Student Research Page

Cover-Wild SideThe Wild Side of the Family

“Keep Texas Wild” teaches you that dogs and cats are related to wild animals. Guess who wrote it? Luke Roe, a fourth-grader!

Learn more about how dogs and cats are the same and yet different from their wild relatives!

Domesticated or Wild?


Dogs and cats are domesticated. They have lived with and around humans for millennia. They evolved in places where humans live. Now they rely on us to help them survive.

Feral animals are not normally considered wild animals, but they sometimes live like one. An example is a cat with no human home. Have you ever seen feral cats? They 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 keep a safe distance from feral cats.

Dogs can be feral too. If you see a dog without a home, please do not approach it.  Even though it is a dog, it may act like a wild animal.

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

Wild animals have far less contact with humans. With the right habitat, they take can care of themselves ,without any daily help from people. 

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

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


Where do feral dogs and cats come from? Sometimes they are born without a home. As they grow, they get used to being wild. They react to humans as if we want to hurt them, like most wild animals do. Feral animals sometimes carry diseases that domesticated dogs and cats can get. Keep your pets indoors and behind fences to keep them safe from wildlife and feral animals.

Is this dog feral?

No, Pepper has a loving home, and he is very tame. However, she was found on the side of the road, abandoned as a puppy. In the wild, she would have died or become feral and never trust people. Feral cats can also kill wild birds. Scientists study the bad results of 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 they looked like wolves. None were domesticated. About 10,000 years ago some wolves started hanging around humans because of 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. Today, wolves in Texas have become extinct, but they still live in other parts of the United States and Canada, and they are still wild.

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: it was a good place to get food. When humans stopped traveling as much to hunt for their food, and started staying in one place more to grow their food, a lot changed. Extra food we grew had to be saved for later. This 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? Rodents! When rodents started hanging around the places where people stored food, cats started hanging around, too. Over time, humans started liking cats, because they ate the mice, which were eating our food. Even though cats and dogs became domesticated for similar reasons, cats did not evolve from a different kind of cat, in the same way dogs evolved from wolves. Instead, scientists believe that wild cats looked a lot like our pets.

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Inherited and Learned Behaviors

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

Inherited Behavior

Inherited behavior is how an animal acts even if it wasn’t taught to act that way. For example, no one teaches a coyote mom to take care of babies. She just knows. That’s because this is an inherited behavior.

Ever wonder why your dog growls, or your cat hisses? Those are also inherited behaviors, left over from 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 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.

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 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 cousins have special places in their throats that vibrate and make a 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 also when they’re stressed out. 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 cousins do not.  When your cat meows, he is telling you, “Hey! Listen to me!”
What does it mean when your dog or one of its wild cousin...
...barks? Dogs bark to communicate. Yours might bark because he’s nervous or scared, or even because 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 cousins only bark when they are puppies. When they are adults, they make other sounds. For example, coyotes yip when they are excited. Foxes make a noise that sounds like a bird.

Some scientists believe that dogs evolved to bark even as adults so they can warn humans they live with when danger is near.
...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 your yard, your dog would growl.

Your dog’s wild 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 cousins use their urine 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  tails is another way your dog and his wild cousins communicate.
...sniffs another canine’s butt? Dogs and their wild cousins have 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 the ones 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 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 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:

•    Fox Sounds

Hear the different sounds foxes make:

•    Wild Canine Videos

Swift Fox:

•    Wild Feline Videos