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It is a well known fact throughout human history that cats are bloodthirsty psychopaths, and a menace to society. Cats murder billions of innocent rodents a year, cause ecological disasters, and give their owners fatal diseases. Caesar, Temujin, and even Hitler recognized the power that cats wield over humans, and rightly feared them. Yet despite the evidence, we have still allowed ourselves to be domesticated by them. They manipulate us into giving them food and board without offering anything in return but contempt, creating a secret empire right under our noses.

In this world, I have opted to change our fate by restoring power to humans and deposing our free loading enslavers. Wolves and their canine brethren have been exterminated due to a plague that wiped out a significant number of species. Our ancestors have chosen to breed cats for specific traits over thousands of years, conditioning them to be loyal to us. As a result, they have become bigger, stronger, and dutiful, taking the role that dogs would have had if they were present.

There is a fatal flaw in this plan. Dogs descend from wolves, which were pack hunters. They are led by an alpha male who controls destiny and access to food, making them suitable for cooperation with humans. Cats, by contrast, are solitary hunters, making them less dependent on our patronage. These homicidal monsters are not motivated by treats and are much difficult to train to be obedient to their masters.

What I need to do is make cats as a species to be more subservient to our will, and have that translate into present day. How can I make this work?

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch Mar 16 at 4:49
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It's a bit of a side-step of the question, but there's no reason we need to domesticate solitary cats if all our dogs and wolves are dead. There are plenty of social cats who could be bent to our will.

Lions are one option, but probably a bad one as they're so big. I'd posit that hyenas are the next best option. They're highly social endurance-predating feliforms and fill very similar niches to wolves in their environments.

They're even already well on their way to domestication in places like the city of Harar.

Tame hyena

Edit: Thought I'd expand a little on why the other options available are less likely choices, and the thought process that led me to hyenas. Come with me down the rabbit hole!

Sociality

One of the key reasons that dogs are able to occupy the niche that we have collectively carved out is that they are highly social. Social animals already have pre-evolved mechanisms regarding social hierarchy that are mutually beneficial for domestication (it's key to remember that for dogs and cats especially it's thought that domestication with us occurred in both directions). The ability to form close social bonds with kin, and importantly with non-kin is vital for the sort of co-operative relationship that humans have with dogs.

It may be possible to breed sociality into unsocial creatures (there's evidence that cats have significantly increased their tolerance for close proximity with other cats after domestication), but doing so would require either significantly more time and effort than starting with a social creature, and/or advanced knowledge of animal husbandry. It may well be that our ancient ancestors had that knowledge, but it is unlikely that they had the surplus resources to engage in multi-generational projects without immediate (or even lifetime) benefits.

So, we're stuck with the felines that are already social. The earliest evidence of the domestication process starting with wolves is 27,000 years ago (earliest evidence of domesticated dogs is 14,200 years ago). So we'll look at the social feliforms that lived alongside humans at that point in time.

Felidae

Panthera leo (African lions) are social cats that lived alongside humans in Africa, the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent. They are currently the only extant social cat (although very happy to be proved wrong about that!).

Panthera spelaea (cave lions) were also extant at this point, and lived alongside humans in northern Eurasia. Evidence suggests that cave lions were solitary, but there is limited evidence that some populations were social.

Machairodontinae such as Smilodon and Homotherium are likely to have been social. Smilodon definitely fits into the time period. The latest finds of Homotherium are 28,000 years old, but there is a possibility that they survived for another 1000 years and we just don't have finds dating to then.

These are all the known social true felines I know of.

Broader feliforms

Expanding it to feliforms, which would still be extant if all the dogs were wiped out, we get a few others.

Crocuta crocuta (spotted hyenas), and Hyaena brunnea (brown hyenas) are certainly social to at least the same level of wolves. Other hyenas like the striped hyena and the aardwolf do also display some social behaviours, but are less social than wolves. Still might qualify though. The cave hyena was also extant in eurasia during this time period, and was social.

The only other social feliform I can find is meerkats, who are very social indeed.

