From Schrödinger To YouTube, The House Cat Is Here To Stay

Our feline overlords aren’t just useful for cuddles, funny videos and silly memes; these domesticated darlings have served many purposes over history.

The cute and cuddly factor

Not all utilitarian relationships descend into bitterness, though. On Japan’s Tashirojima island, cats that originally served to protect silkworms from mice, thereby securing the local textile trade during the Edo period, now outnumber the island’s human occupants. And no one is complaining; in fact, thousands of Japanese and foreign tourists flock to the island every year to bask in the furry glory of Tashirojima’s burgeoning feral cat population.

In more recent times, feline attraction has shifted away from practicality and taken on an emotional shade. Most people, excepting the ailurophobic—a person with a fear of cats—report feelings of relaxation and a reduction of stress or anxiety when stroking a cat. Research has also shown that positive emotions were elicited simply by watching cat videos on the internet.

Is it any surprise then that cat cafes, first established in Taiwan and Japan, have since propagated throughout the world and are now drawing droves of customers eager to simply experience a cat? While these case studies do not definitively prove that the cat is an ideal psychological and emotional crutch, they provide an explanation for the sustained popularity of household cats, independent of their rodent-eradicating function.


Kitty mind control?

Pest control and good vibes aside, scientists have put forth a disturbing hypothesis that the human-cat interaction exists to serve a more sinister purpose. Cats are host to a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii which begin and end their life cycle in the cat. Thus, any biological or environmental factors that favor the survival of cats similarly benefit the parasite.

Even more alarming is a study showing that infected rodents were less averse to the scent of cat urine, suggesting that the parasite actively induces behavioral alterations to ensure its reproductive success in what has been termed ‘manipulation hypothesis.’

In humans, most T. gondii infections are asymptomatic, and it is approximated that up to one in two human individuals worldwide are silent carriers of the parasite. Although there have been reports associating T. gondii infection with neurological disorders such as schizophrenia, a causative link has not been found, and the jury is still out on whether the manipulation hypothesis applies to humans as well.

Til then, cat lovers such as myself shall have to continue grappling with the unsettling question: Is my affection for my cat genuine, or a mere product of parasitic mind control?

Clearly, the cat still remains a mystery to this day. As with any inter-species interaction, the impact that each one makes on the other is complex, dynamic and continuously evolving over time. For cats, their domestication has strengthened their place in the world by sheltering them from the whims of geography, ecology and natural selection.

While history is steeped in examples of human favor allowing particular species to prosper, it has also led to the detriment of many other animal species—one just needs to look at the effects of poaching and over-fishing. Could the cat one day lose our friendship and be thrown out of the hallowed halls of our homes? Only time will tell—and that will be a fine tale for another time.


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Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Pexels.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Jeremy received his PhD from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, where he studied the role of the tumor microenvironment in cancer progression.

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