How wild is your house cat?

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How wild is your house cat?

In the first Tiny Expedition, we took a little journey into dog genetics, so naturally our second sojourn had to be into the world of cats. The breeding process that gave us domestic cats is quite different from the one used to domesticate dogs, and the results help shape the way we see these companions.

Greg Barsh, MD, PhD, is the resident expert on animal morphology at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, and he insists he’s right on the verge of cat ownership. “I love cats and dogs,” Barsh says. “But in our family, we have had just dogs for many, many years.”

Bengal House Cat

“One of these days, I think we’re going to get a cat.”

As for what kind of cat, Barsh has a simple plan, “I want a friendly cat.”

Cat diversity is very different than dog diversity. With a dog, you might seek out a particularly friendly breed, but cat breeds don’t quite work the same way. 

In fact, there are many more dog breeds than cat breeds, and dogs also have a much broader range of skeletal diversity, meaning they come in more shapes and sizes. Meanwhile, cats may have a greater color diversity than dogs do.

These differences come from the domestication process. Dogs were bred for tasks—swimming, retrieving, protecting, etc. Meanwhile cats were domesticated less deliberately, primarily being used to control rat populations.

So there are a lot more kinds of dogs than cats, but that’s only if you limit your scope to domesticated animals. If you include wild cats, the family tree is much bigger than the dog family tree.


That diversity in the realm of wild cats gives rise to one of the more unusual features of cat breeding—crossing wild cats with domestic house cats to create new breeds. 

Barsh explains, “They’re domestic cats with just a little bit of wild cat DNA from millions of years ago.”

To find out what special breeding techniques make this possible, how some cats turn out “glittery” and why geneticists love cat shows —listen to Tiny Expeditions Episode 2: How Wild is your House Cat?

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