By Maura McAndrew
More than 47 million American households own at least one cat, with two on average per household, according to the American Pet Products Association. As these statistics—plus the cat’s status as the internet’s favorite animal—indicate, the house cat is perhaps more beloved around the world than ever before. But many cat lovers know very little about the history of these animals they take into their families. In fact, the human-cat relationship is thought to extend back about 10,000 years, from a time when wildcats first wandered into rural villages.
The Origins of the House Cat
While there are a number of wildcat subspecies—European and Scottish wildcats, for example—today’s domestic cat is thought to have descended from the North African wildcat, also called the Near Eastern wildcat. “There are many subspecies of wildcat, and all these cats can actually interbreed, so it’s rather hard to figure out the story now,” explains Dr. Leslie Lyons, professor and head of the Feline Genetics Laboratory at the University of Missouri, College of Veterinary Medicine. “The one that was sampled and actually supported that they are progenitors of the domestic cat is the North African wildcat.” In addition to North Africa, this subspecies may have lived throughout the Levant region, ancient Anatolia and Mesopotamia. These cats could adapt to a variety of habitats and survived by hunting rodents, reptiles, and birds.
Today’s domestic cats are physically very similar to their wild ancestors. “Domestic cats and wildcats share a majority of their characteristics,” Lyons says, but there are a few key differences: wildcats were and are typically larger than their domestic kin, with brown, tabby-like fur. “Wildcats have to have camouflage that’s going to keep them very inconspicuous in the wild,” Lyons says. “So you can’t have cats with orange and white running around—they’re going to be snatched up by their predators.” As cats were domesticated, they began to be selected and bred for more interesting colorations, thus giving us today’s range of beautiful cat breeds.
The Beginnings of Domestication
“Our genetic evidence, our archaeological evidence, and our geology all tell us that cats were probably not domesticated more than 8,000 to 10,000 years ago,” Lyons explains. It was during this time period that humans first began farming in large numbers in parts of the Middle East, the Indus River Valley region in Pakistan, and the Yellow River Valley region in China. Based on the available evidence, scientists and historians theorize that when farmers began to cultivate grain, they attracted rodents, which in turn lured wildcats out of their habitats and into human civilizations.
“Once the cats were in the villages, the idea is that people would have wanted to keep them around, because the cats killed rodents,” explains David Grimm, deputy news editor at Science magazine and author of the book Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs. By killing their prey, cats offered protection for crops and food storage in these early farming communities.
Because this early human-cat relationship was so mutually beneficial, it is often said that cats “domesticated themselves,” meaning they voluntarily started living among humans and adopted behaviors that would allow them to continue their appealing new lifestyle. “Not only did [these wildcats] have mice and rats to hunt, but if they were friendlier, they were also potentially getting table scraps, and maybe even protection from people,” Grimm says. “So it would really behoove them to be a lot tamer than their feral counterparts.”
Useful, Godlike, Wicked: Evolving Perceptions of Cats
As they became more entrenched in their roles as rodent patrol and grain protectors, cats’ bond with humans became stronger. Archaeologists have found evidence of this relationship in the form of ancient bones in places like China and the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, where in 2004, Jean-Denis Vigne made one of the most significant discoveries yet: the remains of a cat buried beside its owner in a grave dating to around 7500 B.C.
“What’s significant about the burial is that this is a village where people used to bury their loved ones under their homes. And when archaeologists were digging under a home, they found a burial which had a person and a cat,” Grimm explains. The cat and human skeletons were buried about a foot apart, placed so that they faced one another and surrounded by carved seashells. “That suggested that even very early on, there may have been this very close relationship between people and cats,” he says.
In Egypt, the early domestic cat’s roles as helper and protector launched it to peak popularity between around 1950 B.C. (when the cat first appears in Egyptian art) through the Roman period. “Again, they were protecting grain, and they were killing snakes and scorpions,” Grimm explains. “So they became revered to the point where they actually started to be conflated with gods in ancient Egypt.”
One common practice in Egypt at this time—which has proven useful today for scientists studying the house cat’s origins—was the mummification of cats as sacred offerings. By around 600 B.C., Lyons explains, cats were being mummified by the thousands. “It became a business, actually,” she says. “We know that the cats were probably tamed, and that people were breeding them, but they were purposely sacrificing them to make them into mummies so that people could buy them and do offerings to the gods.”
