part 1. [online] Fins to Feet. Available at: https://finstofeet.com/2010/07/29/evolution-of-the-felidae-part-1/ [Accessed 24 Sep. 2018].
Gonyea, W. and Ashworth, R. (1975), The form and function of retractile claws in the felidae and other representative carnivorans. J. Morphol., 145: 229-238. doi:10.1002/jmor.1051450208
Switek, B. (2016). The Making of the Cat | Blog | Nature | PBS. [online] Nature. Available at: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/blog/the-making-of-a-cat/ [Accessed 24 Sep. 2018].
Foster, D. and Smith, D. (n.d.). Cat Health: Importance of Mental and Emotional Well-being.
Drsfostersmith.com. Available at: https://www.drsfostersmith.com/pic/article.cfm?aid=886 [Accessed 24 Sep. 2018].