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Assuming planet Earth, with considerable amounts of pets per household (96 million cats in the US alone), what would be the social and ecological consequences of all domestic cats acquiring flight ability over several days, given their essentially predatory nature?

Given that it is customary for pets to be spayed/neutered, evolving flight capabilities over one generation would presumably make for an easier to contain phenomenon; hence assuming that flight develops as a rapidly mutating epigenomic ability.

The cats' ability to fly would be equivalent to that of Tom in the popular Tom & Jerry episode The Flying Cat, i.e. on par with that of most small birds. The cats could also hover.

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    $\begingroup$ I suspect they would be used to deliver your amazon prime order. $\endgroup$ – Nick Oct 26 '14 at 3:25
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    $\begingroup$ Does this extend to big cats? $\endgroup$ – DonyorM Oct 26 '14 at 4:32
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    $\begingroup$ @NickR: what would happen if I order catfood? $\endgroup$ – Dan Dascalescu Oct 26 '14 at 9:17
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    $\begingroup$ @DanDascalescu This may be a problem if your order was delivered by a radicalized cat, waging jihad on behalf of Mr Frisky. Otherwise, I don't see a problem. $\endgroup$ – Nick Oct 26 '14 at 17:34
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    $\begingroup$ Even more youtube videos about cats crashing into things? $\endgroup$ – Theik Oct 27 '14 at 10:27
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Well, one obvious effect of cats acquiring flight ability would be that they would be much more effective in catching birds (it of course depends on how well/fast the cats can fly). Probably the number of birds would be considerably reduced. I can imagine that this would give cats a much worse image, with some people even turning to hunting cats (at least those with actual flying capability, that is, without their wings clipped) in order to save the birds.

Note that there is always a certain population of stray cats who obviously would not have their flight disabled; moreover, flying cats are harder to kept from escaping (just like birds, they might just fly out of your window when you open it), so the number of stray cats would probably also increase. There would probably also be a number of cat owners who would outright refuse to disable their cat's flying capability or to lock them in.

Continuing with ecology, a reduced bird population would likely result in an increased insect population, both of insects that damage plants or bite animals and humans, and of insects that are just annoying.

A flying cat, being now able to eat more birds, might in turn kill less mice and rats. I don't know how large the effect on mice and rats is currently (I guess most pet cats won't be hunting mice, but will be fed exclusively, but on more rural areas, cats will more likely kill mice and rats, and of course there are always the stray cats.

So assuming cats play a major role in controlling the population size of mice and rats, them hunting less mice and rats would possibly cause a mouse/rat pest.

About the social effects: Of course, cats developing wings in a very short time frame would in itself cause fear, for the simple fact that this is unexpected, and I would assume also unexplained (at least at first). If cats can suddenly acquire flight, then who knows what sudden unexpected changes other animals, let alone humans, might experience soon? There would probably be a hysteria where people watch animals as well as themselves/each other, and panic over anything unusual (or usual which they didn't notice before), fearing it is a sign of another sudden change, possible for the worse. Hypothetical scenarios of giant man-eating rats or similar would probably be painted in certain newspapers. The wildest theories about the causes would also circulate, from government conspiracy to aliens trying to take over the world, from an action by god to punish the faith-lacking humans to blaming it on the radiation of nuclear reactors or genetically modified cat food.

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    $\begingroup$ I watched a Nova episode about cats and it referenced an English study that found domestic cats have a huge impact on bird species with some individuals averaging ten kills a day. Even declawed cats or collars with bells didn't seem to stop them from hunting successfully. As you mentioned, reducing birds (and bats) increases insect populations. Insects spread disease and destroy crops. Many developing nations in this world would only need one or two crop failures to be in serious trouble. $\endgroup$ – Tom Oct 26 '14 at 13:14
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    $\begingroup$ Widespread panic? Over the prospects of being able to fly? Nah, there'd be elation in the streets until it happens to nobody but the cats. Then the riots would begin. $\endgroup$ – neph Oct 26 '14 at 14:21
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    $\begingroup$ @kikjezrous: Apart from the obvious fear that you might soon get e.g. flying tigers escaping from the zoo (after all, tigers are closer to house cats than humans are), there is no a-priory reason why all unexpected changes should be the same. So just because cats turn into flying cats does not mean that humans would turn into flying humans. They could just as well turn into snake-like humans without arms and legs. After all, if you don't have an explanation of the change, you cannot reasonably determine limits to the scope of the change. $\endgroup$ – celtschk Oct 26 '14 at 20:16
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    $\begingroup$ Stop being rational and nonreactionary! I want my hypothetical self in this hypothetical situation to be elated at the hope of flying alongside my cat! $\endgroup$ – neph Oct 27 '14 at 1:47
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What if cats can actually fly already but just choose not to for one reason or another -- it could be difficult and require expending a lot of energy so it is just easier to subjugate minions find loving owners to take care of them. They could be doing it while we aren't looking. How many cat owners have wondered how Fluffy managed to get himself there. And "stuck in a tree", really? I don't think so -- it's just an act to keep their flight capabilities hidden from us.

