Dogs may be our best friends, but it is the cat that reigns supreme in our homes and gardens. With a population estimated at up to 9 million, including the feral fraternity, domestic cats outnumber dogs by almost 2 million in the UK. This change in allegiance probably says as much about us as it does about the relative merits of dogs and cats as pets. Our fast-moving lifestyles leave fewer opportunities for daily "walkies", so the independent cat more easily fills the house pet niche for many of us.
However, this also brings about a significant shift in the relationship between owner and pet. Whereas dogs are falling over themselves to be one of our pack, we have to accept cats more or less on their terms. Or at least, if we want to try to change them for the better, we need to know the fundamental ground rules that cats hold dear to their hearts.
Stephen Budiansky's The Character of Cats is a handy guide to where the domestic cat has come from, why it behaves so independently and inscrutably, and how we can begin to understand and shape its behaviour for a harmonious coexistence. Budiansky approaches his task in an amusing and highly readable style. He begins at the beginning; why are there no drug-sniffing cats, slipper-fetching cats or guard cats? The fundamental reason is that cats have never really been domesticated like dogs. Our feline friends are "exploited captives", whose ancestors were the African wild cats living in ancient Egypt more than 4,000 years ago. Attracted to rodents hanging out around grain stores and easy food at rubbish dumps, wild cats and people had time to get used to each other. It probably was not long before cats began to take advantage of our good nature and inveigle their way into our homes.
By 3,000 years ago, the Egyptian cult of the cat was born. Although much of the early history of domestic cats was familiar to me, I was pleased to come across some new stories. For example, a horde of domestic cats was used by the Persians as a weapon of mass distraction during the siege of Pelusium in 525BC. The Egyptians succumbed to this ploy, because they were afraid of harming the cats during the ensuing battle.
Also interesting is Budiansky's opinion that the history of the domestic cat has become rather polarised; the traditional story tells us that cats were sacred during ancient Egyptian times, but were regarded as the incarnation of evil in the medieval period. However, it seems that the truth lies somewhere in between. Indeed, in 10th-century Wales, a cat with rodent-killing prowess was as valuable as a weaned pig.
After charting the rise of the domestic cat and its spread throughout the world, aided by human assistance, Budiansky moves on to deal with its natural history. Although nominally domesticated, cats still retain much of the behaviour of their wild ancestors. Unfortunately, this may annoy us, leading to inevitable conflicts. The description of the social systems of cats is a bit simplistic, and the influence of the aggregation of food on the pattern of territories is not well explained here. We are all familiar with the problems caused by urine sprayed against furniture and walls, which is merely a natural scent-marking behaviour. Burying of faeces is a clever ploy though, to ingratiate cats to us.
Budiansky also probes the sex lives of cats, including multiple matings, sperm competition and infanticide, as ways of maximising the reproductive success of both sexes. The myth is repeated that the spiny penis of males causes pain to the female during mating to stimulate ovulation, causing her to turn on her mate in revenge. In fact this does not occur when cats know each other well and it seems more likely that the female is avoiding being mistaken for a tasty morsel after the male ejaculates and forgets what he has been doing.
The final chapters of The Character of Cats deal with the cat-human relationship and how to overcome some of the behavioural problems caused by a lack of understanding on our part. There is even a cat personality test so owners can see if their cats are bossy, timid or just easy-going. Unlike dogs, cats do not respond to the carrot and stick, but even so with patience they can be trained to do just about anything, even to use our toilets instead of litter trays.
The Character of Cats is a good read, and the bibliography would allow more interested readers to pursue their own lines of inquiry. Sadly though, errors have been perpetuated from others' writings, resulting in erroneous conclusions. For example, Budiansky suggests that it is mainly northern hemisphere cat species that respond to catnip, because this is where this plant is native. However, research shows that the catnip response is controlled by a single dominant gene, so the response depends on the cat used in the experiment. I also feel uncomfortable at the way in which the results of vivisection on cats to find out the workings of their brains are used to enlighten us.
Mel and Fiona Sunquist's Wild Cats of the World is a completely different kettle of fish. Heavyweight and authoritative, this compendium of cats brings together much of the latest knowledge on all the world's cat species, ranging from the enormous and familiar lions and tigers to the dainty rusty-spotted cat, which weighs barely more than a bag of sugar. The Sunquists' research background is in ecology and behaviour, and so not surprisingly these aspects of cat biology form the core of the information about each species, with some areas outside their expertise receiving little or no attention, including parasites and diseases, reproductive physiology, captive research and management and molecular genetics.
The comprehensiveness of Wild Cats of the World is reinforced by two introductory chapters and six appendices. The first chapter describes the morphological adaptations of cats to hunting and killing prey, and an overview of their social systems, while the second deals scarcely at all with the taxonomy of felids. This is a disappointing chapter that does not allow readers to get to grips with the current taxonomic conundrums and how important taxonomic research is as the basic foundation for all other aspects of research and conservation. If we don't know what we've got, how can we ensure its survival? The appendices are a mine of somewhat disparate, but useful, information about the conservation status of cats, their protection in international trade, olfactory and vocal communication, and reproduction.
The meat of the book is the species accounts, which provide detailed physical descriptions of all the cats, their geographical distributions, ecology and behaviour, status in captivity and conservation efforts.
References accumulate helpfully at the end of each chapter and provide mostly excellent bibliographies for each species, including the ever-elusive "grey" literature, which you can never get through interlibrary loans. Stunning colour photographs show all the world's cats alive, although sadly the little-known kod-kod from Chile and Argentina is represented by a rather badly stuffed specimen. Clearly most of our knowledge about the world's cats is based on studies of the bigger and bolder cats such as lions and tigers, but in recent years the development of radio-tracking technology has allowed us a glimpse into the lives of the smaller cats, including the leopard cat, the margay and the black-footed cat. However, there are many others about which we still know next to nothing; the Bornean bay cat is known from only ten museum specimens, the Andean mountain cat has been photographed alive for the first time only in recent years, and nobody is entirely sure what a Chinese mountain cat is.
It is shocking that we know more about tigers in the wild than we do about our own "tiger", the Scottish wildcat, which may be threatened with extinction through amorous interludes with domestic cats, resulting in hybrids.
Overall, Wild Cats of the World is a very useful summary and source of information about the basic biology of all the world's cats. The references alone provide a great starting point for finding out more about the world's ultimate mammalian predators, and the colour photos show us why cats have entranced people since the earliest times.
Andrew Kitchener is curator of mammals and birds, National Museums of Scotland, Edinburgh.
Wild Cats of the World
Author - Mel Sunquist and Fiona Sunquist
ISBN - 0 226 77999 8
Publisher - Chicago University Press
Price - £31.50
Pages - 452