Genetic Research Indicates The Strong Human Relationship With Housecats May Lead To Health Advances For Both Species

The world boasts about 40 different species of cats – from under two pounds up to over 400.

At the small end is the Rusty spotted cat (Prionailurus rubiginosus) of India and at the other extreme is its giant Indian cousin the Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) which can weigh up to 600 pounds.

fluffy cat sitting on windowsill at home
Housecats, wildcats and feral cats look very similar. They apparently domesticated themselves 10 to 12000 years ago. They are both close human companions and a destructive invasive species .Photo by Andrew Kota on

Yet all 40 species remain very similar. House cats (Felis catus) diverged from tigers about 10.8 million years ago but their DNA is 95.6 percent identical, a recent study shows. Housecats have developed a complicated relationship with humans that has both good and bad aspects. On the good side entangling their genetic history may help both humans and cats conquer shared diseases.

A tiger in the water
Are tigers just very large housecats? Their DNA is about 95.6 the same.

The exact origin of our “house tigers” has been something of a mystery and new genetic investigation is seeking to shed more light on the issue. It is generally agreed that cats domesticated themselves. The African wildcat (Felis sylvestris lybica) is generally believed to have started to live near humans about 10 to 12,000 years ago. At about this time humans in the region known as the Fertile Crescent began to grow crops. The area is crescent shaped and covers much of the modern Middle East. People began to grow crops rather than hunt and gather. This was mostly in the watershed of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The cats were attracted to eat the rodents which sought to spoil the grain.

The mutual relationship was beneficial and began to grow. Soon the wildcats were housecats.

Professor Leslie A. Lyons believes the study of feline domestication, and feline genetics in general, is important for both species. That is because cats and humans sometimes suffer from the same diseases. Recently, she did studies narrowing down the exact time frame for domestication. But she is also very interested in diseases common to both humans and housecats.

a cat with santa hat
Grumpy Santa. Persian cats suffer from kidney disease but genetic tests may be leading to better treatments. Photo by Amin Alizadeh on

She thinks her research can be a “win-win” for both species because knowledge gained about shared diseases can lead to breakthroughs for cats and humans.

According toa quote on physorg:

“Lyons, who has researched feline genetics for more than 30 years, said studies like this also support her broader research goal of using cats as a biomedical model to study genetic diseases that impact both cats and people, such as polycystic kidney disease, blindness and dwarfism.” Cats are closer to humans genetically than other non-primate mammals.

As for kidney disease:

“Our efforts have helped stop the migration and passing-down of inherited genetic diseases around the world, and one example is polycystic kidney disease, as 38% of Persian cats had this disease when we first launched our genetic test for it back in 2004,” Lyons said. “Now that percentage has gone down significantly thanks to our efforts, and our overall goal is to eradicate genetic diseases from cats down the road.”

(Links in original quote from Physorg)

Lyons said that the only current treatment available has severe side effects. She is working with colleagues and UC Santa Barbara to develop a food based treatment.

“If those trials are successful, we might be able to have humans try it as a more natural, healthier alternative to taking a drug that may cause liver failure or other health issues,” Lyons said. “Our efforts will continue to help, and it feels good to be a part of it.”

DNA and genetic treatments and experiments have been much in the news recently. DNA advances may help protect Sumatran tigers. Genetic work may revive extinct species. And genetic “warfare” may be a powerful tool in the fight against invasive species. Ironically, housecats are an invasive species in much of the world.

Published by ursusrising

long time writer and editor living in Los Angeles

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