Even today, wherever there is a regular source of food, a colony of feral cats will spring up, assuming local people allow it. Colonies can build up until several hundred cats are living close to one another.
In these colonies, society tends to be based on cooperation between genetically related females. Mothers often drive away their male offspring after a few months to avoid inbreeding, leaving them to lead solitary lives.
Where colonies consist of more than one family, these groups compete with one another. Cats seem to be incapable of sustaining a large number of friendly relationships or of forming alliances between family groups in the way that primates do; negotiation skills this sophisticated lie beyond their capabilities.
Even at the earliest stage of domestication, cats needed humans to protect and feed them when mice were in short supply. The cats that thrived were those that were able to reward people with their company. Yet cats are not born attached to people. They are born with an inclination to trust people only during a brief period when they are tiny.
Studies of dogs in the 1950s established the notion of a “primary socialization period,” when puppies are especially sensitive to learning how to interact with people. For dogs, this is between 7 and 14 weeks of age. The concept also applies to cats, but it starts earlier. A kitten that is handled regularly between 4 and 8 weeks generally develops a powerful attraction to people. One that does not meet a human until 10 weeks or later is likely to fear people for the rest of its life.
The meow is part of the cat’s natural repertoire, but they rarely use it to communicate with each other. Feral cats are generally rather silent. While all cats are apparently born knowing how to meow, each has to learn how to use this most effectively.
Once cats have learned that their owners respond to meows, many develop a range of sounds that, by trial and error, they find are effective in specific circumstances. In this way, many cats and their owners gradually develop an individual “language” that they both understand but that is not shared by other cats or owners.