How did cats become pets?
Cats around the world are among the most popular pets today. The history of cats and humans derives back before they were even domesticated. Unlike dogs, however, we can more confidently trace cats to the region of their domestication, namely the Middle East. By at about 80000 BC, Felis silvestris, a wild cat species, became the origin of what became the domesticated cat (Felis catus). Because cats have evolved relatively little from their wild ancestor, we can understand their development in the Middle East and beyond more clearly than dogs.
Domestication and Early History
Anatomically, it is difficult to distinguish between wild and domestic cats. In fact, in early Neolithic societies in the Near East, even before 8000-7000 BC, it is possible or even likely wild cats or early domesticated cats would have lived in villages. They may have simply stayed near villages rather than been actively domesticated initially, which may explain why their anatomy has not changed. In effect, cats could have been one of these rare species that could have domesticated itself as it adapted to humans through its own choice.
One recent study has suggested that farming in China, by around 30000 BC, could have also led to the rise of domesticated cats. This could have been a second wave of domestication. Similar to the Middle East, cats may have simply hung nearby villages as they developed, where cats adapted themselves to villages. A local variety of wild cat, Felis silvestris ornata , seems to be the likely candidate if local domestication also occurred in China. The presence of mice and rats, which would have been attracted to agricultural products produced in early villages, could have attracted cats to villages.
In effect, a type of ecosystem of predators and prey developed around agriculture being brought in from fields. The fact that domesticated cats are still relatively agile hunters, and often live relatively independent of humans, also suggests that humans probably only played a passive role in their domestication.
Rise of Cat Pets
While the transition of wild cats to domesticated or at least semi-domesticated cats appears to be relatively clear, particularly as agriculture became prominent around the world, what is less clear is how cats became true pets. Not surprisingly, we do find cat remains in Europe and other parts of Asia as agriculture became more established. However, cat skeletal remains are not always found in contexts that suggest they were pets. One hypothesis why cats became invited to homes is that even in the wild cats act docile to humans and sometimes even act playful. This suggests that the natural nature of cats could have led them to be invited to people's homes as their presence in agricultural villages and towns became more established
The earliest evidence of close contact between humans and cats comes from Cyprus from 7500 BC, where a human was found buried next to a cat. In ancient Egypt, by around 2000 BC, we find the first cat cemetery with mummified cats and tomb paintings showing cats. In fact, something on the order of 80,000 mummified cats has been found in the cemetery, making it still by far the largest known cat cemetery (Figure 1). The goddess Bastet was depicted as a cat and the association of cats with this goddess may have made cats sacred. However, from tomb paintings, it is also clear that the Egyptians had an affinity and care for the cats, suggesting that cats by then were now more intertwined with daily life and people actively took care of cats.
Cats may have not been exported from Egypt for centuries, which may indicate why they did not spread until somewhat later in parts of the Mediterranean. However, recent studies have shown it was not just Egypt that kept cats but other societies in the ancient Near East seemed to keep house cats, although they are not frequently discussed.
Cats were not widely discussed in ancient Greece, suggesting they may have not been a primary pet. One vase shows a cat fighting a dog, while another shows a music player with a cat. However, in ancient Rome, cats are mentioned by Plutarch and Pliny. Mosaic depictions indicate that cats were common household pets (Figure 2). Cats seem to have been kept in the house to help keep away mice and common pests as well. One text mentions using cats to catch moles in vegetable beds. A Roman tomb has even been found with a cat and its name, suggesting that it was loved by its owner.
One Galic-Roman relief shows a little girl holding a kitten, suggesting that cats were kept as pets for children as well as adults. Some breeds, such as the British Shorthair, appear to have been bred by the Romans and then introduced to places such as Britain perhaps as early as the 1st century AD. In effect, the love for cats may have led to the different breeds, as some cats appear to be bred to develop their hair or decorative features.
