Current evidence indicates that the ancestors of today’s domestic cats were attracted to early agricultural settlements in the Fertile Crescent region of the Middle East 8,000-10,000 years ago. (O’Brien 2007) Production and storage of grain attracted rodents, which in turn attracted small wildcat species.
The Ever Adaptable Cat
Several domestication events likely occurred during this time, although these may have occurred more at the instigation of the ever-adaptable cat than by any specific selective strategy of human residents.
Eventually, the cat accompanied its human companions on extensive migrations, expanding its home range to every continent except Antarctica and many islands in between. The cat most likely arrived in North America aboard ships at least 500 years ago. Unlike other domesticated species, that cat still resembles its wild progenitors and can revert to a self-sufficient feral state within a single generation.
Not a New Phenomenon
Cats have served as human companions and community pest controllers for 10,000 years. Throughout most of this time, and throughout most of the world still today, cats have resided primarily outdoors. A common misconception is that feral cats are a new phenomenon, a byproduct of irresponsible pet owners who abandon their pets or allow them to breed.
Although some previously owned pets undoubtedly find sustenance among the vast number of free-living cat colonies, they are not the reason such colonies exist. Cats exist in high numbers throughout the world, even on uninhabited islands and where cats are not kept as pets. If pet cats vanished tomorrow, colonies of community cats would continue to reproduce at a sufficient rate to perpetuate themselves.
Only 2% of Community Cats are Spayed and Neutered
In the U.S., the vast majority of owned pet cats are spayed and neutered (Chu 2007). The majority of litters born to pet cats are “accidental” rather than intentional breedings, often due to lack of owner awareness regarding how early cats can reproduce. In contrast, only 2% of community cats are spayed or neutered (Wallace 2006).
The end result is that community cats are by far the greatest source of kitten births and of cat admissions to animal shelters, even when the higher mortality rate for community kittens is factored in. Focusing cat management strategies exclusively on owned cats, as is common in many municipalities, ignores the true opportunities for successful cat population management.
Projected Kitten Crop
The following table of a single year’s U.S. projected kitten crop from the estimated number of owned pet cats compared to the estimated number of community cats that are fed by residents illustrates how community cats are the main source of new cats, even when the most conservative survival rates are used.
|Owned Pet Cats||Fed Community Cats|
|Estimated US population||89 million||52 million|
|Kittens born/year||37 million||143 million|
Live at 3 months
|Kittens alive at 6 months||28 million||36 million|