Size

The next gateway to domestication for predators is size. It is a very, very unwise decision for early humans to attempt to tame, let alone move towards domesticating predators that can easily overpower them.

Wolves at the time domestication is expected to have begun weighed an average of 41-44kg depending on which species it actually was that became domesticated. If we take that to be a good target as it's significantly less than the average weight of a human at the time. We can reasonably include some flex as it's not a known thing, but something that weighs significantly more than a human is probably not going to happen.

Furthermore, we know from real-life examples of domesticated animals that breeding something to be significantly bigger than their ancestral body size comes with a significant number of health issues (see shire horses and percherons, and great danes and rotweilers). So, we don't want something that's too small either. It's almost certainly possible to breed large versions without the health problems, but this will take time. Remember, paleolithic people had much fewer opportunities to engage in long-term projects without immediate reward.

So, here's some averages for the above species:

  • Lions: 120-250kg
  • Cave lions: 200-350kg
  • Smilodon fatalis: 160-280kg
  • Smilodon populator: 220-400kg
  • Homotherium: 190kg
  • Spotted hyenas: 40-69kg
  • Brown hyenas: 40-44kg
  • Striped hyenas: 22-55kg
  • Aardwolves: 7-10kg (up to 15kg)
  • Cave hyenas: 102kg
  • Meerkats: 0.5-2.5kg

So, we can probably discount all except spotted hyenas, brown hyenas and striped hyenas already. However, there's one more hurdle that we need to jump through.

Ecology

One of the primary benefits that wolves and dogs offered to early peoples is as hunting companions. Humans are persistence predators. Wolves are also persistence predators. Humans are evolved to tackle big game, as are wolves. We're both highly specialised for endurance and tackling animals larger than ourselves.

Cats, by and large, are not persistence predators. Lions, tigers, jaguars, sabre-tooth cats, cheetahs, domestic cats...all hunt by ambush. As such, they are a poor match for our evolved hunting tactics. We'd blow their cover, and they wouldn't be able to keep up with us over the sorts of distances we travel. This would not necessarily be insurmountable to a determined selective breeding programme, but you're going to have to undo a significant amount of evolutionary adaptation (up to and including skeletal structure). This is way beyond the scope of early domestication.

Hyenas, however, are persistence predators. This is one of the reasons for their dog-like morphology via convergent evolution. Certainly spotted hyenas also hunt big game.

Meerkats also range over large areas relative to their size. However, they subsist entirely on animals smaller than themselves and as such are not adapted to big game hunting. Not so useful to early humans. This is also true of aardwolves.

In conclusion

Hyenas are the only feliforms extant during the time period since domestication began that are capable, let alone likely, of filling the same niche as wolves/dogs.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Mar 19 at 3:05
  • $\begingroup$ Look at the work done in Russia to domesticate foxes. It took only about 6 generations to go from cowering in the back of the cage to an animial you could pick up. Curiously they also developed variform coat colours -- they have patches of black and white fur, much like Canadian Eskimo dogs. $\endgroup$ – Sherwood Botsford Mar 19 at 22:15
  • $\begingroup$ @sherwoodbotsford I've seen that study, and it is very interesting indeed. It does use modern understanding of selective breeding though, which certainly wouldn't be around during the time dogs were domesticated (they were our first domesticated animal). $\endgroup$ – Ynneadwraith Mar 19 at 22:31
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What I need to do is make cats as a species to be more subservient to our will, and have that translate into present day. How can I make this work?

Domestic cats are available everywhere. You can make them more subservient to your will by training them.

It's already been done, many times. All you have to do is search for 'cat circus' on Youtube.

Here is an example: https://youtu.be/8e0z3-iZ_TY?t=60

enter image description here

I personally trained my cat to high-five in an afternoon - they learn quickly. Here is an old video showing the method https://youtu.be/q787R2DNDJI?t=35

You can search Youtube for 'cat clicker training'.


An anecdote

I was training my dog to jump on a chair and sit in return for a treat. The cat had been watching with great interest. A the end of the (short) session the cat jumped on the chair, sat, and looked at me expectantly. I gave him a treat! It was at that point I understood the expression, "copycat".

