The History of Feline Domestication

There’s no doubt that cats are the world’s leading companion animal and their domestic history that outlines how they came to enjoy curling up on our laps and weaving between our legs is has continued to fascinate scientists, historians and geneticists for generations.

Until the end of the 20th century, historians believed it was the Egyptians who lived some 3 600 years ago who were responsible for the first pictures of feline domesticity that prompted people like author Terry Pratchett to claim that  “In ancient times cats were worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this…”

However this century, research independently undertaken by two of the world’s leading geneticists that involved taking hundreds of DNA samples from cats throughout the Middle East, Mongolia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and southern Africa and published as recently as 2008, is re-writing the history books. Its now believed that cats were first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent, that area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers also known as the Cradle of Civilization some 6 000 years before the Egyptian era, thus setting back the clock 10 000 years.

The studies conducted by Dr. Leslie Lyons of the Veterinary School of Medicine at the University of California, Davis and Dr. Carlos A. Driscoll of the National Cancer Institute in Frederick, Maryland have also been backed by archeological findings that include a feline molar tooth believed to be about 9 000 years old found in Israel and the grave of a person containing the skeleton of a young cat discovered on the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea from the same era.

This latter discovery in 2004 by French archeologists Professor Jean Guilaine, of the Centre d’Anthropologie in Toulouse, France and Dr Jean-Denis Vigne of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, suggested that a human-animal bond must have existed between man and felines because cats were not indigenous to the islands in the Mediterranean and thus must have been taken there as companion animals on travel expeditions.

The cat specimen found on Cyprus closely resembled the African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica), the species with tabby markings believed to be the forefather of domestic cat.

“We know that cats were not domesticated until agriculture came along,” says Lyons. “It appears that when nomadic tribes started to put down roots and grow crops, the grain supply attracted a small mouse called the Mus musculus domesticus (remains of which have been found by archeologists in the Fertile Crescent area). This species couldn’t thrive in the wild and gravitated towards people’s homes and the grain silos. It’s believed that these mice attracted the braver wildcats to the area and that this food source prompted them to stay.”

While the domestic timeline may have changed, the one fact that remains undisputed is that cats, unlike dogs, are self-domesticated and throughout their history have continued to befriend people. It’s part of the charm of the species. On the flipside, through the centuries they have also retained their natural instincts for survival and thus, should they find themselves abandoned, are able to attempt to fend for themselves.

Lyons also believes that while the early famers were happy to rid of the mice, the braver felines may also have been encouraged to stay because the settlers found them visually attractive. Sentiments still expressed by cat lovers today.

The Map of Feline Domestication

The Fertile Crescent known officially on the map as Mesopotamia was an arc-shaped geographical area that started with the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and stretched around the eastern coastline of the Mediterranean Sea to northern Africa. Today, that area is divided in to the countries of Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Jordan, Iran, Kuwait and modern Egypt.

“Currently our genetic time clock is not fast enough to tell how quickly it took for cats to get to Egypt and were subsequently deified during the New Kingdom era,” says Lyons.

Scientists believe that by the time domesticated cats were common in Egypt, they had also gravitated to other fertile agricultural areas of the Old World namely the Indus Valley between India and Pakistan and the lush banks of the Yellow River in China.

“It’s always been thought that the Abyssinian cat came from Africa. But now researchers are considering that it came from India because we’ve found lots of cats in the area with no tabby markings.”

According to Lyons, this research is very much still a work in progress.

“We’re still trying to piece together the story because we found that the cats of South East Asia are very distinct but nevertheless probably came from the west originally,” says Lyons. “It’s all tied up with famous voyages of discovery documented in history books because at some point during the rule of Genghis Kahn the trade routes to the east were closed off.  Consequently, the cats that were already there were isolated. So oriental domestic cats began evolving along their own course.  These trade routes were not re-opened until Marco Polo began his voyages of discovery.”