In the Medieval period, cats were sometimes associated with witches, leading them to be killed in Europe at times. Even by the early Renaissance, town festivals were sometimes opened by the symbolic burning of cats to demonstrate the cleansing of the town from witches. Other societies, such as in Japan, has generally had a more long-term positive association with cats. For instance, cats have long been associated with good luck, where even today it is popular to buy gifts of cats with a raised paw (a symbol of good luck). Similarly, in Russia, having a cat in the house was considered good luck.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the oldest known breeds of cats are from the Middle East, where they were first domesticated or at least lived along with humans. The history of cat breeds is not clear, but it is likely that it was only after the late Medieval period and Renaissance that people began to have a taste to breed new cat varieties. The Turkish Angora and Persian cat are among the oldest known, where they are documented by the 1600s. The Chartreux might be the oldest European breed, where it is mentioned to exist by at least 1558.
The likely origin in Europe for this cat suggests by then Europeans were developing their own breeding tastes. Other breeds that originated from the Middle East and Asia, such as the Japanese Bobtail, Siamese, and Siberian Cat, suggest that Asian societies were likely specifically breeding certain types of cats for either domestic use such as hunting rodents, kept as household pets, or used as both. Nevertheless, the variety of breeds that originate from Africa, Asia, and Europe suggest breeding of cat varieties may have taken place since much more ancient periods.
In 1598, the world's first cat show was held in Winchester, England. By the 1600s, throughout western Europe, cats became increasingly common in wealthy households. In the 17th and 18th centuries, paintings became more common showing human and cat interactions. By then, cats were no longer associated with witches, although our own culture still has preserved this perspective through the depiction of witches and cats often together in Halloween or other events. Middle-class popularity of cats likely originated in the 19th century, when popular shows such as the Crystal Palace exhibition in London in 1871 helped to inspire more typical households to have cats as pets. The Crystal Palace exhibition, in fact, gave rise to what became cat show contests.
One prominent organization, the Cat Fanciers Association (CFA), was developed in the United States by 1906. This organization has become the best known for developing a cat breed register and promoting new types of breeds that have developed in the United States and other countries. Such organizations have also advanced the well-being of cats. Through increased marketing and widespread breeding of different types, cats are perhaps the most popular or common, with over 88 million cats in the United States today.
Cats, unlike dogs, may have developed as a domesticated animal through their own volition where they adapted to living close to humans. Perhaps not surprisingly, we generally have seen a positive association of cats, given their utility in keeping pests out of houses and farming goods. At times, however, the association of cats with witches may have led to their non-acceptance, but this has proven to be an exception. Mostly, and throughout many Old World countries, cats have been depicted positively. While they have been pets since likely the Neolithic period more than 9,0000 years ago, it was only since the Renaissance that people began to more commonly have cats in their homes or at least incorporate them in their daily activities through paintings and other depictions. By the 19th and 20th centuries, associations have developed that encouraged the ownership of cats, their well-being, and the development of different breeds.
- For more on the process of cat domestication, see: Driscoll, C.A., Menotti-Raymond, M., Roca, A.L., Hupe, K., et al. (2007) The Near Eastern Origin of Cat Domestication. Science. [Online] 317 (5837), 519–523. Available from: doi:10.1126/science.1139518.
- For more on domestication of cats in China, see: Hu, Y., Hu, S., Wang, W., Wu, X., et al. (2014) Earliest evidence for commensal processes of cat domestication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. [Online] 111 (1), 116–120. Available from: doi:10.1073/pnas.1311439110.
- For more on cats and how they became pets, see: Swan, M. (2005) A curious history of cats. London, Little.
- For more on ancient Egypt and cats, see: Stiegler, L.-D. (2007) Per-Bast: a tale of cats in ancient Egypt. Vancouver, BC [Canada, Freya Pub.
- For more on how cats were treated in ancient Greece and Rome, see: Bradshaw, J. (2013) Cat sense: how the new feline science can make you a better friend to your pet. New York, Basic Books.
- For more on cats and witches, see: Walker-Meikle, K. (2011) Medieval cats. London, British Library.
- For more on the history of cat breeds, see: Kim Bryan & DK Publishing, Inc (eds.) (2013) The complete cat breed book. 1st American ed. New York, DK Publishing.
- For more on the history of cat shows, see: Choron, S., Choron, H. & Moore, A. (2007) Planet cat: a cat-alog. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, pg. 54.
- For more on the CFA, see: http://www.cfa.org/