A flying cat could lend itself to even more applications for the Feline Butterology theory, however, so maybe, if this doesn't exist in the "wild", it is something that has already been develop in a lab and will be powering our next generation of spacefaring vehicles.

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  • $\begingroup$ Along the same line, what if trees are actually an alien species innocuously infiltrated on Earth and permanently beaming back up what they sense? $\endgroup$ – Dan Dascalescu Oct 26 '14 at 22:54
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First off, the hunting of prey would be much easier. It's easier to be silent in the air than it is in underbrush and grass, which is prone to rustling. They may also hunt birds more often, but they may become more susceptible to being hunted by birds of prey as well.

As far as how a home would change with a flying cat inhabiting it, fragile items that could get knocked over would need to be secured in some way, since putting a fragile item someplace the cat couldn't previously jump to is no longer an option. Another option is to somehow make the place the item is undesirable for the cat to walk on.

Also, jokingly, they wouldn't get stuck in trees.

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  • $\begingroup$ Would keeping the flying cat pets in cages, just like birds, become an option? How would cats take to it? And what if hunting cats banded together (similar to canine/wolf packs) and decimated even birds of prey? PS: LOL @ "they wouldn't get stuck in trees". $\endgroup$ – Dan Dascalescu Oct 26 '14 at 22:54
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What a fun question!

Socially, people would feel a lot more pressure to keep their cats inside, and have them declawed. A flying cat attacking you isn't much fun. Birds would have to adapt to being hunted by cats. Most birds are more aerodynamic than cats, so bird population might not actually suffer too much from flying cats. Feral cats would also face problems, as they would be much harder to contain. I think we would see most feral cats put down, at least in developed countries.

Farmers near cities might have issues with chickens and other small livestock being hunted. On the bright side, the new sport of cat shooting might become popular. Much more difficult than skeet.

Socially there would be a lot of speculation to why this happened. Tabloid newspapers would publish outrageous ideas, while scientists would be investigating it. Flying cats could even eventually be trained to be useful. They could be used for mail, searching and other functions that require small and numerous flying creatures.

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  • $\begingroup$ Would flying pet cats be put in cages, like birds? How would a cat accommodate to that lifestyle? $\endgroup$ – Dan Dascalescu Oct 26 '14 at 22:52
  • $\begingroup$ Well since the cot would have the ability from birth they'd be used to it. I would personally keep one in a large dog cage, maybe two. Set it up sort of like you would a bird cage, but larger and with ledges instead of perches. $\endgroup$ – Xethaios Oct 27 '14 at 23:03
  • $\begingroup$ @DanDascalescu I actually doubt it. Cats are several times bigger than most house birds. While pet carriers would probably be more common, I think most cats would just be kept inside. Maybe trained to not get on furniture/punished by being put in a cage when they do. Think about how sometimes people put dogs in a cage, but that is frowned upon for if done for long periods of time. $\endgroup$ – DonyorM Oct 28 '14 at 1:47
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I suspect that they would lose any flying ability rather quickly. Here's why:

If you own a cat, you probably have an emotional attachment to it. Perhaps that's a strong attachment. You'd be pretty upset if your cat left, right? (I think I can safely say that's the case based on all the desperate "Lost Cat: posters I see). So you're going to want to do everything you can to prevent your cat from wandering off and never coming back again. And that desire is so strong that you'll be willing to do a lot to make sure Fluffy stays with you.

You tangentially mentioned spaying and neutering in your question. You used that as evidence that it would not be passed along genetically, which is an excellent point. The thing is, spaying and neutering has some effects on the animal it is performed on - not just their now-hypothetical offspring. The point is, even though the animal may not enjoy it at first, you (the cat owner) are willing to sacrifice that for the well-being (in your mind) of your pet.

I can imagine a similar procedure being done to cats that can fly. I'm no ornithologist, but I know that wings require large muscles to move, and large muscles need tendons, and so on. It could be possible for a veterinarian to modify the wings of a cat - not cutting them off, but perhaps snipping away at some of the tendons - such that they no longer work. Fluffy stays firmly on the ground and you sleep better at night. As do the birds.

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  • $\begingroup$ There do exist two procedures performed on birds that fit your criteria mentioned in your last paragraph: wing clipping (cutting the flight features) and pinioning (surgically removing the last joint in the wing). $\endgroup$ – Roddy of the Frozen Peas Oct 27 '14 at 4:23
  • $\begingroup$ But... ! Cats want to take over the world, don't they? Will they not put up a fair fight to preserve their newly acquired superpower? $\endgroup$ – Dan Dascalescu Oct 27 '14 at 7:15
  • $\begingroup$ @DanDascalescu Interesting. . . $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Oct 27 '14 at 15:33

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