People and Cats, Living Together

Here is something for the Caturday after Catsgiving! – RH

Human beings have influenced the social lives of domestic and “feral”** cats in ways we are only just beginning to understand.

This isn’t about survival issues like food, water, and shelter. We have actually changed the way this species interacts with the world and with other domestic cats. 

In return, cats have worked their way into human culture and now, apparently, own the Internet, as well as our hearts and minds.

Cat coalitions

No member of the cat family could be called a pack animal, but some cats – notably lions, young male cheetahs, and domestic cats – occasionally come together in gender-based coalitions.

These coalitions often focus on food. Both lions (generally the females) and young male cheetahs have figured out that they can take down bigger prey if they work together.

Members of a lion or cheetah coalition are usually related.

Passing along genes through sex and raising the young is also involved.

In the pride lands, a group of sexually mature lions takes over by driving away or killing the resident male(s). Then they go after the cubs to make room for their own offspring.

Lionesses limit this infanticide, to some extent, because they have their own coalition, nursing and caring for the cubs collectively.

A “feral” cat colony isn’t a pride, but it does consist of females with the same type of nursery coalition.

Unlike lions, toms don’t have any close social ties with these she-cats and tend to stay on the periphery of things, since their territory may include more than one colony.

House-cat territories

All cats need organized space, just like people. Most unowned domestic cats have a core area, perhaps a den for a female or some favorite secure hangout for a male. The house is an owned free-roaming cat’s central core.

Surrounding the core zone is some territory the cat considers private property, and beyond that is its hunting range.

Females select a territory that includes a lot of food sources, since it’s no joke to have to go out and hunt after giving birth and living with a litter of hungry kittens.

Toms, not surprisingly, arrange their territory to include that of one or more females.

There are neutral pathways, so everybody can get around without conflict.

All the scent marking and other forms of communication cats do probably let other felines know who is where at any given moment. Accidental encounters are unavoidable and are usually resolved by a staring contest, after which one or both cats will back down and run away.

That’s the wild. Now try to drape this instinct for territory that all cats have over the typical suburban neighborhood or urban block, and you can imagine how complicated things get.

Outside the cat fancy, people don’t control cat reproduction but we sure do control their territory.

When we bring our cats along with us on a move, we plunk them down in the middle of foreign social terrain, and they must fight their way into it and earn a place in the social hierarchy.

Neighborhood cats may ignore a neutered male or a female (unless she’s in heat), but they will gather and call out the new tomcat, if they can, to see what he’s made of.

We don’t usually know what’s going on, but the cats do.

We unwittingly help our cats stake out the yard as their territory, no matter which cat(s) it belonged to before we moved in. 

Add a dog, and it’s out of bounds to everybody, of course. Put up fences or sheds, and the neighborhood cats now have new neutral pathways and community hangouts.

Domestic cat brotherhoods

Only domestic cats seem to have a “boys only” hangout. Felinologists call it a brotherhood.

Basically, he-cats pull an all-nighter on neutral ground, where they forget the hierarchy and just relax, chatting, purring, and grooming each other until it’s time for the sun to come up.

Then each goes back to his own territory and it’s business as usual once again.

Has human society enabled this by building spaces where our cats now have enough neutral ground to congregate together?

Feline brotherhoods reduce aggression in the neighborhood, but only for the cats!

African wildcats have never been seen socializing this way, and these are the domestic cat’s closest ancestor.

It must have something to do with domestication. Or are we just reading something into cat behavior, such as guys chilling out by themselves while girls take care of business in their own social group, that actually says more about people than it does about Felis catus?

It’s hard to say – a big part of that close link between people and cats involves us enjoying cats looking like little human beings.

No one says the cats have to enjoy it, though their welfare and safety should always be respected. 

This is playing in your head right now, isn’t it?

Cats, tropes, and memes

Cats have always been aristocratic house pets in most of Asia – modern artists still use the old Chinese texts that show how to paint these beautiful animals.

But in Europe, cats had to endure persecution during the Middle Ages, as did many hapless human beings, before their reputation as pets began to improve, starting around the 17th Century.

