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Think you know cats and dogs? Here are 20 surprising facts

Cats and dogs have shared life with human beings for thousands of years, and we may think we know our canine and feline friends well. However, our animal companions are full of surprises. Read on to learn more about the fascinating history and science of these pets.


By Ruby Pratka, Espresso

Cats and dogs have shared life with human beings for thousands of years, and we may think we know our canine and feline friends well. However, our animal companions are full of surprises. Read on to learn more about the fascinating history and science of these pets.


Domestic cats first evolved in the Middle East


Humans have kept cats around for nearly 10,000 years, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica, and domestic cats are now found on every continent except Antarctica. Recent research from the University of Leuven reveals that all domestic cat breeds descend from a single species of African wildcat with the Latin name Felis silvestris lybica. The researchers believe cats most likely became domesticated when farmers kept them around to chase rodents from grain stocks. Cat domestication in China dates back more than 5,000 years, according to a 2013 study from Washington University in St. Louis.


Cats played major roles in ancient religions


In Ancient Egypt, the worship of the cat goddess Bastet is well documented; scholar Geraldine Pinch, cited in the Ancient History Encyclopedia, writes that Bastet had “a double aspect of nurturing mother and terrifying avenger.” Several Egyptian deities took feline form, including Mafdet (a goddess of justice) and Mau (a personification of Ra known as the divine cat). In ancient China, the cat goddess Li Shou was associated with pest control and fertility. According to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, an ancient Chinese myth relates that when the world was created, the gods appointed cats to rule; it was only when the cats lost interest that humans took the job. The important Viking goddess Freyja travels in a cat-drawn carriage.


Purring doesn’t necessarily mean that a cat is happy


Although many “assume that a cat’s purr is an expression of pleasure or is a means of communication with its young,” according to Scientific American, the real story may be more complicated. Cats also purr when stressed or when recovering from injury. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, purring may be a self-calming mechanism for cats in distress—the equivalent of a mantra.


Healing vibrations


According to Scientific American, purring also has a self-healing function. Cats emit a frequency of between 25 and 150 hertz when they purr, and sound frequencies in this range have been shown to “improve bone density and promote healing.”


Cats spend as much as half of their time grooming themselves


According to Reader’s Digest, “cats spend up to 50 percent of their waking hours grooming” themselves. A cat’s tongue, covered in tiny, bristle-like hairs, stimulates blood flow and distributes natural oils around the cat’s coat, which seal in heat and keep dampness away. Cat saliva is also thought to serve as a natural antibiotic. When it gets hot, cats also lick themselves to stay cool.


The tail indicates a cat’s mood


A lot can be learned about cats from watching their tails. According to National Geographic, “a straight-up tail with a hooked tip is a friendly greeting, while an aggressive cat may just have its tail straight up.“ A whipping tail is a warning sign; an arched back and a puffed-up tail mean the cat is afraid. A relaxed cat will “carry its tail in a neutral or low position.“ According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, cats’ tails also serve as balance aids.


Cats use their whiskers like radar


Live Science explains that cat whiskers are highly sensitive. Cats use their whiskers to navigate in the dark and detect air currents that might signal an approaching danger. “By brushing its whiskers against an object, a cat can detect the precise location, size and texture of the object, even in the dark,” Live Science associate editor Elizabeth Palermo writes. “This feature proves particularly useful for a cat trying to gauge whether it can fit into a tight space.”


Cats understand cause and effect


A study from Japan’s Kyoto University, summarized on the popular science website IFLScience!, concluded that cats understand cause and effect—the idea that a sound or movement is the result of a previous action. Researchers concluded that cats “appear to be able to predict the existence of invisible objects based on what they can hear,” according to IFLScience!


Neutered cats live longer


According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, neutered cats have longer lifespans than non-neutered ones, “partly because they have less desire to roam.” Cats normally live about 10 to 15 years, although the Guinness World Records state that the oldest cat on record lived to the amazing age of 38!


When a cat gives birth, she eats the placenta


When a mother cat gives birth, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica, she breaks the umbilical cord, breaks open the kittens’ amniotic sacs—and usually eats the placenta. Cats Protection says this is to “hide evidence of the birth”; Encyclopaedia Britannica says it stimulates lactation.


There’s an island in Japan with more cats than people


The island of Aoshima, in southern Japan, has more cats than people. According to a Reuters article, cats outnumber people six to one on the small island. The cats were originally introduced to the tiny island to deal with troublesome mice. Now the cats are turning the island, which has only a handful of human inhabitants, into a tourist destination for Japanese day-trippers.


