ancient egypt and cats

The History Of The Domestic Cat

The cats we know, love and share our homes with have descended from wild cats that were domesticated by ancient civilisations.

It’s incredibly interesting to take a step back in time and see how the cats we are so familiar with today ended up sharing space with humans. 

The Wildcat

It is thought that domesticated cats all have a common ancestor – the North African/ Southwest Asian wildcat, Felis silvestris.

This important information has been determined by studying the DNA of ancient cats and recognising what they each have in common. 

To trace the wildcat’s roots back a little more, the African Wild Cat is believed to be descended from Miacis.

Miacis is a weasel-like animal that palaeontologists and archaeologists say is an ancestor of cats, dogs, bears, civets, hyenas and raccoons.

It is believed the domestic cat is an ancestor of the African Wild Cat and the African Wild Cat descends from the Miacis.

This gives some insight into the domestics cat’s history and where they came from. 

Grain Stores

grain stores in egypt helped domesticate cats

According to evidence, humans began storing grain about 10,000 years ago.

Grain stores would have resulted in the rise of rodent populations and this would have been what initially attracted wild cats to areas where humans lived. 

The cats that were more tolerant of humans would’ve been the ones to come closer and closer to the human settlements and this would’ve played an important role in the process of domestication.

It seems it was cats who made the decision to live alongside humans rather than humans choosing to bring cats in from outside. 

It is thought that cat domestication first started in the Fertile Crescent (Neolithic period) and became much more prominent in ancient Egypt. 

Ancient Egyptians 

ancient egypt and cats

The ancient Egyptians domesticated wild cats as early as 3,500 BC.

As cats and humans were spending more time around each other, they became used to each other and it did not take long for these cats to become adored pets. 

The cats made themselves useful by protecting food stored from vermin and around 1,500 BC Egyptians had so much respect and appreciation for cats that they imposed a death penalty for the killing of a cat.

Also, if a pet cat died the Egyptians would mummify it.

The Egyptians also had a half woman half cat god called Bastet.

It is likely that the more agreeable nature of this god was borne out of the domestication of cats and the Egyptians reliance on cats for protecting food stores. 

Cats In Europe 

The Egyptians weren’t the only ancient civilisation that domesticated cats.

The domesticated cat was first seen in Europe and the Middle East around 1,000 BC.

As a result of their ability to control vermin, cats were valued by Romans and the ancient Greeks.  

Cats In China

In around 500BC a cat was gifted to the Chinese emperor which quickly made cats popular pets among wealthy Chinese people.

Eventually, cats became popular pets in the majority of households in China and the popularity of pet cats began spreading across Asia too.

The Romans 

Romans were initially hesitant to have cats as pets.

They were more commonly using ferrets to keep rodent populations under control and seemed happy with this arrangement.

As time went on, Romans realised that cats not only smelt better than ferrets but they were also more enthusiastic when it came to catching rodents.

With this realisation, Romans began to keep cats as pets when they needed to control a rodent population. 

Eventually, Romans saw cats as symbols of freedom because of the way cats love to live independent lives. 

The Early Relationship Between Cats and Humans

It’s clear to see that humans and cats seemed to develop a mutually beneficial relationship early on.

With rodents being attracted to crops and cats following the rodent populations it would’ve been natural for cats to come across human settlements.

It is likely this is how the first encounter between cats and humans took place. 

From there, those more confident or tolerant cats would’ve come closer and closer to humans.

People seemed to have no problems letting cats live in close proximity and the cats more or less domesticate themselves as they realised the benefits of living with humans.

As humans benefited greatly from having cats around they didn’t seem to mind the presence of cats.  

The Rise Of Superstitions 

black cats and supersition

In the Middle Ages, Europeans weren’t so accepting of cats. Unfortunately, cats were persecuted as a result of superstitions (this was particularly the case for black cats).

During this time many people believed cats were associated with witchcraft, evil, black magic and bad luck

This belief led to millions of cats being killed throughout Europe.

As populations of cats were killed in an attempt to “ward off evil” it meant rodent populations were able to thrive. The increase in the rodent populations allowed plagues to continue unchecked.

This actually resulted in millions of people dying due to the bubonic plague which was caused by the rapid growth of the vermin population.

During the bubonic plague, people stopped killing cats and they were able to help get the rodent population back down. Eventually, Europeans realised that having cats around wasn’t a bad thing. 

Although the relationship between people and cats began to mend itself, in the present day there are still superstitions relating to black cats across the globe. 