Cats became humanized in other ways, too. This illustration, satirizing a man who has no children, was made some time between 1600 and 1700.

Eventually cats became respectable again.  Many aristocratic portraits and religious European paintings included domestic cats. (For a detailed look, see this excellent site.)

Literary works still mentioned unlucky cats and ugly old cat ladies, but more positive tropes became popular, for example, cats sleeping in front of the household hearth. It was an excellent way to set up a comfy domestic scene.

The word “meme” wasn’t invented until the late 1970s, but people began staging photographs of cats almost as soon as professional photography became popular.

The tropes back then were simpler and built around rural life. People and cats commonly interacted on the farm, for example.

Some staged photographs were adorable. All they needed (and didn’t have) was the Impact Bold font and the ability to caption photographs to make a LOLcat meme.

Others were rather creepy in retrospect.

Harry Frees posed kittens in little costumes. His photographs, from around the turn of the 20th century, are controversial today because some people (and I’m one of them) think his subjects were stuffed or drugged.

Check them out in the Library of Congress digital archives and decide for yourself.

Sometimes memes blended together. The cat bus in My Friend Totoro, for example, looks a lot like a Japanese cat-shaped ship drawn for 19th-century propaganda during the Sino-Japanese war.

Model of cat bus in “Totoro,” a 1988 film (left); Japanese propaganda cat-ship from 1895.

On a brighter note, people have found even more ways to enjoy funny pictures of humanized cats since the Internet became popular.

I Can Haz Cat Memes!

Flickr user GirlieMac designed a set of HTTP status cat posters.

Usenet included rec.pets.cats in the 1990s and 4chan began Caturday (a tradition this post is copying today) around the turn of the 21st century.

These are just a few examples.

Funny cat pictures – OK, LOLcats (though this was another early tradition) – exploded onto the popular Internet in the late 00s, when the website I Can Haz Cheezburger began.

Cat memes – pictures and videos – have just gotten more and more popular ever since.

Why are they so popular? That can only be answered with a couple other questions: why do people enjoy pets, and why do they treat them like adopted children?

While the rest of us are having fun, this is all a very hot research area for experts ranging from zoologists to sociologists.

Meanwhile, on a midnight rooftop somewhere, the Brotherhood, hanging out on a roof somewhere, are quietly purring to each other: “Everything is going exactly as planned.”

** Quotes are needed because the word “feral” means different things to different people. Many think it means “wild,” but that actually applies only to animals that have never been domesticated. Feral cats are those that used to live with people or else are very closely related to former domestic cats. Experts disagree on how much social interaction a truly “feral” cat will have with people, but even in the broadest definition, it’s not much.


Featured image: Jens Enemark at Pixabay.

Three cheetahs: James Temple, Flickr. CC BY 2.0.

Neighborhood cats:  Loveombra, at Pixabay.

Midnight Revels. R. Newton after J. Nixon, edited by R,. Huntingdon from digital image at Library of Congress, 1795.

Brünnhilde: Library of Congress, 1936.

Fumbler’s Clubb (cat in swaddling clothes). London commentary, Library of Congress, c. 1600-1700.

Milking collage: Counterclockwise,

Cat bus collage:

  • Fukuro no nezumi (right): Japanese ship shaped like cat, chasing two Chinese ship-shaped rats, Sino-Japanese war propaganda. Library of Congress, 1895.
  • “My Friend Totoro” cat bus model (left). Brook Peterson, Flickr. CC BY-ND 2.0.


Chatfield, T. 2012. Cute cats, memes and understanding the Internet. Last accessed November 25, 2017.

Herbst, M. 2009. Behavioural ecology and population genetics of the African wild cat, Felis silvestris Forster 1870, in the southern Kalahari. PhD thesis, University of Pretoria. Last accessed November 4, 2015.

Know Your Meme. 2017. Cats. Last accessed November 24, 2017.

Poemas del Río Wang. 2010. Chinese cats. Last accessed November 25, 2017.

Wright, M., and Walters, S. 1980. The Book of the Cat New York: Summit Books.


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