“Lap dogs” were once used for personal protection


A recent article in National Geographic explains that the Pekingese dog (pictured) was originally bred in imperial China as an “ornamental accessory” for emperors and members of the royal court. The dogs became known as “sleeves” because royals would carry them around in the roomy sleeves of their garments. The dogs would scare off any threat to their owners’ safety, serving as “an ancient Chinese version of mace.”


A dog’s nose print is unique, like a human’s fingerprint


According to the U.K.-based International School for Canine Psychology and Behaviour, no two dogs have the same nose print. “Dogs’ nose prints are as unique as a human’s fingerprints and can be used to accurately identify them,” says an article on the school’s website. A brief paper in Veterinary Quarterly describes how Romanian researchers created a software program allowing them to identify dogs by their nose prints. The paper says the software may be used to identify lost, stolen, or disputed dogs.


The right nose for the job


It’s no secret that dogs have an exceptional sense of smell—10,000 to 100,000 times better than that of humans, the PBS show Nova explains on its website. That ability is comparable “to catching a whiff of one rotten apple in two million barrels,” according to one dog scientist. Humans have put dogs’ exceptional noses to work sniffing for drugs—Nova recounts that one sniffer dog “‘found’ a plastic container packed with 35 pounds of marijuana submerged in gasoline within a gas tank.” Dogs have also been trained to sniff for cancer, to detect epileptic seizures, and to sniff out low blood sugar levels in diabetics. According to the American Kennel Club, dogs have also been trained to sniff out sewage leaks that could pose a threat to human health.


Petting a dog can lower your blood pressure


Scientists at the University of South Carolina concluded in a 1988 study that talking to and petting a dog can lower a human’s blood pressure and heart rate. Owning a dog may also lower your risk of heart disease, according to a 2013 article in the Harvard Health Blog. Although there’s no ironclad scientific proof that dog ownership impacts cardiovascular disease rates, an evidence review by the American Heart Association found that dog owners were more likely to exercise, and regular physical activity is key to maintaining a healthy heart.


Dogs can recognize over 150 words


Be careful what you say around your dog—he or she might understand more than you think! Research by Stanley Coren, PhD, of the University of British Columbia, suggests that dogs can understand as many as 250 words, count up to four or five, and understand basic arithmetic. Coren says dogs’ mental abilities are close to those of a child aged two or two and a half. According to Coren, border collies, poodles, and German shepherds are the most intelligent in the working and obedience categories. Chaser, a border collie in South Carolina, reportedly learned over 1,000 nouns; her skills earned her an appearance on NBC’s TODAY Show.


Puppies have baby teeth


Encyclopaedia Britannica explains that dogs, just like human children, have two sets of teeth: baby teeth and permanent teeth. According to the American Kennel Club, puppy teeth, which can be very sharp, grow in when a dog is about three weeks old. When the dog is around four months old, the puppy teeth are replaced by adult teeth, which grow behind the puppy teeth and eventually push them out. Don’t worry about the tooth fairy coming to get your puppy’s teeth, though; the AKC says puppies tend to chew and swallow their own baby teeth.


Dogs were venerated in ancient societies


In ancient Egypt, dogs, like cats, were kept as pets. Associated with the dog god Anubis, they were carefully mummified and “buried with great ceremony” when they died, according to the Ancient History Encyclopedia. When a dog died, human family members would shave their entire bodies, including their eyebrows, in a highly visible sign of mourning. Dogs were often buried with their masters, so that the two could remain together in the afterlife.


Humans have kept pet dogs for at least 14,000 years


According to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, the earliest evidence of people keeping dogs as pets dates back millennia. The Natufian Grave, a burial site in Israel, is considered the oldest archaeological evidence of domestication; an old man was buried there beside a puppy in 12,000 BCE. The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest story from the Middle East, dated to between 2,150 and 1,400 BCE, describes the goddess Innana travelling with “seven prized hunting dogs in collar and leash.”


The opposite of a beauty contest


According to History Extra, dog owners have been entering their canine companions in shows and contests for more than 150 years. One contest in Petaluma, California, however, is different—the Sonoma-Marin Fair gives out an annual prize for “World’s Ugliest Dog.” Mugly (pictured), a Chinese crested dog, won the prize in 2012.

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Pets Magazine: Think you know cats and dogs? Here are 20 surprising facts
Think you know cats and dogs? Here are 20 surprising facts
Cats and dogs have shared life with human beings for thousands of years, and we may think we know our canine and feline friends well. However, our animal companions are full of surprises. Read on to learn more about the fascinating history and science of these pets.
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