You might have heard that domestic cats evolved from desert dwelling ancestors. It’s mentioned several times throughout the petMD nutrition center and MyBowl tool, particularly when a cat’s need for water is discussed. I thought it might be interesting to look into where this information came from.
In 2009, Scientific American published an article entitled "The Evolution of House Cats." In it, the authors noted that we have traditionally thought that the cat was first domesticated in Egypt about 3,600 years ago. However, more recent research has shown that the domestication of cats actually began in the Middle East, as early as 10,000 years ago when people were starting to live a more agrarian lifestyle.
The results revealed five genetic clusters, or lineages, of wildcats. Four of these lineages corresponded neatly with four of the known subspecies of wildcat and dwelled in specific places: F. silvestris in Europe, F. s. bieti in China, F. s. ornata in Central Asia and F. s. cafra in southern Africa. The fifth lineage, however, included not only the fifth known subspecies of wildcat — F. s. lybica in the Middle East — but also the hundreds of domestic cats that were sampled, including purebred and mixed-breed felines from the U.S., the U.K., and Japan. In fact, genetically, F. s. lybica wildcats collected in remote deserts of Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia were virtually indistinguishable from domestic cats. That the domestic cats grouped with F. s. lybica alone among wildcats meant that domestic cats arose in a single locale, the Middle East, and not in other places where wildcats are common.
The scientists believe cats moved into close proximity with people to hunt the mice that were drawn to an agricultural setting.What does this mean for cat owners? Primarily that cats are very efficient water users and need to drink less than do dogs, about one-quarter less to be exact. I’ve fielded numerous phone calls from owners who are concerned that they rarely see their cats drinking from a bowl, particularly if the cats eat canned food. Canned diets typically contain 75-80 percent moisture, so these individuals meet most of their water requirements through their food and have little need to go to the bowl for more.
Dry foods contain much less water than canned — a maximum of 10 percent usually. Most healthy cats will make up the difference by drinking from a bowl, as long as it is cleaned regularly, but some seem to prefer a running source of water. Feline drinking fountains are a more environmentally friendly way to satisfy these individuals, in comparison to leaving a faucet slowly running throughout the day.
Cats that have higher than average water requirements (e.g., those suffering from kidney or lower urinary tract disease) generally do best on a canned diet. You can even mix a little extra water in to boost their intake. Keep fresh water available at all times and if your cat is not doing well, ask your veterinarian whether subcutaneous fluid therapy could be beneficial.
Of course, coming from the desert might also explain why most domestic cats view bathing as an exquisite form of torture, but that’s a post for another day.
Dr. Jennifer Coates
Image: cat on La Gömera by Georg Böhm / via Flickr