The scientific world has been dazzled by research identifying the genes that make household cats different from their feral counterparts.

It is doubtful, however, whether the average London moggie is particularly impressed. After all, the domestication of cats goes back to the Egyptians and, over the millennia, many a breeder has worked to improve the strain.

Selective breeding on a trial-and-error basis may be slower than modern methods of genetic engineering but, given enough time, the result is much the same. Cats do not generally lack self-confidence and I have no doubt that the consensus among felines is that, in evolutionary terms, they are pretty much there.

So the most any further meddling will achieve is marginal improvements - a piling of pelion on ossa, as the Highgate cats will say.


Before they drift back to their saucers of milk, they should read the small print. Hidden behind the headlines, like the ingredients on a tin of catfood, there lurks a sinister agenda.

The genes identified are those that make domestic cats cuddlier, friendlier and cuter, all traits which may now be increased. No cat has ever intimated to me which of its characteristics it is most proud of but, as you see them stalking their way round the garden, these are not the ones that come to mind.

Worse are the qualities which it may now be possible to breed out. Fearlessness is one, the hunting instinct another.

As John Bradshaw, director of the Anthrozoology Institute at Bristol University, says: "There is nothing wrong with a bit of spirit, but you can get a confident, outgoing cat that still manages to get on with other cats and doesn't kill animals." What a sap (the cat, that is, not Dr Bradshaw). Actually, it is analysis by Dr Bradshaw which identifies the problem. "People assume cats are going to be like a less demanding dog," he says. So that's it, then - people who really want dogs are buying cats and are disappointed when they don't turn out to be much the same.

The idea of making something seem like something else is all very well in the food industry, but I have never quite seen the point of it. If you want a blackcurrant flavour, drink blackcurrant juice, not a wine with a blackcurrant bouquet.

Still, extending the approach to pets is clearly absurd and makes one wonder whether the genetic modification should be applied to the cat owners rather than the cats. After all, you only have to read Jane Austen to realise that the object of human breeding programmes has been the aggregation of estates rather than the improvement of the species. It is beginning to show, isn't it?

-John Watson writes from Islington in London