There’s a common folk model of how housecats relate to humans that says their relationships with us recruit instincts originally for maternal bonding – that is, your cat relates to you as though you’re its mother or (sometimes) its kitten that needs protecting.
I don’t think this account is entirely wrong; it is a fact that even adult cats knead humans, a behavior believed to stimulate milk production in a nursing mother cat. However, through long observation of cats closely bonded to humans I think the maternalization theory is insufficient. There’s something else going on, and I think I know what it is.
Disclaimer: I’m not a trained animal ethologist, just a careful observer who is fond of cats and has learned to speak cat kinesics pretty well. (The reality check for this is that I have a history of making friends with individual cats easily and quickly even when they’re shy around humans.)
I follow the (sparse) literature on cat genetics and ethology. And a thing that has come to light recently is that Rudyard Kipling (“The Cat Who Walks By Himself”) was wrong. Housecats and their near relatives in the wild (felix lybica and felix sylvestris) are not solitary animals. Some of the larger cats are, outside of mating; but the felids related to housecats (which still interbreed freely with their domesticated kin where the ranges overlap) tend to live in smallish groups composed of a handful of mature females and their offspring.
Being adapted for living in groups makes sense. Small cats in the wild are dangerously exposed to predation, not least by larger cats; the usual benefits of having peers on alert while you’re sleeping apply.
It follows that cats have well-developed social instincts about each other. They don’t merely tolerate each others’ presence if a human happens to be keeping more than one, they form actual peer bonds. This is easy to miss because much cat peer signalling is not obvious to humans; in particular, cats don’t have to be in eye-to-eye contact to be interacting.
I judge the maternalization theory of how cats bond to humans is inadequate for several reasons. One is that cats show marked and differing sex preferences for what kinds of humans they like to bond to, and some (like our last cat, Sugar) clearly prefer males. If maternal bonding were the entire instinct armature of their relationships to humans, this would be difficult to explain – indeed, it would be hard to see how such a preference could evolve at all.
Another is that maternalization theory doesn’t seem adequate to explain how cats often bond to every human in a household, even the ones that don’t feed them! At our house, my wife Cathy is the food-giver. Both our gone-but-not-forgotten Sugar and our current cat Zola have shown a clear grasp on this, but that knowledge never stopped either of them from behaving as though their day wasn’t complete without some quality Eric time.
All this becomes much easier to account for if the instinct ground of housecat behavior towards humans is not necessarily maternal bonding but peer bonding. In this model, I’m not Zola’s mother but a peer cat or senior tom that he trusts and wants to maintain good relations with.
I’m not certain, because the differences are very subtle, but I think “senior tom” status elicits slightly different behaviors than “mommy”/food-giver status – slightly more placatory and submissive. I noticed this more with Sugar (female) than with Zola (male), which is a little odd because one consistent thing about cat social hierarchies is that they tend to be female-dominant – all things being equal one would have expected Sugar to defer less to a near-peer male than Zola does.
On the other hand, my observations fit the fact that male cats aren’t nurturers and are actually rather dangerous to kittens – in the wild they not infrequently eat the young of rivals if they can get away with it.
It is well known that some cat breeds are more consistently human-friendly than others, and generally believed among cat fanciers that the friendliest breeds are old, “natural” landraces like Maine Coons, Norwegian Forest Cats, and Lake Vans that haven’t been show-bred for appearance traits.
I suspect that the underlying variable here is exactly propensity to form social peer bonds with other cats. It could hardly be anything specific to humans; we haven’t been part of the cats’ evolutionary story for long enough at only 10KYa or so. On the other hand, it’s easy to see why that peer-bonding tendency might have been both strong in the ancestral environment and show some tendency to decay under the artificial circumstances of living with humans.
I’ll finish up by noting that living with Maine Coons for 25 years probably did more to push my thinking in this direction than anything else could have. It is impossible not to notice how social, outgoing, and just plain nice Coons are as a breed – but if your brain works like mine you can’t stop there, you also can’t avoid noticing that cats are not little humans in fur suits and looking for an explanation of their human-compatibility that makes sense in cat evolutionary terms.
Co-option of cat peer bonding is my proposal. Alas, I have been unable to think of a way to test this theory. Maybe my readers can come up with an interesting retrodiction?