Even your average cat is nearly perfect. But what about its behaviors? Killing songbirds isn’t a virtue. And house cats don’t need to hunt to survive. What if we could edit our cats’ DNA to delete the genes that make them hunt? This is not fantasy, but a serious question posed by veterinary scientist and cat lover Dr. John Bradshaw.
“The distaste we have towards blood and flesh and death – most people don’t like it,” Bradshaw said while speaking at the Cheltenham Science Festival. His remarks were reported by science writer Henry Bodkin in The Telegraph. “If people become more offended by cats bringing prey into their home then fewer people will want to have cats. Cats are such fascinating animals, so that would be a pity,” said the author of Cat Sense.
Keep in mind that the first draft of the cat genome was published in 2007; a more comprehensive version was completed in 2014. And recent advances in gene editing have opened up a whole range of possibilities for manipulating genes in humans. Revolutionary CRISPR technology is being used to study human genes with an eye to finding the weaknesses in cancer cells. But scientists are already thinking past that to the possibilities of editing genes in crops and livestock.
Bradshaw points out most of us have known at least one cat that’s a determined hunter, while another can’t be bothered to get off the couch to chase a mouse. He thinks the difference between the two might be due to natural genetic variation. It shouldn’t be hard for humans to replicate this variation. A cat owner could decide whether he or she wants to have his or her cat genetically altered, he said. “I think it would be a commercial product,” said Dr. Bradshaw.
The downside? “You have then taken away a bit of the catness of the cat, but I think that’s unavoidable. We need to reserve those hunting territories for wild predators because they have nowhere else to go, whereas our cats have full nutrition.”
Here’s another interesting fact. Scientists have learned that since the first fully evolved cat appeared on the planet, the genetic formula for what it takes to make a cat a cat has changed very little. Maybe we shouldn’t mess with success.