Breeding a better companion cat

By Razib Khan | September 8, 2013 10:22 pm

John Bradshaw, author of Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet, has an intriguing observation:

GROSS: You know, so many people get their cats from shelters, and so many of the cats in shelters – well many of the cats in shelters are the offspring of feral cats. And so many housecats are neutered. Are we breeding cats who succeed on the streets, more so than we’re breeding cats who are successful domesticated pets?

BRADSHAW: Well, I think we are accidentally favoring the cat that lives on the street, because it’s the cat that lives on the street who produces offspring. Many of those, you know, do sadly die of injury or disease or whatever, but some of them end up in rescue, the lucky ones, and then become pets.

Now if we’re going to neuter a large majority of our pet cats, that means that the most successful cats, and the most successful cats that are best adapted to living in people’s houses, never leave any offspring. And so where the next generation of cats comes from is from cats that are – whose parents, anyway, were adapted to living on the street.

Now that’s OK for a while, and I’m not saying there’s an imminent crisis, you know. It’s over the horizon. But it’s going to be there. I think that cats are going to become very, very slightly less friendly with every generation. And eventually we’re going to come to the point where cats become less attractive, less appealing, because they’re much harder to socialize.

At the moment you can do a huge amount, probably everything you need to, by handling the kittens and treating them the right way. I’m just hopeful that we won’t ever get to the point where some kittens really just don’t respond to handling in the same way that wild kittens don’t. The kittens of wild cats don’t respond to handling. They just go wild again, eventually.

This is standard quantitative genetics logic. The devil here is in the details, though it’s not implausible on the face of it. But if true the solution is also available via evolutionary genetics: instead of selecting for salient aesthetic characteristics breeders should pick particular amiable individuals lacking in species typical ferocity.


Comments (14)

  1. Because we certainly don’t want a world full of only Grumpy Cats… 😉

  2. TheBrett

    We could always re-domesticate them with kitten farms, if the adopted feral cats don’t behave anymore.

  3. omarali50

    Where do most feral cats come from? are they mostly abandoned domestics or 2nd generation feral? Are difficult cats abandoned more often than well-behaved ones? Just curious.

    In Pakistan at least, domestic cats are rarely neutered. Is that the same story in other third world countries? will 3rd world countries preserve genes that first world countries may be weeding out?

    • levinjf

      I guess that makes Italy a 3rd world country. Once a physician I met in Rome expressed horror when I suggested he have his male cat “fixed”. His very elegant first world wife agreed with him.

    • razibkhan

      less than 10% of cats are ‘purebred’ pedigrees. in third world countries there are long standing feral populations. in place like rome there has long been a feral population, but large house cat populations mix with them. 2nd generation ferals with ‘purebred’ ancestry are found in many areas though. but they stand out (e.g., there are obviously abandoned persian cats in lahore; they jump out from my data sets).

  4. wombatarama

    I don’t understand how your solution applies to this situation. The problem is that there are no breeders involved – cats that reproduce on their own are producing these kittens. He’s not talking about purebred cats, which are a tiny minority of pet cats in the US.

  5. It’s also possible that inadvertent selection for tameness is occurring in the animal shelters. If a cat’s visual appeal to humans (“cuteness”) is correlated with tameness then a sort of reverse of the Belyaev fox experiment could be occurring. Belyaev selected for (tame) behavior only but he got morphological changes (cuteness): floppy ears; short, curly tails; big heads; along with a less musky odor. Shelter cat choosers could be selecting for cuteness & getting tameness. One of Belyaev’s goals was to demonstrate that wolves’ morphology could change into that of domesticated dogs entirely through selection for tameness:

  6. rachel

    you can easily socialize a semi feral – I have living proof here with Bella my Chocolate Siamese, she has 2 parts to her and knows how to separate the 2

    • razibkhan

      that’s not proof. that’s anecdata. in any case, most feral cats are tamable. but there is evidence that european wildcats (same species) are NOT tamable (though near eastern wildcats may be, though this could be introgression from large long standing domestic populations in the area).

  7. Michael Mountain

    John Bradshaw’s observation is indeed interesting. But you’re not going to “breed a better companion cat” by breeding cats from shelters. No responsible shelter places cats in adoptive homes without ensuring that they’ve been spayed or neutered first. And anyway, while there are millions of abandoned cats out there, no one should be breeding cats at all.

  8. zmil

    Agreed with wombatarama, your solution assumes that purebred cats are significant fraction of the breeding population. I have no idea if this is true, but if wombatarama is correct in saying that purebreds are a tiny minority (it does match my own impressions), it seems likely that any effort to breed more agreeable cats would be lost in the much larger population of mongrel cats selected for the ability to breed in the wild.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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