They’re fierce, independent hunters, and can lie around languidly for hours, but in the end are our little furry companions. Anyone who takes care of a domestic cat today is building upon a millennia-old relationship: a past filled with times when these little predators were worshiped like gods, yet also checkered with times when they were viewed as evil and indiscriminately killed. Today, cats are widely accepted pets and an astonishing and amusing array of “fancy” breeds have been created, although many cats remain in need of homes due to overpopulation problems.
The Wildcats: What exactly are the roots of our companionship with domestic cats? This topic has been greatly debated for many years, largely because several types of wildcats look very similar to the modern-day domestic cat. However, in 2007 genetic evidence shed more concrete light onto the subject.
According to a rigorous study carried out by researchers at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, there are five groups of “wildcats,” all of which are different subspecies of Felis silvestris. These five lineages live in specific places around the world, as shown by their names: the European wildcat (F. s. silvestris), the African or Middle East wildcat (F. s. lybica), the Southern Africa wildcat (F. s. cafra), the Central Asian wildcat (F. s. ornate), and the Chinese desert cat (F. s. bieti).
Researchers had long hypothesized that either different wildcat groups gave rise to the different groups of domestic cats (F. s. catus) through independent domestication around the world, or one of these wildcat groups was the predecessor for the majority, or all of, the other domestic cats found in the world. The two wildcats most suspected of fathering domestic cats were the European and the Middle East wildcats. But because the European wildcat is more fierce and timid, even when hand-raised, than the relatively docile Middle East wildcat, European wildcats had a dubious paternity claim. Still others had proposed that some wildcats found in Asia may have given rise to localized breeds, such as Persian cats.
The 2007 University of Oxford study was able to solve this long-standing genetics puzzle: The researchers looked at the genetics of nearly 1000 domestic cats from around the world and compared them to those of the five wildcat groups. All of the domestic cats were found to belong to the same lineage as the Middle Eastern wildcat. Based on this evidence, it’s likely that all domestic cats today have their roots in these Middle Eastern wildcats. These wildcats live in grasslands and shrub lands in North Africa, the Middle East, and Western Asia. They look very much like modern domestic cats, the main difference being that F. s. lybica is sandy brown to grayish yellow in color, with some striping, and has a tail with black ringed stripes. To this day, the genetics of these wildcats are nearly indistinguishable from those of domestic cats everywhere.
So we now know the where. What about the when and why? What caused these wildcats to wander into our lives and hearts?
Origins of Domestication: Some of the earliest human-made grain deposits have been found in the Middle East, dating back to around 20,000 B.C. But agriculture of domesticated grains didn’t really get going until somewhere around 12,000-11,000 B.C., about the same time that permanent settlements first became established.
Opportunistic critters, namely mice, rats, and sparrows, soon moved into these settlements as well. They were relatively safe from predators and had reliable, abundant sources of food (both food kept by humans and human-made trash piles). All of these little animals gathering in settlements began to serve as a very consistent food supply for some small local carnivore—in particular the Middle Eastern wildcat.
It’s now believed that cats weren’t originally caught and domesticated by humans on purpose, but that instead these independent, nocturnal hunters were lured into early human villages by the food and protection from other predators these settlements offered. Humans may have tamed the visiting cats over time, noting their usefulness at keeping scavengers out of their food supplies and fulfilling a natural desire to take care of a little, soft, warm animal. The humans persuaded the cats to stay, through more regular food, protection, and affection. Some wilder cats probably also, over generations, established their territory near the beneficial human communities and thrived. Middle Eastern wildcats today are relatively docile wildcats, and still live near villages, and are occasionally caught and tamed to keep rodents out of huts.
Genetic evidence suggests that wildcats were domesticated over a period of thousands of years in the Middle East (and probably not just in Egypt, as was previously thought); but were distributed by people throughout the area long before they were truly domesticated. Early humans brought cats with them to the island of Cyprus, where remains of a wildcat have been found in a settlement dating back to 6000 B.C.. Wildcats didn’t live on Cyprus before humans arrived. Early evidence of tamed cats can also be found in Palestine from 6,700 B.C. and on the island of Crete as early as 7,500 B.C.
Egyptian Cultural Roots: Although they were domesticated all throughout the region, cats really took hold and developed as a revered animal and pet in ancient Egypt. Around 4000 B.C., the first permanent settlements and granaries were set up in Egypt and cats arrived soon thereafter. Cats became such a normal part of life that they started being depicted on tomb paintings around 1600 B.C., and appeared to be domesticated or tamed a couple centuries later. By 1000 B.C., domestic cats were such a part of Egyptian life that they held a place in the common person’s personal, spiritual religion. Some historians believe that savvy rulers may have used these religious feelings to try and unify their territory, by tying together the abstract belief systems associated with the pharaohs of Egypt with the often animal-based beliefs of the “commoners.” Consequently, Bastet (also known as Bast), the Egyptian goddess of motherhood, fertility, and joy, was re-cast with the body of a woman and the head of a cat. As cats became strongly associated with Egyptian religious beliefs, temple cats started to be bred in huge numbers; and, though it was forbidden to kill cats, thousands of mummified cats have been discovered. Eventually, some of these sacred cats found their way out of Egypt and into Europe.