On To America 

Now that cats were more or less accepted as pets in Europe, when traders and explorers left Britain and Spain in the 1600s-1700s they took cats with them.

These cats were part of the introduction of domestic cats in America. Cats quickly became hugely popular as pets in America. 

Popular Pets 

feed your cat before bed

By the 1800s cats were very popular as pets across the world.

London was home to the first cat show in 1871 and The National Cat Club of Great Britain (the first cat association) was formed in 1887. 

Although cats have been popular pets for a long time now it is only more recently that domestic cats have begun to live indoors.

Only 70 years ago most cats would’ve lived outside.

This is why stray and feral cats can handle outdoor life so well. 

The creation of the first clay cat litter in 1947 played a role in bringing cats into homes as indoor pets.

Until then, most domestic cats spent their lives outside.

Wild Cats and Domestic Cats Compared

Genetically, there are no major differences between wild cats and domestic cats. One of the main differences between them is coat markings.

In the Middle Ages, striped or blotched coat markings began to appear in domesticated cats. 

It was only in the 18th century that the markings were common enough to be associated with domesticated cats.

In the 19th-century cat breeders began selecting cats with certain traits to create fancy breeds with particular markings.

One of the most interesting things about the domestication of cats is that cats did not change much during this process.

It seems they were already well suited to life with humans. 

Due to this, domestic cats are very similar to wild cats with the main difference being their tolerance towards humans and other animals.

It might not be a surprise to cat owners to hear that cats have been able to simply slot into life with humans with very little need to change.

This could be why cats remain so independent and aloof toward their humans. 

Key Similarities Between Wild Cats and Domestic Cats:

As you can see, there are many similarities that still remain between wild and domestic cats.

1. Diet 

Domestic and wild cats are both obligate carnivores.

This means they need to consume meat as part of their diet in order to get all of the nutrients they require. 

2. Heavy Sleepers

calm cat sleeping

Despite what you may think when you see your cat snoozing on (or under) their blankets, they aren’t sleeping because they are living a life of ultimate comfort and they’ve forgotten how to be a cat.

In fact, wild cats also spend 16-20 hours of the day sleeping.

This is something your cat and wild cats still have in common. 

3. Hunting Techniques

cat hunting in garden

If you’ve ever watched your cat practicing hunting you will see that they often get into position, lie in wait and pounce when the time is right.

This is something wild cats also do.

All cats also have a preference of hunting at dusk and dawn.  

4. Maintaining Territory 

Domestic cats and wild cats mark their territory.

This is often done by spraying, rubbing their scent glands against objects or scratching objects.

Scent marking is an important way for cats to communicate with other cats in the area, letting others know this territory has already been claimed. 

5. Kneading 

kneading cat

If you’ve seen your cat kneading or “making biscuits” it is a way for your cat to create a comfortable bed and make sure there are no potential predators beneath the material.

It is also a way for cats to mark their territory as they have scent glands in their paws. 

6. Grooming 

All cats spend 30-50% of their time grooming themselves.

This helps to keep their scent neutral and is an important part of their regular routine. 

Cat Classification

In 1758, the domestic cat was classified as Felis catus by Carolus Linnaeus. 

Felis catus is the most commonly used classification although some studies suggest the domestic cat should be regarded as a sub-species of felis silvestris catus (the wildcat we discussed at the beginning of this article).

This is why some use this term rather than Felis catus when talking about domesticated cats. 

Cats Compared To Other Domestic Animals 

dog and cat hugging

Other domestic animals had a clearer and much more direct benefit to humans.

They often derived from herd or pack animals whereas wild cats are actually solitary.

If you look back at the history of dogs or horses you will see quite a difference between their domestication and that of cats. 

Another difference is that most domestic animals have been carefully bred by humans to control their traits and attributes.

This is not true of most cats (aside from a small proportion of “pedigree pet cats”).

Most people love cats as pets because they remain so similar to their wild relatives. 

Modern Days 

These days, cats are the most popular pet in the world.

They are superstars and have concreted their position in modern life finding themselves in homes of royalty and celebrities, featuring and even starring on TV shows and movies, in books, comic strips and so much more. 

Talking of cats and royalty, Queen Victoria of England loved cats and introduced many cats to Buckingham Palace.

She helped Britain to become a country of cat lovers.

This also helped increase the popularity of cats among royals and world leaders which in turn boosted the popularity of cats in households in the UK and Europe. 

In the mid-90s cats overtook dogs as the world’s most popular pet.

We can certainly see why.

Cats bring this beautiful combination of affection and self-reliance.

They are happy to do their own thing but you know deep down they are enjoying your company too.

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