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Cover-Wild SideThe Wild Side of the Family

This month “Keep Texas Wild” teaches you that dogs and cats are related to wild animals that still roam in Texas. And guess who wrote it? Luke Roe, a fourth-grader!

Have some fun learning more about how dogs and cats are the same and yet different from their wild relatives!

Domesticated or Wild -- What's the Difference?



Dogs and cats are domesticated.  That means that they have lived around humans for many years.  They evolved in places where humans live and now rely on us to help them survive.

Feral describes an animal is feral when that isn’t normally a wild animal, but lives like one. An example of a feral animal is a cat with no home.  Have you ever seen a feral cat in your neighborhood?  These cats are not friendly and if you tried to pick one up it would scratch and bite you just like a wild animal would. YIKES!  Please leave feral cats alone!

Dogs can be feral, too, so if you see a dog without a home please do not try to pet it.  Even though it is a dog, it may act like a wild animal.

Lions and tigers and bears are wild animals. So are coyotes, mountain lions and bobcats. Texas doesn't have tigers and bears, but we do have mountain lions, coyotes, bobcats and many other wild animals.

Wild animals live outdoors. They don’t usually have contact with humans. Wild animals can completely take care of themselves without our help. That also means that their parents were not domesticated.

Coyotes, red foxes, swift foxes, gray foxes are dogs’ wild cousins that live in Texas.

Mountain lions, bobcats, jaguarundis and ocelots are cats’ wild cousins that live in Texas.


Where do feral dogs and cats come from? Sometimes animals are born and do not have a home so they run wild. As they grow up, these dogs and cats get used to being wild.  Since they are not used to having humans take care of them, they react to humans as if we wanted to hurt them, just

like many wild animals do. Because they haven’t been taken care of, feral animals sometimes carry diseases that our pet dogs and cats can get. Keep your own dogs and cats in the house or in the yard to keep them safe.

Is this dog feral?

No, Pepper has a loving home and is very tame.  But, she was found on the side of the road, abandoned as a puppy. If  left to survive n the wild, she would probably have died or become feral and very untrusting of people. Feral cats kill many song birds. Scientists study the bad results from having too many feral cats. It is important that we not have a lot of feral dogs and cats. 

The Story of Dogs 

A long time ago all dogs were wild and looked like wolves. There were no domesticated dogs. Scientists believe that about 10,000 years ago some wolves started hanging around humans because of the trash we created. The trash was an easy way for wolves to get food. This is how many scientists believe some wolves began to evolve into domesticated dogs by getting used to living around people. Today we no longer have wolves in Texas, but there are wolves in other parts of the United States. Those wolves are wild, not domesticated.

The Story of Cats 

Cats became domesticated about 5,000 years ago. They started hanging around places where humans lived for the same reason some wolves did: because it was a good place to get food. When humans stopped traveling around all the time hunting for their food and started staying in one place to grow their food a lot changed. One thing that changed was that the extra food we grew had to be saved for later. This food attracted mice and other rodents and they began living near our food because they liked to eat it, too. What is one of a cat’s favorite foods? You got it! Rodents! (rats and mice, for example) When rodents started hanging around the places where we stored our food, cats started hanging around, too, because there were lots of rodents to eat. Over time, humans started liking cats because they ate the mice that were eating our food. Even though cats and dogs became domesticated for similar reasons, cats did not evolve from a different kind of cat like dogs evolved from wolves. Cats did not evolve from bigger cats like lions or tigers either. Instead, scientists believe that wild cats looked a lot like our pets.

Spike with binoculars_right

Inherited and Learned Behavior

Here are two other important words: inherited and learned. Both words refer to how animals act, or to their behavior.

Inherited Behavior

Inherited behavior is how an animal acts even if it wasn’t taught to act that way.

For example, no one has to teach a coyote mom how to take care of her babies.  She just knows how. That’s because taking care of her young is an inherited behavior for a coyote mother.

Ever wonder why your dog growls or your cat hisses?  Those are inherited behaviors left over from his wild ancestors.

