The secret lives of cats, past and present

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“Cats are as good a predator as there is on the planet,” says evolutionary biologist and author of The Cat’s Meow Jonathan Losos. Their appeal as pets, he says, “is that you've got a little bit of the Serengeti in your own living room.” Photo from Shutterstock

Jonathan Losos, evolutionary biologist at Washington University, explores the evolution, peculiarities, and joys of our feline friends, whose secrets — past and present — modern research continues to discover. In his book  “The Cat's Meow: How Cats Evolved from the Savanna to Your Sofa,” Losos writes from both the perspective of a scientist and a cat lover and talks about some of the familiar behavioral traits of cats as well as the significance of their purrs and meows. 

“[Cats] have multiple purring sounds,” says Losos. “One is the content sound that we're familiar with when you're stroking your cat. But there's another sound, when they want something, and that's much more of a chainsaw, ‘boom, boom,’ type sound.”  

Similarly, he says, cats may have taken advantage of humans’ predisposition to find higher pitched sounds pleasing and in turn have evolved changes in their meow in order to live with us and to communicate with us. He explains that as cats evolved and became domesticated, they figured out that, “sounds we found more pleasing were treated better.”

Cats were revered by the ancient Egyptians, so much so, Losos says, “that people would shave their eyebrows for a month if a cat died, and killing a cat was potentially punishable by death.” 

Today, of course, the modern house cat is a loveable and trainable companion. Contrary to popular belief, cats are very social animals, and even when living feral on the streets still live in groups that Losos says are very similar to lion prides.

“In LA and everywhere else in the country and in the world, kind-hearted people provide food for unknown cats and, as a result, you can have very large populations,” he says.

Another widespread myth, Losos says, is that you cannot train a cat. 

“Cats are easily trainable,” he counters. “You can train cats to go to the bathroom on the toilet — and you're certainly not going to do that with a dog.”  

Jonathan Losos, pictured here, says that, “many people, including me, really like the feeling that with a cat you've earned their affection. Dogs are hardwired to be friendly — they'll be friendly to anyone. But with a cat, you feel like, ‘Wow,’ I've made it! This cat has given me his seal of approval.” Photo credit Day's Edge Productions.

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  • Jonathan Losos - Author; Evolutionary biologist, Washington University; founding director, Living Earth Collaborative


Andrea Brody