Origins of the Domestic Cat – The History of Cats

The domestic cat remains much the way nature designed its forebears, creatures that lived by hunting and eating other animals. From Miacis, over 50 million years ago, (the weasel-like ancestor of all carnivorous animals) and Dinictis (the first catlike animal, which appeared ten million years later) descended both the Viverridae (civets, genets, mongooses, and meerkats) and the Felidae (all modern cats, large and small).

The feline family includes species ranging in size from the tiny 4½ pound (2 kg) African black-footed cat, to the Siberian tiger, a formidable 600 pounds (275 kg) and 10 feet (3 m) long. All modern domesticated breeds belong to the same species, Felis sylvestris, and the same sub-species, Felis sylvestris catus. Today there are forty-one breeds of cats recognized by the Cat Fanciers’ Association, and dozens more are recognized by other international cat associations. All domestic cats are capable of inter-breeding both with one another and, at least theoretically, with wild cats of the silvestris species.

It was thought for many years that the Egyptians first domesticated cats some 4,000 years ago. However, French archaeologists have found evidence that our close relationship with cats may have begun even earlier. Carefully interred remains of a human and a cat were found buried with seashells, polished stones, and other decorative artifacts in a 9,500-year-old grave site on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. This find, from a Neolithic village, predates the Egyptians by 4,000 years or more. The deliberate interment of this animal with a human makes a strong case that cats had a special place in the daily lives and in the afterlives of residents of the village where the remains were found. This particular cat was only eight months old at the time of its death, suggesting that it may have been killed to be buried with its human.

Wild cats were probably drawn to early human settlements, where grain stores attracted rats and mice. Cats were later used specifically to control these pests. This practice gave wild cats a plentiful supply of fresh food, and so began a mutually beneficial relationship between humans and cats.

Some experts believe that the Egyptians may have tamed and bred felines to produce a distinct species by the twentieth or nineteenth century b.c. Cats are frequently represented in Egyptian mythology in the form of the feline goddesses Bastet, Sekhmet, and other deities.

As revered as cats were in ancient Egypt, they were reviled and persecuted in medieval Europe. This era was certainly the Dark Ages for cats, too, but they survived to be prized in modern times as a beloved companion to humans. (JEAN HOFVE, D.V.M.)

Domestic cat
Ancient Egyptians drew pictures of cats on walls. They were the first to have cats as pets.

By the 1700s, people all over the world had cats as pets. Cats came to America with the Pilgrims, who used cats on the Mayflower and other ships to hunt rats. Cats became more than just workers. They became friends. Today, there are more than forty different breeds of cats. Cats can be purebreds, meaning they are just one breed of cat, or they can be mixed-breeds. Some are solid colored. Others have color patterns, such as stripes, spots, or patches. Cats may have short hair or long hair, smooth coats or even curly coats. Some cats have long, fluffy tails, while others have short, stubby tails. Some cats have ears that fold down, while others have ears that stand up.

For purebred cats, the American shorthair is a popular cat breed. This breed is known for its beauty and gentle nature. American shorthairs get along well with children and dogs. They come in about eighty different colors and patterns. The most common American shorthair is silver with black markings. Siamese cats come from Thailand, which was once called Siam. Siamese cats have short, light-colored coats. They have darker blue, brown, lilac, lynx (striped), or red markings on their legs, tails, ears, and faces. Siamese cats like to sit in their owner’s lap. Some people think the purring of a Siamese cat sounds like singing. Cats can live for an average of ten to fifteen years. With proper care, they will give their owners love and friendship for many years. (Laura S. Jeffray)


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