In 2012, Lyons coauthored a study that compared the mitochondrial DNA sequences of excavated Egyptian cat mummies to the sequences of various subspecies of modern domestic cat. The results were fascinating: “All of the mummies had the same DNA sequence that was common to the Middle East,” she explains, “[and] the cats that are living [in Egypt] today have the same sequence as the mummies, which probably means that the cats that were the mummies are their ancestors. So they’re descendants of the cats of the Pharaohs.” This study offered the first genetic evidence that the cats being sacrificed in ancient Egypt were, in fact, domestic cats, further supporting the theory that domestication occurred prior to this period.
Following its Egyptian heyday, the domestic cat’s path to worldwide popularity was far from a smooth one, particularly in Europe. “In the Middle Ages, especially around the 1200s and 1300s, cats start to be associated with things like witchcraft,” Grimm says. “And you have a lot of cat-killing, cats being thrown into bonfires, being tortured and hung, because they were believed to be evil and the incarnation of the devil.” Pope Gregory IX, who crusaded against pagan religions in medieval Europe, led the charge. His campaign against cats was so effective that this purge lasted for centuries, and by 1700, they had all but disappeared in certain areas.
From Outdoor Hunters to Indoor “Fur-Babies”
“It wasn’t until probably the 1700s or 1800s that cats on a large scale started to come back into favor,” Grimm explains. But from that point, it was still a long road to the “house cat” as we know it. While cats were cared for as outdoor pets in the 19th and early 20th centuries, “the majority of cats being indoor animals is actually a very recent development,” he says. “And that’s because kitty litter wasn’t invented until 1940.”
Grimm notes that as cats developed this closer relationship with humans, their legal status also began to change. “Up until about 100 years ago or so, cats and dogs were legally so worthless that they weren’t even considered property,” he says. Now, not only are they legally protected as property, they receive additional protection under anti-cruelty laws as well as natural disaster evacuation laws, which were first implemented after Hurricane Katrina.
The 20th century has been an incredible period of change for the domestic cat. “This transition from them being outside animals to coming inside is a major turning point in them being considered more than just animals or pets, but becoming members of the family,” Grimm says.
Why Study the History of the Cat?
Delving into the history and evolution of cats is fascinating—and also has implications for feline health. Veterinary institutions around the world are now using genome sequencing to identify genetic mutations and attempt to eradicate some diseases in cats. This is the main goal of Lyons’s Feline Genetics Laboratory at the University of Missouri. “We can use the information from the cat to help with human medicine, too, so it’s called translational medicine,” she explains. The lab also launched a project titled the “99 Lives Cat Genome Sequencing Initiative,” which allows interested cat owners to submit their own pet’s DNA for sequencing.
If you want to learn more about the personal ancestry of your own feline family member, that’s possible too, says Lyons. “There is a DNA ancestry test for cats that can tell you is your cat from oh, eight to 10 different racial populations throughout the world. And you can tell if your cat has recently been related to a breed as well.”
Aside from its practical implications for health and breed identification, the domestic cat’s history imparts a valuable lesson: these are truly amazing and highly adaptable creatures. “I think one thing that gets lost, especially with cats, is appreciating how far they’ve come,” Grimm says. “They are very domesticated animals, they’re easy to have around, and they’re very loving and comforting. But 10,000 years is really the blink of an eye in terms of their evolutionary history. And so somewhere inside of them, there’s still a wild animal. It’s important to honor that.”
When were cats first domesticated? ›
Origins of the Domestic Cat
Cats began their unique relationship with humans 10,000 to 12,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, the geographic region where some of the earliest developments in human civilization occurred (encompassing modern day parts of West Asia).
