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An Ancestors Legacy
– The Wild Creature in our Pets

Looking at the behaviour of the ancestors of our pets helps us to understand what a dog or cat is, and why it is fundamentally different from, say, a squirrel or a budgie.

It helps us to change our expectations of them and realise their limitations. It also helps us understand their needs and their motivations for behaving in certain ways.


Dogs

For dogs, it is helpful to look at their ancestors, the wolves. Numerous studies have been conducted on wolves and it is relatively easy to find information about them.

Wolves evolved to hunt large prey.

They are only able to do this by hunting in packs with others, so they are not solitary hunters, like many of the foxes.

In groups, wolves can be safer, acquire more food and raise puppies.

A hierachy system evolved to enable them to sort out disputes, without always resorting to fighting – something which is very necessary in animals with big teeth and powerful jaws!

A complex social structure based on body language and signals evolved.

Although we have domesticated and selectively bred our pet dogs to be different from wolves, they still retain many of the characteristics and traits of their ancestors.

They still have needs and desires that can be grouped into four sections, each with its own range of behaviours designed to satisfy the needs and help the animal achieve homeostasis:

  • Safety – e.g. anxiety, avoidance, fear physiology, fight, flight
  • Body maintenance – e.g. acquisition of food, hunting (playing),
    chewing, storage (digging), coat maintenance
  • Reproduction – e.g. finding a mate (scents), roaming,
    inter-male competition, mounting
  • Social interaction / hierarchy

Due to selective breeding, some dogs will have inherited different traits to a greater or lesser extent than others.


For all dogs, if their needs are not attended to, they will attempt to find their own outlet for the behaviours they need to show.

This is a common cause of behaviour problems in pet dogs.


Cats

Cats are thought to be descended from the African Wild Cat, which are solitary hunters of rats, mice and other small animals.

Since they are difficult to study in the wild, it is easier to study colonies of feral cats and quite a lot of work has been done on how domestic cats live in the wild.

In farm situations where the food supply is rats and mice, they usually live in groups of related females with one male to the group.

The male has a very large home territory which he defends fiercely from other males. Females live near to the food supply, and co-operatively raise their kittens.

If there is a concentrated food supply, such as a rubbish dump, cats tend to be more concentrated and consist of sub-groups of related individuals.

The female’s home range depends upon the availability of food and can range from
0.1 ha to 170 ha (1-2 sq. km, 0.4-0.8 miles).
The average range for a well-fed house cat is about 0.3 ha.

Neutering feral colonies is shown to have a calming effect, especially on the males, who become much more tolerant of each other.

Since cats are solitary hunters
and only live in groups to raise young,
they do not need or have a hierarchy system
with its complex signalling system.

Consequently, cats are not particularly good at conflict behaviour.

There will be cats that are more confident than others about their ability to fight, but they do not form a true hierarchy, as dogs do.

They are good at safety behaviours and will try to get up high to keep safe, or keep still, or hide if in danger. They will scent mark their territory with urine, claw marks and sometimes faeces if they feel threatened.

If they share a small territory, they will time-share to keep encounters to a minimum, marking their presence with scent to let others know to keep away. They may do this with urine, faeces or scent from the glands around the body.

In a similar way to dogs, their behaviour can be classified into four groups:

  • Safety behaviour
  • Body maintenance – e.g. hunting, removing sheath of claws, grooming
  • Reproduction – inter-male fighting, spraying
  • Social interaction – pet cats treat us like their mothers

References:

The Domestic Dog: its evolution, behaviour and interactions with people Ed J Serpell, Cambridge Univeristy Press, ISBN 0 521 42537 9

Good Dog Behaviour: An Owners Guide Gwen Bailey , Harper Collins, ISBN 0 00 413321 8

The Wolf: The Ecology and Behaviour of an Endangered Species L.D.Mech Natural History Press, New York

The Behaviour of the Domestic Cat J.W.S. Bradshaw, CAB International, ISBN 0 85198 715 X

The True Nature of the Cat J.W. S. Bradshaw, Boxtree Ltd, ISBN 0 7522 1609 0

Understanding Cats Roger Tabor, David & Charles, ISBN 0 7153 0847 5



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