The History Of The Domestic Cat – How Cats Spread Across Asia, Europe and the Americas

a wildcat

A wildcat – likely to be similar to the first ever domesticated cats

Cats are a much-loved pet across the globe, but it wasn’t always that way; the history of the domestic cat is fraught with drama, death and misconceptions.

Today the cat is the world’s most popular pet, narrowly beating the dog. However becoming the world’s most popular pet hasn’t been an easy job, in fact it has taken cats thousands of years to firmly cement their place in our hearts and homes.

The earliest record we have of cats and humans living together comes from the island of Cyprus and dates back to around 9500 BC.

There is also archaeological evidence which suggests that cats were domesticated as pets around 5,300 years ago in China.

Having a pet cat doesn’t appear to have become a commonplace practice until we get to the Egyptians.

The Ancient Egyptians and Cats

egyptian cat god in the british museumThe Ancient Egyptians were the early adopters who helped kick-start the world’s love for felines.

As Egyptian cities grew so too did their food storehouses which attracted plenty of vermin, consequently, middle eastern wild cats began making their homes amongst humans because mice and rats make some of the very best cat food!

Over time cats and humans grew used to each other and some Egyptian families started keeping cats as pets.

The Egyptians had a god called Bastet who was half woman half cat. It is likely that she was borne out of the Egyptians reliance on and love for cats due to them suppressing the vermin population.

Crazy Cat History Fact
Did You Know: The Ancient Egyptians held cats in such high regard that anyone who killed a cat would be sentenced to the death penalty!

Cats were held in very high esteem, many temples ran their own catteries which even mummified the cats when they died.

Greek, Persian and Chinese Cats

As the Egyptian dynasty was slowly beginning to crumble cats were being sold as pets to the Greeks, Persians and Phoenicians.

In around 500BC a pet cat was gifted to the Chinese Emperor so cas quickly became the pet of choice for wealthy chinese people. Eventually cats trickled down to the common Chinese peasant, and from China the cat spread across Asia as a firm family favourite.

Romans and Cats

Ancient romain mosaic of a cat

An ancient Roman mosaic of a cat killing a partridge

It is believed that the Phoenicians introduced cats to the Greeks and Italians in around 500BC.

The Romans civilisation also made use of cats to help protect their food supplies from been eaten by rodents.

However initially the Romans were slow to adopt cats as pets as they were more accustomed to using ferrets to control their rodent population. Over time Romans began to realise that cats smell a lot better than ferrets and they also enjoy catching rodents much more than ferrets did so they became adopted as the go to pet for controlling the rodent population.

Crazy Cat History Fact
Did You Know: The Romans grew to love cats to such an extent that they viewed them as symbols of freedom owing to the way in which cats love to live independent lives.

The Romans aggressively conquered large swathes of the world, particularly Europe, and as they did so they took cats with them. Overtime having a pet cat become a common practice in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal (for any Portuguese speaking cat lovers check out my friends Portuguese Amor aos Pets Blog) and many other European countries.

Black Cat Superstition

Europeans had a few teething problems in their adoption of the cat. In the middle ages in Europe there was a lot of hysteria surrounding witches and unfortunately for cats (especially black ones) these suspected witches often fed and looked after cats, so by association black cats in particular became an omen of bad luck and were associated with black magic.

Around this time a story was circulated about two men who were travelling by horse and cat when a black cat crossed their path, they threw stones at the poor cat before it limped into a nearby house. The next day an old woman came out of the house coincidentally all covered in cuts and bruises. People therefore drew the conclusion that witches and black cats were completely synonymous with each other, were evil and were to be avoided at all costs. It is also from this story that the superstition of a black cat crossing your path being bad luck first stems.

Around this time Pope Gregory the 9th proclaimed that black cats were the spawn of satan and that they were capable of black magic!

Unfortunately all of this led to millions and millions of black cats being killed throughout Europe. This in turn meant that the vermin population of Europe exploded allowing plagues like the bubonic plague of the 1300s to rampage unchecked through Europe claiming the lives of millions of people.

Crazy Cat History Fact
Did You Know: The superstitious slaughter of millions of cats led to millions of people dying due to bubonic plague which was caused by the unchecked growth of the vermin population!

Eventually the Europeans began to realise that having cats about was actually a good thing, and it slowly become more common again to have a cat as a pet, however even to this day there is still a lot of superstition about black cats across the globe.

In the 1600s, when Europeans started exploring the new world of America, cats went with them and quickly settled in as America’s most popular pet!

Recent History of The Cat

Over the last few thousand years the domestic cat has changed from primarily being much like the middle eastern wild cat to a species which is now called the Felis Catus which all domestic cats whether pet, stray or feral now belong to.

The last couple of centuries have been, for the most part, kind to the cat. Queen Victoria of England was a big fan of cats and introduced many royal felines to Buckingham Palace. She helped establish Britain as the home of cat lovers at the time, the world’s first ever cat show took place in London in 1871 during Queen Victoria’s reign!

Life is good for many 21st century cats.

Thanks in part to this cats increased in popularity amongst royals and world leaders worldwide.

This helped boost the popularity of the cat throughout the UK, Europe and the world to such an extent that in the mid 90s they overtook the dog as the world’s most popular pet!

However for modern day cats which aren’t homed life is arguably significantly more dangerous than it was for their ancestors due to the rise of the motorised vehicle as well as plenty of dangerous industrial machinery. So don’t forget to do your bit and adopt if you can.

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