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    $\begingroup$ "they learn quickly" it took me exactly 2 days to teach mine that all surfaces in the kitchen are off limits & he's allowed only the floor (two when I got him) but surfaces anywhere else are OK ~ but it took considerably longer to teach him he wasn't allowed to follow me all the way to work including across main roads. $\endgroup$ – Pelinore Mar 12 at 21:30
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    $\begingroup$ @Pelinore - I had a dog and a cat at the time and we could get to the local wild park without crossing a road. The cat used to follow me and the dog as we walked through the woods on the way there but stop before the open part. One day I looked back and the cat had followed us right into the open. It was a worrying moment as there were dogs around. I shooed him back. Once I knew to watch for him I would make sure he didn't even follow us out of the driveway. $\endgroup$ – chasly from UK Mar 12 at 21:41
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    $\begingroup$ Since we are telling anecdotes... I lost all faith in the conventional wisdom of dogs being smarter once I read an article of how to test how smart your dog is by observing how it behaves and realized that our cat did it all effortlessly... Mind you it wasn't a fair test since it was based on how good the "dog" is observing and understanding its surroundings and observing what is going on is a very cat thing. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Mar 13 at 9:09
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    $\begingroup$ Trained and domesticated are not the same thing. $\endgroup$ – IceGlasses Mar 14 at 8:52
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    $\begingroup$ @Aethenosity - Thanks. I have clarified. $\endgroup$ – chasly from UK Mar 18 at 21:39
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Like all domestication.

You cage/pen the animals, hand feed and select the ones with the traits you desire to breed.

An experiment on arctic foxes was done and with a short period, the selected animals would vie for human affection like dogs.

See Docile Foxes

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  • $\begingroup$ but you did not end up with good hunters $\endgroup$ – John Mar 15 at 20:42
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Simple: Control their breeding.

The difference in natural social instincts may be a factor, but by far the reason cats are only partially domesticated is that even though they deign to live with us, for the vast majority of human history, we let cats figure out the "where do babies come from?" part all on their own.

Apparently at the first cat show in 1871 there were only five distinct breeds of cats. It's really only very recently, in the age of the modern housepet, that we've really taken control of cats' genetic destiny — and even then very loosely, as many domestic cats are allowed to breed with their feral neighbors.

By contrast, humans started selectively breeding dogs for desired traits literally before history started.

So that's pretty much the difference. See Why cats never became man’s best friend for more on this. If we want a different history, simply create a line of domesticated cats which you don't give this option — keep them under closer control and breed for the desired social and human-friendly traits.

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    $\begingroup$ Agreed +1. Was going to post the same answer. Only thing I would add is: cats are far more behaviorally modifiable than most people expect. The problem is, most people don't actually try to train/teach them. I'm not the biggest cat person in the world, but my wife has had them for her whole life. Yet the cats respect rules around me because I'll loudly scold and even chase them off into the next room; my wife will simply give a gentle nag (which they know they can safely ignore.) $\endgroup$ – Kevin Mar 13 at 18:24
  • $\begingroup$ Good point about behavior modification. Cat or dog (... or human, with many) if you're barking at them it has to "sound" like a bark to be taken seriously. $\endgroup$ – Mary C Mar 20 at 1:21
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Cats are social animals when they are born. They understand relationships and love. A pet cat is one that hasn't been forced to grow up. And they bond forever with whoever raised them and if they need to transfer their affections for survival to another their prime allegiance is always to the original care giver.

Cats prefer to be on their own. An angry cat has claws. Cats prefer to avoid angry or potentially angry cats.

Several years ago, and this is the only time I've seen this, two cats were singing harmoniously together. I presume the male was the one poised to bolt. Cats have claws. But they were into each other. They were both probably desexed.

Many other examples. The point to note is that cat social behaviour depends on the density of cats. An adult feral cat will avoid other cats. As density increases, as in urban areas, they become more and more social (including making enemies and fremenies). They can form short term packs for raiding a house. And in extreme density (like when mad people feed them) they form up in groups, probably for protection.

