By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 10 April 2011)
Neoteny, or the tendency to retain youthful behaviours and features throughout adulthood, has created a state of permanent kittenhood among domestic felines. Why did cats become neotenized relative to their wild ancestors? The answer lies in self-selection and later selection by humans.
How Wild Cats Became Domestic Cats
It would have been the friendliest, tamest, most adaptable, sociable feline risk takers that ventured into human settlements for the first time. In other words, adult cats with kittenish qualities self-selected for domestication. Rewarded with food for their useful rodent-killing abilities, these cats became accustomed to being fed by humans, creating a pseudo parent-child relationship. The feline ancestors of the modern domestic cat were those most willing to be held and groomed, and to live in groups with members of other species.
The cats that made first contact and their descendants are temperamentally different from the average wild cat. Wild cats tend to be solitary, while housecats and domestic cats that have gone feral are usually sociable. Wild cats tend to be more high-strung and hyper-alert, whereas many housecats are relatively easy going. People would have preferred friendlier, calmer, more playful cats, and so these individuals were favoured and fed. Better-fed cats dwelling in close proximity to other sociable cats would have lived longer and had more opportunities to pass their kittenish genes on to future generations.
Traits Cats Share with Human Infants
There are particular feline facial features that may have induced people to form parent-child relationships with cats. A cat has a short nose and very large eyes in relation to its face, features which can also be found in human infants, and humans may be biologically hardwired to respond to these features. People often find adults with childlike facial features more attractive and treat them more sympathetically. This effect is so pronounced that those with neotenous facial features receive lighter sentences on average than less-neotenous individuals for the same crimes.
Neoteny is often the common factor among living things that people consider to be cute. People are more inclined to provide care to creatures that evoke the “cute” response, which is necessary, given the long period of helplessness that human infants experience. It has been speculated that pets have benefited from a by-product of the biological imperative to care for human offspring, but research indicates that the benefits are not all one-sided; owning a pet brings a number of significant health benefits for humans.
The Modern Neotenized Cat
Many cats can produce kittens by 5 months of age, but as with humans, physical maturity precedes social maturity. Cats reach social maturity anywhere between 18 months and 4 years of age (depending on the breed and the individual cat), but the modern neotenized cat can maintain its playfulness and adventurousness into old age, particularly if its owners play with it regularly.
The domestic cat is, in some ways, an eternal kitten, fed, groomed, dependent, trusting, curious, and sociable. However, domestic cats may also “parent” their human companions from time to time by bringing gifts in the form of dead animals for them to eat (or live animals, if the cat feels that its humans need an opportunity to practice their hunting skills). Many cats also attempt to comfort their owners when they are sad or ill.
People have bred domestic cats to enhance neotenized features. For example, the Scottish Fold breed has particularly large eyes, a round face, and flattened ears, giving it a kittenish appearance. The short, small nose of a Persian cat is also a juvenile feature.
Among the neotenized cat’s most appealing traits is its ability to perceive not only humans but also other pets as honourary cats rather than predators or prey (though there are certainly exceptions to this rule). A search of the Internet turns up numerous pictures of cats snuggling up to dogs, parrots, squirrels, and various other animals that would be perceived as either threats or food in the wild. Of course, some cats will never befriend other animals, and throwing animals together in the hope that they’ll get along can be a recipe for disaster. The likelihood of cross-species acceptance can be increased by exposing a kitten to other animals during the critical period for socialization.
Neoteny in Other Animals
Many other animals have been neotenized via human selection because people favoured certain physical or personality traits and selectively bred for them. For example, dogs have been bred to have short snouts, large eyes in relation to their faces, and floppy ears like puppies. Unfortunately, breeding for neoteny has also been used to make animals more friendly, docile, and trusting toward people for exploitative purposes, such as fur farming.
- Christensen, Wendy. (2004). Outwitting Cats: Tips, Tricks and Techniques for Persuading the Felines In Your Life That What You Want Is Also What They Want. Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press.
- Heath, Joseph. (n.d). Three Evolutionary Precursors to Morality. Chass.UToronto.ca.
- Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. (6 May 2004). “Neoteny/Juvenilization.” NHM.org.