QI: Quite interesting facts about cats
The world’s most popular pet, Felis silvestris catus, was probably first domesticated in ancient Egypt, although a genetic study in 2007 suggested that all modern domestic cats could trace their lineage back to just five female African wildcats living in the Middle East 10,000 years ago. The wider cat family is divided into large cats called pantherines, and smaller cats called felines. Pantherines can roar but not purr; felines can purr but not roar.
Cats were sacred in ancient Egypt. They worshipped a cat god called Bastet, and mummified their cats to prepare them for the afterlife. When a cat died it was customary for its owner to shave off his eyebrows to demonstrate grief. All this changed in the 19th century, when mummified cats were exported from Egypt to be used as fertiliser. In 1888, a Nile farmer found a cat cemetery containing 10,000 mummified cats. All 19 tons of them were shipped to Liverpool and sold as fertiliser for £4 a ton.
A cat’s life
Cats spend 85 per cent of their day doing absolutely nothing. Eating, drinking, killing, defecating and mating take up just four per cent of their life. The other 10 per cent is used to get around. Otherwise they are asleep, or dozing. Despite this, British cats manage to kill 275 million British mammals every year and the 75 million cats in the United States kill one billion birds and five billion rodents every year.
Domestic life isn’t good for cats: milk gives them diarrhoea, cat food rots their gums and central heating causes them to moult all year round, causing their fur to clog up their digestive system. Nevertheless, 35 per cent of American cat owners never allow their cat to go outside.
Only a quarter of American cat “owners” say they deliberately went out to acquire a cat: in 75 per cent of cases, it was the cat that acquired them. Studies show that many more people claim to own a cat than there are cats. The British government makes itself responsible for feeding 100,000 cats to keep down mice on government property.
The word “tabby” comes from a cloth: a kind of striped silk taffeta. It derived from the Arabic Attabiy, the name of the quarter of old Baghdad where it was originally made. The quarter is named after Attab, a prince of the Umayyad caliphate (AD 661-750), the first Muslim empire.
Like many small animals, cats have a non-fatal terminal velocity – in cats this is about 60mph. Once they relax, they orient themselves, spread out, and parachute to earth like a squirrel. A 1987 paper in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association studied 132 cases of falling cats. Ninety per cent survived; the average number of injuries per cat peaked at the seven-storey mark. There are cats that have fallen 30 storeys or more without ill effects.
The technical name for cats’ whiskers is vibrissae, from the Latin vibrare, to vibrate. They constantly monitor air currents to provide spatial orientation: cats can operate blindfold using only their whiskers. Cats also have whiskers on their front legs to help them land safely and feel for prey when hunting.
In German, to have a hangover is “einen Kater haben” — “to have a tomcat”. Another slang term is Katzenjammer, meaning “the wailing of cats”. Germans still eat Katerfrühstück (“tomcat-breakfast”), a meal that often involves herring, pickles and goulash.
About 40 per cent of the world’s cat population is infected with Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite thought to have long-term, irreversible effects on the mammalian brain. Infected rats and mice lose their fear of cats. According to research, infected humans change behaviour. Sydney University of Technology infectious disease researcher Nicky Boulter claims infected men have lower IQs and shorter attention spans.
They are also more likely to be anti-social and morose; whereas infected women are more outgoing, friendly, promiscuous and attractive: “In short,” according to Boulter, “it can make men behave like alley cats and women behave like sex kittens.”
The Second Book of General Ignorance by John Lloyd & John Mitchinson (Faber & Faber, RRP £8.99) is available from Telegraph Books. Call 0844 871 1515 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk
Source: The Telegraph