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How Wild Is Your Cat?

By Caitlin Friess

Kathryn Walters Conte

Hybrid cat breeds are highly popular for their size and resemblance to wild cats, and more states are encountering feline pets that display wild traits despite regulations that are put in place to prevent non-domestic animals from being brought into homes and potentially doing harm to another animal or human. 

This is where AU biology professor Kathryn Walters-Conte comes in. Her current research is aimed at developing tests to identify the “wild” factor in domestic, wild, and hybridized cats. “If you get a cat from the pound, you don't necessarily know if that cat is one of these fancy breeds that are illegal in some states or is a regular domestic cat,” she says. 

A hybridized or wild cat isn't usually recognized until a problem arises. “We don't know how many are out there, and no one is able to enforce the rules unless there is a problem,” she says. “You might think it's a cute kitty cat, what could be the harm, but then it gets scared and ends up scratching somebody or attacking a dog. Animal control will then come in and often conclude that the cat is wild.” 

States have different rules for the acceptable level of hybridization in pet cats, but it can be nearly impossible to determine how mixed a cat’s breed really is. “Domestic cats are sometimes hybridized with Asian leopard cats or with Servals, making fancy breeds that are illegal in places because they are half wild,” Walters-Conte says. “Other states will say that as long as it's what is called an F-5 hybrid (less than 1/32th wild), it's okay to keep it as a domestic animal. Unfortunately, there is no good way to test for that unless you have breeding records, and of course people can lie on those.” 

While hybridized cats can sometimes be identified due to their large size, not all can be so easily recognized. Walters-Conte has found variations in size and behavior that occur according to which genes are turned on or off. “A lot of this work is very interesting because there's a huge part of neuroscience and behavioral psychology that is interested in what makes a domestic cat relatively docile, whereas a tiger is not so docile,” she says. “Is it a size difference, or is there something genetically different that is actually making them behave differently?”  

What Walters-Conte focuses on in her research is what are called transposable elements, or “jumping genes”—pieces of DNA that may not code for any particular trait but are repeated all throughout the genome. Researchers like Walters-Conte are able to use these elements to examine how different species have evolved. “Species that have evolved from a common ancestor will share a particular insertion at one site versus species that evolved from different common ancestors,” she says. “It's a way to look at the lineage of different species.” 

Walters-Conte currently has three student assistants working through these tests with her. “One of my assistants is taking the DNA sequences, finding patterns within them, seeing how they relate to each other, and looking into the whole genome sequences,” she says. “There’s a whole genome sequence of the cat that is publicly available. We're also going to get a whole genome sequence of an Asian leopard cat, so we will be able to compare the two species.”  

The research Walters-Conte and her students are conducting is providing basic information for something that can extend beyond the cat family. “We are trying, in biology, to understand the underlying genetics as to why some cats, whether they are domestic or wild or some mix of the two, behave one way versus the other, and how that also then relates to human behavior,” she says. “Many of the same genes that are involved in cat behavior are also involved in human behavior, such as those related to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. We'd like to be able to provide basic research that may enable us to better understand humans in the large context of mammals.”