DEAR DR. FOX: A recent column included a letter from a reader concerned about bringing a new baby home to meet their cat.
When we were expecting our first baby, we were already sharing our home with a 4-year-old cat, Edison. She was a delightful companion to my husband and me, but she was rather unfriendly to almost everyone else. Many well-meaning friends and relatives asked us what we were going to do about "that cat." Mainly to give everyone else peace of mind, my husband replaced the door to the baby's room with a half-door he built. That allowed us to hear the baby, but kept kitty out. It worked very well.
When the baby was 6 months old, friends came to visit with their 2-year-old twins. They were both afraid of Edison. At one point, I put the baby on a blanket on the floor, and Edison immediately planted herself on a corner of the blanket, as if she knew she was protecting the baby so that the twins wouldn't come near her.
Edison wasn't a lap cat, but I had three children, and she was a very reliable pregnancy test. She would start sitting in my lap as soon as I got pregnant. When our second and third children were born, when my husband and I left for the hospital, she sat in my chair in the dining room and didn't leave it until my husband got home. She was quite the cat. -- A.C., LaGrange, New York
DEAR DR. FOX: Our two cats were 6 years old and well-adjusted survivors of three moves when the baby arrived. They both guarded the nursery door and scrupulously vetted each and every visitor. The cats lived to be 15 and 19, and the baby, now 49, is a confirmed cat lover. -- C.K.G., Union, Missouri
DEAR A.C. and C.K.G.: Thank you both for confirming how protective of infants some cats can be. Yes indeed, your Edison was "quite the cat." She probably could determine that you were pregnant by your change in pheromone odors associated with the hormonal processes of gestation. Her seemingly protective behavior lying on the blanket near your infant is probably a correct interpretation of her behavior, supported by C.K.G's two cats guarding the nursery door.
Early Egyptians revered cats for many reasons, one being their highly evolved protective behavior, which elevated them to divine status as Bast or Bastet, the anthropomorphized cat-goddess. The ancient Egyptians placed great value on cats because they protected the crops and slowed the spread of disease by killing vermin. As a result, Bast was seen as a protective goddess. Evidence from tomb paintings suggests that the Egyptians hunted with their cats (who were apparently trained to retrieve prey) and also kept them as beloved pets.
Some cat mothers will even accept grown offspring to nurse alongside a new litter of kittens and will sometimes nurse the orphaned offspring of other species.
In the report "Genetic structure in village dogs," Dr. Laura M. Shannon and an international team of 26 other scientists reveal a Central Asian domestication origin, concluding, "Dogs were the first domesticated species, but the precise timing and location of domestication are hotly debated. Dogs today consist primarily of two specialized groups: a diverse set of nearly 400 pure breeds and a far more populous group of free-ranging animals adapted to a human commensal lifestyle (village dogs). Using genomic data from 5,392 dogs, including a global set of 549 village dogs, we find strong evidence that dogs were domesticated in Central Asia, perhaps near present-day Nepal and Mongolia. Dogs in nearby regions (e.g., East Asia, India and Southwest Asia) contain high levels of genetic diversity due to their proximity to Central Asia and large population sizes. Indigenous dog populations in the Neotropics and South Pacific have been largely replaced by European dogs; whereas those in Africa show varying degrees of European vs. indigenous African ancestry.
As I discuss in the review article "Recovering Canine Health" (posted on DrFoxVet.net), these wonderful indigenous, "landrace" varieties of dogs are endangered by European (pure breed) dog crossbreeding. In the U.S., there are too many intact mixed-breed dogs, especially in the South, where they are still allowed to freely roam and breed back to a more natural landrace type. But as municipalities enforce spay/neuter and leash laws (for many good reasons), and as overcrowded shelters in states such as Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee send these dogs up to shelters in northern states where there are insufficient local dogs and pups for adoption, we may be seeing the last of the natural landrace dogs in North America. Many on Indian reservations are being crossbred with pit bulls and other pure breeds.
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