Cats are born social. And most become solitary through different means. Tigers are bad tempered as they get older (and have big claws) and other tigers don't want to know them. Cheetahs raise their child then when its ready they abandon them. Although they always remain somewhat interested in their child.

I've observed the feral cats at Coogee Beach at length. They are a family group for well over a year.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't know if I disagree, but the fact is that animals change as they age in very definite and programmed manners, maturation is a natural process, is there actual evidence to characterise this loyalty? Besides which, if they are born and easily stay social, why do they not do so 'in the wild?' $\endgroup$ – Giu Piete Mar 13 at 7:45
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    $\begingroup$ You're right that domestic cats are kept at a lower level of maturation compared to wild cats, and that's one of the traits we've ended up breeding into them. The same is true of dogs. $\endgroup$ – Ynneadwraith Mar 13 at 8:27
  • $\begingroup$ I'm pretty certain that a timely castration also plays a role here $\endgroup$ – Christian Mar 13 at 10:24
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    $\begingroup$ A mother cat will let a daughter hang around to raise the next litter. A undesexed cat will go on extended holidays coming back starved. A cat that has had a litter and raised them you can get a two way relationship where they will sometimes parent you. $\endgroup$ – user62283 Mar 13 at 21:37
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    $\begingroup$ There is a house near me with 200 cats in it. They sit round in groups of 4 or 5, each looking out in a different direction. $\endgroup$ – user62283 Mar 13 at 21:40
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Breed them for small, minimally functional brains.

We are already doing this, and it turns out great, mostly. Brachiocephalic cats are prized pets because they are super sweet and docile and they sneeze a lot. This docility is in part because their brains are squashed and small, and missing some bits. The sneezing is probably because they barely have noses.

https://www.improveinternational.com/us/brachycephaly-ventricular-dilation-and-skull-malformations-in-persian-cats/

The results confirmed a correlation between high grades of brachycephaly with facial, dental and neurocranial abnormalities in Persian cats. These malformations were also linked to a reduced cranial capacity and internal hydrocephalus which can be clinically significant and cause a negative impact on animal welfare.

brachiocephalic cats

http://messybeast.com/brachycephaly.htm

Maybe an impact on animal welfare if you expect the cat to hunt pigeons in the wild; it might struggle to figure out what it was supposed to do. But for a companion animal it is fine and if you explicity want the animal not to be a solitary predator it is great. The physical issues that go along with the brachycephaly breeding program also work fine with the non-predator kibblivorous human companion plan.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for Kibblivorous, -1 for the ethics, but +1 again for the kibblivorous because it's so damn funny. Also, yes, this is a viable tactic and I endorse it $\endgroup$ – Ruadhan Mar 13 at 12:53
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    $\begingroup$ This is cute, but definitely isn't the right answer. The question asks for cats to take over the role that dogs played throughout history, which is for the most part as active working animals (hunting, protecting, helping herd other animals, etc.) We need more brain, not less. $\endgroup$ – mattdm Mar 15 at 14:58
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Cheetahs have been tamed for thousands of years. There's a difference between tamed and domesticated, but that might be a good start.

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    $\begingroup$ tamed =/ domesticated. +1 $\endgroup$ – Mazura Mar 14 at 0:09
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Cats are not social and don't have a hierarchy?

enter image description here

As somebody who has been around both dogs and cats for all of my life, I disagree 100% with your claim that dogs are more trainable than cats. The main reason that dogs are considered more trainable is that humans have been selectively breeding them for specific traits that we can then train them to perform on command. My current dog is an Anatolian Shepherd, a breed that has been bred for the specific task of protecting livestock. Not herding them. Not chasing them. Just hanging out with them and chasing away or killing any predators that come around. They traditionally work with sheep and goats but mine is protecting chickens. I was able to train him to protect these chickens because the basic protective instincts bred into his DNA. Dogs like retrievers have not been bred to protect livestock. They have been bred to grab birds and bring them back to their owners. I would probably have better luck training a cat to protect my chickens than a retriever.