The ancestor of modern domestic cats was the last to appear, about 3.4 million years ago. A small wildcat species was first domesticated in the Near East 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. As sea levels rose and fell, cats migrated to new continents and developed new species.Who was the first to domesticate cats? ›
Scholars long believed that the ancient Egyptians were the first to keep cats as pets, starting around 3,600 years ago.What is the origin of cat domestication? ›
By studying ancient cat DNA from all over the world, the researchers found that cat domestication began in the Fertile Crescent (in the Neolithic period) and accelerated later in ancient Egypt (in the Classical period) (Ottoni et al., 2017).What was cats original purpose? ›
Thought to have descended from the African wildcat and used to catch vermin, the domestic cat can be traced all the way back to ancient Egypt 4,000 years ago (and perhaps beyond). By helping to reduce disease and protect crops, cats were quickly regarded as sacred creatures by the Egyptians.Are cats truly domesticated? ›
Even a single domestic lineage can contain varying degrees of dependency and a range of temperaments. “Cats are domesticated,” Zeder said. “But I think what confuses people about cats is that they still carry some of the more aloof behaviors of their solitary wild progenitors.Why are cats important in history? ›
Around 3,000 B.C., the people of China began to domesticate the leopard cat and the western wildcat for pest control. During the Sung Dynasty (960 – 1279), people cherished cats as loyal pets. Artists depicted them in paintings and sculptures. The Chinese culture considered the cat as a symbol of good luck.What is the origin of cats? ›
The domestic cat originated from Near-Eastern and Egyptian populations of the African wildcat, Felis sylvestris lybica. The family Felidae, to which all living feline species belong, arose about ten to eleven million years ago. This family is divided into eight major phylogenetic lineages.Who came first dog or cat? ›
The question of which came first, the dog or the cat, has long been settled: Canines are the clear winner by what looks increasingly to be tens of thousands of years. But new evidence out of China has placed the date for the origins of the cat there some 3,500 years earlier than previously thought.What was the first feline on earth? ›
The earliest cats probably appeared about 35 to 28.5 million years ago. Proailurus is the oldest known cat that occurred after the Eocene–Oligocene extinction event about 33.9 million years ago; fossil remains were excavated in France and Mongolia's Hsanda Gol Formation.
Why are cats not fully domesticated? ›
House cats also show none of the typical signs of animal domestication, such as infantilization of facial features, decreased tooth size, and docility. Wildcats are neither social nor hierarchical, which also makes them hard to integrate into human communities. Yet it's impossible to deny that cats are tame.What did cats actually do for the ancient Egyptians? ›
Cats Provided Companionship and Pest Control
For most of the civilization's history, ancient Egyptians saw cats as mutually beneficial companions, according to Troche.
Sometimes it doesn't feel like cats are particularly domesticated, but as this PBS video explains, humans have actually domesticated cats two separate times, once in southwest Asia ~10,000 years ago and in Egypt ~3500 years ago. They were probably tamed by being around human settlements for the source of food.Why did Egyptians think cats were special? ›
Dogs were valued for their ability to protect and hunt, but cats were thought to be the most special. Egyptians believed cats were magical creatures, capable of bringing good luck to the people who housed them. To honor these treasured pets, wealthy families dressed them in jewels and fed them treats fit for royalty.What are 3 interesting facts about cats? ›
Cats are believed to be the only mammals who don't taste sweetness. Cats are nearsighted, but their peripheral vision and night vision are much better than that of humans. Cats are supposed to have 18 toes (five toes on each front paw; four toes on each back paw). Cats can jump up to six times their length.What were cats before they were cats? ›
A Single Wildcat Ancestor
Genetic research published in Science found that all domestic cats (Felis catus) can be traced back to a wildcat in the Middle East called Felis sylvestris, which means cat of the forest in Latin. These wildcats can still be found in Africa, southern Asia, and Europe.
And the answer is a resounding yes! Cats often feel love quite strongly for their owners and other companions. They're just sometimes a little more subtle about it than dogs. Have you ever asked yourself, "What do cats think about their owners?" The answer is that they think pretty highly of us.Are cats domesticated or just tamed? ›
A new study on house cats has found that our feline companions are actually only semi-domesticated. People began domesticating cats around 9,000 years ago but DNA researchers from Washington University in St. Louis found that house cats still have many of the same traits as their wild cousins.Do cats think of humans as pets? ›
Cats form attachments to their owners that are similar to those that dogs and babies form with their caregivers. You really are more than just a source of food to your cat: A study published Monday finds that cats see their owners as a source of comfort and security, too.What do cats symbolize? ›
The cat symbolizes grace, intelligence, cunning, and independence. The cat is a fascinating animal that cultures around the world have long revered. They are agile and nimble, able to move with silence and stealth. At the same time, they are also fiercely independent, choosing to live on their own terms.
