Like cats… and dogs

red fox
The red fox is a canine with many cat-like characteristics and behaviors (Photo: Matt Knoth, Creative Commons license)

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Gazing blearily through coffee steam, a ghostly figure wafting through the early morning haze caught Lisa’s eye. “At first, it was just a ginger-orange and white shadow, and I thought, “Oh, no… another stray cat.”

The specter became more substantial as it moved closer. “I saw that it wasn’t a cat after all. It stopped at the edge of my patio and began to watch me. There we sat, two redheads—one natural, one augmented—staring straight into each other’s eyes.”

An understandable case of mistaken identity. The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) has some strikingly feline features: a sleek, slender-boned physique; long, sensitive whiskers; flexible paws with partially retractable front claws; thin, dagger-like canine teeth; and a tail that accounts for 1/3 of the animal’s total length all contribute to the illusion. Add to that eyes with vertically slit pupils and you start to understand why it’s known as the “catlike canid.”

Their hunting strategy is felid, too. Dogs tend to rely less on stealth than on detection, particularly by scent, and endurance. Canids often hunt in packs, using a tag-team approach to run down prey.  Cats, with the exception of African lions (Panthera leo), are solitary hunters who stalk and ambush prey with an explosion of speed. Dogs are relay runners; cats—and foxes—are sprinters who dispatch dinner with a quick, sustained bite, in contrast to the multi-wound or bite-and-shake method employed by most canines.

Biologists suggest that the behavioral similarities between foxes and cats are the result of convergent evolution: the development of an identical trait in unrelated lineages. Comparable adaptations, they explain, arise when species occupy similar niches—insect, bird, and bat flight is a commonly sited example. Foxes and small felines prey on the same species, so one would expect to see analogous hunting strategies.

Seems reasonable enough… but it’s harder to explain some of the red’s other felid behaviors. Their young hiss and spit like kittens, while adult vocalizations include cat-like shrieks and mewing cries. And then there’s the “lateral threat display.” You know it as the classic Halloween scaredy-cat pose—back arched, fur erect. See it and you immediately think, “cat,” not “dog.”

We humans like categories. You’re hip-hop or honky-tonk, freak or geek, fact or fiction, apple or orange. Pick your pigeonhole, please, and kindly stay in it. So what are we to do about a creature who refuses to comply with our “either/or” worldview?

If you’re an urban wildlife enthusiast, you smile and shake your head in wonder at the boundless diversity of this bright blue gem of a planet, and your luck to have landed on it.

If you’re a taxonomist, you lay awake at night, grinding your teeth.

Email your wildlife questions to NDN and the answer may turn up as a future blog post. And don’t forget to “Like” NDN on Facebook!

© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author.

6 Replies to “Like cats… and dogs”

  1. Love the fox. See the March 2011 “National Geographic”. Beyond an absolutely beautiful cover photo the story on foxes becoming man’s or woman’s best friend is fascinating. Foxes bred through generations to be as human friendly companions as dogs get a boost from a trust in Novosibirsk, Siberia. These beautiful animals as domesticated aa a tabby cat or a golden retriever (only lots smarter). Though Anna Kukwkoc at Cornell says that a domesticated fox reminds her a lot of golden retrievers. These foxes treat any human as a potential companion.Best issue on several fronts of “National Geographic” in ages. Anna

    1. I’m always skeptical when people want to turn wild animals into pets, having seen the sad results on many occasions while working at the wildlife rehab center in Houston, but I’ll keep and open mind and check out the Natl Geo story. I saw the cover in an airport newsstand last week–hard to miss that stunning cover photo.

  2. Foxes are so beautiful and I often think of them as being a shy animal. One winter morning, two of them crossed the field out back here. One quite a bit ahead of the second. the first one stopped, turned its head and called out to the second one “hurry up” I think it was saying. What a thrill to see them. I too often shake my head in wonder at this amazing planet we live on.
    walk in beauty.

  3. As a rehabilitator for many years, the red fox was one of my focus species. I can’t think of them without smiling, as my experience is heavily weighted with many hours of watching their unique and manic style of play. They are startlingly smart, and kits will invent what look like complex games beyond anything a domestic cat or canid (or for the most part, their human caregivers) could devise. They can charm and hypnotize, and make silent watching a challenge as they delight you into laughter. Coyotes may personify wild mystery, but foxes are always good for a party.

    Re: the Natl Geo cover of the Siberian operation. I recently saw video of this ‘lab’ and it filled me with sadness. For years, she has kept hundreds of fox in tiny, bare, uncovered cages, rows of them, in an environment that rivals puppy mills. She breeds for most aggressive as well as ‘pet’ behavior, and the behavior of the former at the approach of any creature (including one’s own young, as I read it) reveals uncontrollable and extreme anxiety. Whatever has been ‘discovered’ through these many generations of typical Mendelian cross-breeding, it’ll never touch the pain I felt for those animals. I doubt that this kind of operation could exist in the US without great uproar.

  4. It’s actually not to hard to explain in the light of taxonomy. The “cat like” traits of the fox aren’t cat traits at all, they are traits of the common ancestor of both cats and dogs retained in the more basal members of the cat and dog families (like domestic cats and foxes) but lost in the more derived members (like tigers and domestic dogs). The common ancestor of cats and dogs was called miacis and it looked like a genet (and if a fox seems like a cross between a cat and a dog a genet is like a cross between a cat and a fox).

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