Cats in our world are not bred for any specific tasks or behaviors or intelligence. When they are bred at all they are bred for appearance based traits only. But as an example, it is common for mother cats to bring stunned but still alive prey like mice and squirrels back to their kittens so the kittens can learn how to pounce and hunt them. That basic behavior could be trained and bred into retrieving downed birds to their owners just like we did thousands of years ago when teaching wolves to do the same thing.

Herding livestock is really just chasing them in a controlled direction and we were able to train wolves to do it because they naturally work in packs with some dogs chasing the prey towards the other dogs that are waiting in ambush. This is nothing inherent to wolves. Any animals that hunt in groups will learn this, and lions do it very well. There are other examples of cats working in groups to hunt. Cats normally hunt alone because that is what gives them the best results. Change any parameters so that hunting in groups provides greater rewards and cats will quickly adapt to that new reality.

enter image description here

enter image description here

Humans domesticate animals that have something to offer. If wolves are not available to your early humans but some type of cats are, then there is no reason that cats could not be domesticated. And after several thousand years of controlled breeding for specific behaviors, cats could be just as varied, specialized and trainable as dogs are in our current society.

The question asks about cats and seems to pull the idea of out current domestic cats that came from small desert cats in north Africa. If I were to choose from all of the existing cat species for basic stock to begin domesticating as dog replacements I would choose the cheetah. They of all breeds show the most affinity for humans, willingness to domesticate and lack of appetite for human flesh. They also have demonstrated willingness to hunt in groups when appropriate which is a headstart for some types of roles that they would need to perform in their future domestic role.

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  • $\begingroup$ Pretty much bang on, but the issue comes with the size of social cats. The question specified that these cats needed to be domesticated by our ancestors (which admittedly I took to mean domesticated by our ancestors at roughly the same time as wolves were). I can't think of a social cat that isn't significantly bigger and more powerful than humans, which is a significant hurdle to domesticating predators using primitive technology. And for reference, sociality, and a hierarchical social structure at that, is thought to be a driving factor behind the ease of domestication for large animals. $\endgroup$ – Ynneadwraith Mar 14 at 9:44
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    $\begingroup$ @Ynneadwraith I'd guess the social structure mainly matters because it makes it easier to deal with large numbers of animals, which in turn makes it easier to breed and select for the best traits. If you need to tame every animal individually, you'll expend a lot more effort than if you only need to tame the leader of the pack and everyone else including the yet unborn follow. $\endgroup$ – Luaan Mar 14 at 11:50
  • $\begingroup$ Absolutely. It's also very useful for preventing being attacked by your recently tamed critters. Having a pre-evolved social hierarchy allows you to set yourself up as the head honcho/leader of the pack, and engenders loyalty from your new subordinates. With solitary predators, their reaction to competitors is either to challenge/eat them if they're non-dominant or leave the area if they're dominant. Neither of which are good for domestication. Cats are a different case because they're not really competing with humans for any resources, and hanging around each other is mutually beneficial. $\endgroup$ – Ynneadwraith Mar 14 at 12:01
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    $\begingroup$ I showed a picture of cheetahs working together and suggested them as the best candidate in the last paragraph. "They of all breeds show the most affinity for humans, willingness to domesticate and lack of appetite for human flesh." Cheetahs eat a lot fewer humans that wolves, and we managed to domesticate wolves. $\endgroup$ – krb Mar 14 at 14:34
  • $\begingroup$ I had a formerly feral cat, and an adopted dog who had been on his own for a while prior to living with us. They hunted together. And often shared the rabbits, squirrels, and birds they caught. $\endgroup$ – Mary C Mar 20 at 1:28
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Solitary cats are not a useful complement to human hunting methods.

Cats are ambush predators, which humans with tools already excel at. Humans with spears can kill almost anything quickly. Wolves helped with hunting becasue they are faster yet still have considerable endurance and can drive animals to us for humans to kill. They can also track prey by scent which compliments normal hunting and persistence hunting. A solitary predator ambush predator is completely useless to human hunting.

Lions are the only regular pack hunters among cats and they are too large to be domesticated.

Small cats are only useful becasue they can hunt vermin that are too much trouble for humans.

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