What culture worships cats? ›
It is widely known that Egyptians venerated cats while worshiping cat-deities that represented fertility, power, and justice (Malek 1997).How do cats impact the world? ›
Outdoor domestic cats are a recognized threat to global biodiversity. Cats have contributed to the extinction of 63 species of birds, mammals, and reptiles in the wild and continue to adversely impact a wide variety of other species, including those at risk of extinction, such as Piping Plover.Does the Bible ever mention cats? ›
Cat — Mention of this animal occurs not once in the Protestant Bible. It is mentioned in Baruch 6:21. The cat was very familiar to the Egyptians, it seems to have been known to the Jews, as well as to the Assyrians and Babylonians, even to the Greeks and Romans before the conquest of Egypt.What did big cats evolve from? ›
Phylogenetic evidence suggests that the big cats subfamily, Pantherinae (e.g., lions, tigers, leopards), shared a common ancestor with their evolutionary cousins, Felinae (e.g., cougars, cheetahs, domestic cats), until about 10.8 million years ago when the two lines diverged.Did they have cats in the 1700s? ›
Cats controlled vermin in homes and barns until the 18th century when they became valued as house pets. The colonists kept many different animals as pets, however, including squirrels, wild birds, raccoons, deer, horses, snakes, frogs, and turtles, among others.Who brought cats to America? ›
He says that many cats came to the Americas by ship with early colonists. Known as shipcats, they were used to get rid of rodents and protect the boat's food supply.Did humans domesticate dogs or cats first? ›
Dogs were the first domesticated animals, cooperating with humans by hunting and guarding. In contrast, cats were domesticated as predators of rodents and lived near human habitations when humans began to settle and farm.Were there cats in America before colonization? ›
Which Came First: Cats or Columbus? While we can't imagine life without our furry companions today, there were no domesticated cats in the Americas before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. While there were wild cats such as panthers and mountain lions, none were domesticated and they would never be named Fluffy.Did the Founding Fathers have cats? ›
John Adams also loved cats and owned several throughout his life. One of these cats was named Tom Quartz, who was given to him by Abigail as a gift when she visited France during the Revolutionary War. John Adams also had a pet mockingbird that could say “God save the United States and John Adams.”Why are there no big cats in North America? ›
But a US government-led hunting campaign in the 20th century, combined with widespread habitat loss, effectively eradicated North America's largest wild cat from the US by the 1960s.
Did Vikings bring cats to North America? ›
There is archaeological and genetic evidence of Vikings carrying cats to Greenland, and it is possible, though not proven, that cats – as well as dogs - were also aboard the Viking ships of Leif Erikson when he landed at Vinland (Newfoundland, Canada) in the New World.What US president had a cat? ›
President Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)
His cats Tabby and Dixie were gifts from Secretary of State William Seward. Lincoln was quite the cat person, even rescuing three motherless kittens while visiting General Grant during the Civil War.
Cats are NOT native to North America.
Felis silvestris is not native to the Americas. House cats are a human-introduced predatory species that disrupt nature's balance.
Cats form attachments to their owners that are similar to those that dogs and babies form with their caregivers. You really are more than just a source of food to your cat: A study published Monday finds that cats see their owners as a source of comfort and security, too.Can cats understand humans? ›
Cats lack the cognitive skills to interpret human language, but they recognize when you talk to them. To put it another way, cats comprehend human language in the same way that we understand meowing. It's similar to how you interpret your cat's language by "reading" how they arch their back or swish their tail.What did Native Americans think about cats? ›
Throughout many Native American tribes, cats have played a significant role in their understanding of the world, which was (and still is) deeply spiritual and sacred. Unfortunately, not all Native American tribes harbored positive feelings for our four-legged friends.What did cats do before they were domesticated? ›
Cats likely followed the rodent populations and, in turn, frequently approached the human settlements. “This is probably how the first encounter between humans and cats occurred,” says study coauthor Claudio Ottoni of the University of Leuven. “It's not that humans took some cats and put them inside cages,” he says.When were cats brought to North America? ›
They accompanied the earliest New World settlers and traders, and by the 1600s were finding a brave new world of vermin to hunt down in America. Today, the cat is the second commonest pet in America, in terms of sheer numbers (cold water fish hold the top spot!) There are now an estimated 85.8 million in the USA.