Acceptance Outside of Egypt: It took domestic cats a while to reach Europe not only because it was illegal to export the sacred animals, but because Europeans did not have a strong desire to own the felines. Some Europeans despised cats because of their sacred status in Egypt, and Europeans did not need vermin-controlling mousers because ferrets or terrier dogs had already been bred for this job. But in the 500s BC cats found their way to Europe through Greece. Although in the Roman Empire they were never as well-liked as dogs or even exotic parrots, they continued to spread. Cats reached Britain in the 300s AD, and by the 900s AD were found throughout Europe. Early European settlers later brought the cat to the Americas.
Although cats were kept as pets by some during this time, they still weren’t widely accepted pets; in fact, they were usually seen as dangerous, sexually charged, and egotistical. Moreover, the association with the feminine that gave cats such a high place in Egyptian society made them a target of pagan persecution; the Inquisition mandated the first widespread killing of cats, especially black ones, and cats were regularly killed at Christian festivals and ceremonies. Infamously, people with cats were accused of being witches by association.
It wasn’t until the late 1800s that cats started to become generally welcomed as pets. People realized that cats weren’t the dangerous creatures they’d been made out to be, and their sexuality and independence were no longer so threatening. People were also becoming more aware of germs, and came to appreciate the cleanliness of cats. Intellectual and artistic bohemians in Paris in particular welcomed the cat as a kind of “anti-pet,” its lethargy and comfort embodying what the bourgeois life lacked. The appearance of humane societies by the late 1800s also signaled a change in outlook. Dogs and cats now belonged in homes. By the 1920s, recommended cat diets were being published, and after World War II cat litter had been created. Cats had become widely popular pets, living everywhere from large farms to the smallest apartments and everything in between.
An Array of Colors, Coats, and Behaviors: Considering that cats have been living with humans for thousands of years, it’s surprising there are not more differences between domestic cats and their wildcat relatives. This is largely due to their independence; cats mostly reproduce like wild animals, being driven more by natural selective pressures from their environment than by artificial pressures for traits in demand by humans. Today, of the nearly one billion domestic cats in the world today, 97 percent were randomly bred or live outside of human homes; most cats still breed with whatever cat they want to. Domestic cats even interbreed with wildcats. The vast majority of domestic cats everywhere today are tabbies, usually with grey to light brown stripes, but a variety of tabby patterns exist, some with blotches and spots of coloring. The striped tabby pattern is similar to the one sported by their African wildcat relatives.
Despite the cat’s independent mate-seeking behavior, over the last 150 to 200 years humans have done careful artificial selection to create modern “fancy” breeds. While there are fewer than 50 cat breeds (compared to more than 400 dog breeds), cats now come in different sizes and body types. The largest variants, though, are coat color and length. Closely regulated breeding has created distinct, unique breeds including the Siamese, Persian, Abyssinian, and hairless “Sphynx,”among others. And more breeds are being developed all the time.
Studies have shown that certain behaviors are associated with some breeds. For example, Siamese are more outgoing with people (both their owners and strangers) than most cats, demand more attention (expressed by active vocalizations), and are particularly active; Persians are also vocal and sociable, but comparatively less active and less destructive. Russian Blue cats are relatively shy. According to some studies looking at human relationships with their cats, for people living alone a cat may fulfill the role of a significant partner, and older individuals may more readily accept the independence that cats need. As we better understand how behaviors are associated with certain breeds, future cat owners may better know what to look for.
Problems Facing Cats Today: Every year, about six to eight million animals in the United States find their ways into humane societies. About half of these animals don’t find a home and are euthanized, with more cats being euthanized than dogs. It’s heartbreaking that a relationship built upon trust for thousands of years has turned out this way today, but by properly spaying and neutering our beloved pets and feral animals, this problem can be humanely solved. And, of course, local humane societies and cat rescue organizations are full of wonderful cats looking for a loving home.
This article is dedicated to the memory of Gina Rowland, my grandmother, who passed away on January 19, 2011, at the age of 84. She loved her cats, and everybody else’s cats, and particularly cared about the ones that had no one else to care for them.
For more on domestic cats, see Dennis C. Turner and Patrick Bateson’s book The Domestic Cat: The Biology of Its Behavior, the 2007 genetics study “The Near Eastern origin of cat domestication,” the article“From wild animals to domestic pets, an evolutionary view of domestication,” Jaromir Malek’s book The Cat in Ancient Egypt; Anthony L. Podberscek, Elizabeth S. Paul, and James A. Serpell’s book Companion Animals & Us, Juliet Clutton-Brock’s book A Natural History of Domesticated Mammals, Leslie Irvin’s book If You Tame Me, a website by The Humane Society of the United States on “Why You Should Spay or Neuter Your Pet,” the website for The International Cat Association, or Wikipedia’s articles on the “wildcat,” or “cat.”
Biology Bytes author Teisha Rowland is a science writer, blogger at All Things Stem Cell, and graduate student in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at UCSB, where she studies stem cells. Send any ideas for future columns to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.