Are Cats Wild Animals?

Cats are famously less friendly and less people-centric than other pets. But does that mean they’re still wild at heart?

Is a cat considered a wild animal? Cats are domesticated, so are not wild animals, but can nevertheless survive in the wild. The domestication process has changed cats both mentally and physically. Some cat breeds have longer fur, flatter faces, shorter tails and so on because they were domesticated. Mental and behavioral changes include the ability/desire to meow (which wild cats don’t do), and a trust of humans. While house cats can survive in the wild either in urban or rural areas that doesn’t mean they’re still ‘wild’.

The guide below first looks at whether cats are domesticated/tamed, what the domestication process entails, and how cats became domesticated in the first place. We’ll also cover how cats can survive outdoors despite not being ‘wild’.

Are Cats Domesticated Or Tamed?

Cats are considered domesticated/tamed in the same way as dogs. While cats and dogs have different temperaments, they trust people, are content living alongside us, and are significantly different from their wild counterparts.

That being said, not every cat you ever see will be a domesticated one. Whether a cat is tame depends on how it was raised. If it was raised by people, it will be tame; if it wasn’t, it will be feral. Despite that, feral cats still retain some fingerprints of the process of domestication.

What Is Domestication?

Domestication is a fascinating process. It involves both mental and physical changes. It’s where a wild animal changes and becomes tame so that it can live alongside humans. This has benefits both for people and for the animal in question.

The core mental change of domestication is that cats have come to trust people. This occured because when they first became domesticated, those cats which trusted people the most were able to better take advantage of available food and shelter. Those cats consequently bred more and passed on their genes, while those that didn’t trust people, didn’t. A relevant and fascinating behavioral change, and one that most people don’t appreciate, is that domesticated cats only learned to meow to please people! Cats began meowing because it’s a good way to get a person’s attention. They only meow at people, never at other cats (or randomly). It’s for this reason that wild cats almost never meow.

There are also many physical changes that domestication has wrought. The most obvious are those of cat breeds like the Persian, which has much longer fur and a flatter face than its wild ancestors.

Are All Cats Domesticated?

Not all cats are domesticated.

First, there are still populations of wild cats that have never been domesticated. The African wildcat is an example. If you were to see this cat in the wild, you could easily mistake it for a housecat. Its fur is a light sandy grey, and it often has a white belly. In shape, it is broadly similar to a mixed-breed housecat: a long sleek body, short fur, well-proportioned legs and tail. But despite appearing similar, these cats have never been close to people, so have not learned to trust us. They therefore react in the same way as any other wild animal when it sees a person (running away or getting defensive).

Feral cats (alley cats) could be considered domesticated but not tamed. They still bear the physical changes of domestication, but don’t trust people in the same way that your average house cat does. That’s because they weren’t raised in the presence of people, so distrust us in the same way as wild animals. But a Persian alley cat—for example—still has its long fur and unique shape, both of which are a product of domestication.

How Did Cats Become Domesticated?

Have you ever tried in vain to get your cat to do something? Every owner experiences this at some point, whether it’s in an attempt to get the cat to the vet, get it to sleep on its own bed, or something else. This is one of the key differences between cats and dogs: well trained dogs will do anything to please their owners, while cats… Well, cats don’t.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, cats were domesticated largely on cats’ terms rather than our terms. According to National Geographic,

The earlier ancestors of today’s domestic cats spread from southwest Asia and into Europe as early as 4400 B.C. The cats likely started hanging around farming communities in the Fertile Crescent about 8,000 years ago, where they settled into a mutually beneficial relationship as humans’ rodent patrol. (See little-known small cats in “Out of the Shadows, the Wildcats You’ve Never Seen.”)

Mice and rats were attracted to crops and other agricultural byproducts being produced by human civilizations. Cats likely followed the rodent populations and, in turn, frequently approached the human settlements.

“This is probably how the first encounter between humans and cats occurred,” says study coauthor Claudio Ottoni of the University of Leuven. “It’s not that humans took some cats and put them inside cages,” he says. Instead, people more or less allowed cats to domesticate themselves.

This was the period of the ‘Agricultural Revolution’, which is when people first started producing crops instead of hunting and gathering. This had a distinct advantage, because it meant that people could store food for the winter. Grains were kept in stores like silos just as they are today (except each house had its own small silo under the floor).