Check out these inherited behaviors and why animals do them:

What does it mean when your cat or one of its wild cousins...
... hisses?  It is trying to let others know that it wants to be left alone.
...licks its fur? Your cat and its Texas cousins have rough tongues that they use like combs to clean their fur and get rid of loose hair. They also lick their fur to put their own smell on themselves and take off smells that aren’t theirs.

Also, when it’s hot they put saliva (spit) on themselves to keep cool since they can’t sweat like we can.
...scratches the furniture (or a tree trunk)? There are two main reasons cats scratch the furniture, tree trunks, and such items. Contrary to what some believe, it is not usually to sharpen their claws.

One reason is to activate scent glands between the pads on their front paws. These allow them to put their own smell on something to tell other cats, “This is my territory!”

Other times, they are tearing off the old sheaths (coverings) on their claws to expose the fresh ones underneath. When cats want to be extra quiet they retract (pull in) their claws, but when they walk normally they do so directly on their claws, kind of like walking on tiptoe. When they run they usually keep their claws out to help them run faster.
 ...purrs? Cats and their wild Texas cousins all have a special place in their throats that vibrates and makes the noise we call “purring.”  When kittens are born they are completely helpless and cannot see or hear so their mother purrs to let them know where she is. It’s a way to communicate.

Cats often purr when they are happy, but there are also times when they’re stressed out and they purr.  Scientists have wondered why they sometimes do this and have decided that the purring sound makes cats feel better.
 ...meows?  Your cat meows, but its wild Texas cousins do not.  When your cat meows, he is telling you, “Hey you! Listen to me!”
What does it mean when your dog or one of its wild cousin...
...barks? Dogs bark to communicate and yours might bark because he’s nervous or scared, or he might bark when he’s happy.  Puppies cannot bark until they are 2-4 weeks old and when they do it’s usually to say that something is wrong.

Your dog’s wild Texas cousins only bark when they are puppies. When they are adults they make other sounds instead. For example, coyotes yip whenever they are excited and foxes make a noise that sounds like a bird.

Some scientists believe that dogs evolved to bark even when they are adults so they can warn the humans they live with when there is danger.
...growls? When your dog growls he is usually saying, “Leave me alone!” or “Go away!” Do you have a dog that protects your house or yard? If so, there’s a good chance that if someone tried to come into your house or in your yard your dog would growl at him.

Your dog’s wild Texas cousins growl for the same reasons: to communicate that they want to be left alone or that they want an animal to go away. 
...lifts its leg to pee? Dogs and their wild Texas cousins use their urine (pee) to tell other dogs “Hey, this is my territory!” Boy dogs, especially, often lift their legs to pee so that they can get the urine up higher, where other animals will notice it better.
...wags its tail? Ever notice that when your dog wags its tail it’s being extra friendly?  Scientists say that’s because when canines wag their tails they are saying “I’m not a threat to you.” Wagging their tails is another way your dog and his wild Texas cousins communicate.
...sniffs another canine’s butt? Dogs and their wild Texas cousins have special sacs near their anus that contain a fatty liquid. Each animal’s liquid smells differently. This is a big way that dogs and their wild cousins can tell each other apart.  When you see dogs smelling each other’s butts they aren’t trying to be gross – they are either getting to know each other or making sure that’s really their buddy. 

Learned Behavior

Learned behaviors are ones that animals have to be taught.  For example, when you teach your dog to walk on a leash, your dog is learning a behavior. He isn’t born knowing how to do that because that’s not a behavior that is inherited.  Foxes, coyotes, and wolves teach their young how to hunt. For these wild canines, hunting is a learned behavior.

Learn More!

•    Cat Got Your Tongue?

Cats’ tongues are very interesting! Both domesticated and wild cats use them as tools. Find out what is so special about their tongues and make a list of the ways cats use them. Visit:

•    What Do Foxes Sound Like?

Visit this site to hear the different sounds foxes make:

•    Dogs That Changed the World

This video from the PBS show, “Nature,” explains the evolution of our pet dogs: From Wolf to Dog

•    Short Videos Featuring Canines

Swift fox:

•    Short Videos Featuring Felines

National Geographic Kids: Ocelots