On the one hand, this meant that settled communities would have more food when they needed it most; on the other, it meant that mice and rats had more food too! Rodent populations metaphorically exploded around major urban centers as a result, which attracted cats. People quickly realised that cats unwittingly protected their food stores, so would offer them food and shelter to keep them nearby. As time went by, the most successful cats—the ones that bred the most—were those that trusted humans enough to take advantage of this offer. Gradually, this trust of humans was thereby bred into cats in the same way it was in dogs.

The story of breeds is a somewhat different one. Most of today’s cat breeds originated in the 19th and 20th centuries when cats became fashionable in high society. These cats were specifically bred to look a certain way: to have long fur, for example, or flat faces. This breeding for certain traits took place long after the cat’s original domestication, and used wild cats (landraces) that hadn’t previously been domesticated.

What Is The Closest Animal to a Cat?

european wildcat
A european wildcat.

Something else that cat people may not appreciate is that the wild ancestors of the cat still exist, and still thrive, in our world today.

The domestic cat is Felis catus, a species in the broader cat family. Other members of the family include well-known animals like the lion (Panthera leo) and the tiger (Panthera tigris). However, there are still wild examples of Felis catus: the African wildcat and the European wildcat. These cats look almost exactly like housecats of mixed breeds.

There are also ‘landraces’ within these two species, which are almost like subspecies. They look different to your average African or European wildcat, but biologically are broadly the same. It’s from these interesting-looking landraces that we get cat breeds like the Siamese. These landraces still exist in small numbers in the wild.

Can House Cats Survive in The Wild?

House cats can most definitely survive in the wild. That’s because they retain much of their innate nature: their talent at hunting, their agility and ability to hide,  and so on.

How Do Lost Cats Survive?

How a lost cat survives depends on where it is. If it’s in an urban area, it may largely survive by scavenging for food. This is food that people drop or throw away. It’s far easier to scavenge for food than it is to hunt, especially since the rodents in cities can be very large (as big as cats themselves). It’s for this reason that alley cats form groups, because it makes hunting for larger prey possible.

A domesticated cat that gets lost in a rural area, by contrast, will live alone. That’s because it will have access to smaller prey like field mice and birds—the kind that house cats bring home to their people all the time.

Aside from food, lost cats need shelter. Alley cats find shelter in abandoned buildings, in sheds, and on commercial properties. Rural cats find shelter in barns and on farms, similar to their first-domesticated ancestors!

Can Cats Survive in The Forest?

Domesticated cats can easily survive in a forest. Wooded areas are, in many ways, ideal for lost/feral cats. That’s because:

  • There is plenty of food in the shape of small rodents and birds
  • There are many places a cat can hide to get away from predators
  • There are fewer/no environmental hazards like cars
  • There are natural shelters, plus trees provide rain cover as-is

It’s for these reasons that many species of wild cat already live in forests, like the undomesticated ancestors of the Norwegian Forest cat. These cats lived in the forests of Norway—obviously—for centuries before being domesticated.

Can House Cats Survive Outside in The Winter?

cat in a forestCats can survive outdoor winters by making good use of shelter. That’s why cats have fur: to keep warm when the weather gets cold.

That being said, the winter poses difficulties that the summer doesn’t. There is less food available, and what food there is can be difficult to find (e.g. under a blanket of snow). At the same time, cats need more food than normal so that they can generate body heat to keep warm. The rain, wind and snow can also combine to make a cat’s life more difficult, lower its immune system and consequently make disease more likely.

How Long Can an Indoor Cat Survive Outside?

This depends on where the cat got lost. That’s because almost all cats can typically find enough food to survive, and shelter to take advantage of.

What a lost cat can’t avoid, though, are environmental hazards. These could be human hazards such as cars and bicycles; or, they could be natural hazards such as predators and parasites. These combine to lower a cat’s average lifespan compared to a normal indoor cat. It’s impossible to give a precise length of time because some cats are better at avoiding these hazards than others; but indoor cats can survive for years outside of the home.

Another factor that determines how long an indoor cat can survive outside is its breed. Longhair breeds are less likely to be successful in an outdoor environment because of their long fur. Long fur quickly forms mats without grooming, and is the perfect breeding ground for parasites like fleas, which can get so bad that they lower the cat’s lifespan. Cats with short hair can still catch parasites, of course, but won’t have as bad an infestation.

Is Releasing a Cat Into the Wild OK?

If you feel that you can no longer take care of your cat, don’t release it into the wild to fend for itself. All the issues covered above mean that your cat will have a miserable time. Instead, give your cat to a shelter; ideally a no-kill shelter. Even a kill shelter is arguably better than releasing your cat, because it will at least have a painless death, whereas an indoor cat released to the wild could potentially experience a very painful one.