Also while the early Egyptian cat lovers may not have domesticated felines as previously thought, because cats had such status, it was against the law to take then out of the country.  However, by the time of the Roman Empire, (27 AD), sailors started smuggling them on board grain ships that sailed from the port of Alexandria to destinations throughout the world under Roman rule. Over the years, historians have claimed this is how domestic felines were found in countries such as Britain and Europe and archeologists have found proof of feline skeletons that confirm this theory.

Cats in America

It is believed that cats also traveled to America on board the boats of discoverers such as Christopher Columbus and other adventurers.  The voyagers on the Mayflower and the first residents of Jamestown are said to have brought cats with them to control vermin as well as symbols of good luck.

In the 1800s, although cats were primarily free-range pets, allowed to live in barns and catch their own food, many were slowly finding their way to warm kitchen firesides and allowed to stay.

According to Katherine C. Grier, author of the book Pets in America, during this time, cats were becoming acceptable pets particularly for women and young girls. Families were increasingly being photographed with their pet cats and also included them in family portrait sittings painted by popular artists of the time.  Thus they were sharing living space with families and playing a more prominent role in domestic life.

The first cat show organized in London in 1871 by cat lover and author Harrison Weir, was aimed at introducing the British public to cats in general highlighting their wonderful characteristics and introducing them as pets. Cat shows became very popular with the English and were introduced in America around 1895.

However, from a domestic standpoint, their role as the family mouser  in this country actually continued well into the 1950s.  After the end of the Second World War, when people were back to regular jobs and a more structured family life, small animal feed stores started introducing special beds and bowls for family pets and slowly began to cater for cats. Some even sold boxes and bags of sand so that cats wouldn’t have to go outside in inclement weather.

The Invention of Kitty Litter

One of the most important inventions to have an impact on the domesticity of felines was the introduction of kitty litter. In 1947, a salesman named Edward Lowe who sold clay absorbents to garage owners to soak up soil and gasoline spills in the motor industry in St. Paul, Minnesota, was asked by his neighbor Kay Draper if she could try some of his absorbent clay to replace the ashes she was using in her cat box. Mr. Lowe obliged and Draper was so excited with the results that he decided to market this new cat box filler and trademarked the words Kitty Litter.

The invention of litter can be directly linked to the progression of an indoors-only lifestyle for cats, which feline advocates now deem to be a much safer existence protecting them from predators and diseases.

The Feline Revolution

By the 1980s, people were no longer serving table scraps to their cats to supplement what they could catch. The manufacture of special food for cats and dogs that slowly started around the 1900s had become a booming industry.

This decade also saw the birth of the feline enrichment movement that proposed a wonderful selection of toys and household furniture items to improvement feline well being and compensate for a preferred indoors-only lifestyle.

As the clock ticked over to the 21st century, scientists starts to research the human-animal bond and cats got a further domestic boost when Adnan Qureshi, a neurology professor at the University of Minnesota published a paper that claimed that the relative risk of death from heart attack was 40 percent higher in people that had never owned a cat.

Currently, according to statistics published by the American Pet Products Association (APPA) in their 2009-2010 National Pet Owners Survey, there are 93.6 million cats living in the United States, with the average being 2.45 cats per household. Thus from being a companion working animals, cats are now officially recognized as the world’s leading companion animals.

The past twenty years has also seen animal welfare advocates working to improve the status of cats within communities. The next goal in the feline timelines is to ensure that America becomes a no-kill country by controlling unwanted cats (and dogs) and thus ensuring that each and every feline has a loving home.

  • The domestic cat’s first ancestor was said to be a forest-dwelling, short-legged, long-bodies mammal with a small head and hence small brain called a Miacid. They resembled what we know today as weasels. They lived some 40 million years ago.
  • The first cat lookalike resembling a modern day cat was called a Dinictis, a lynx-sized animal with cat-like incisor teeth that developed from the Miacid.
  • Domestic cats are believed to have descended from the African Wild Cat (Felis silvestris lybica).  And the remains of the cat found on Cyprus dating back 10 000 years closely resembled this specie that has a striped tabby coat that is tan in color. This wildcat is not confined to one corner of the world, but has been found as far afield as Scotland in the north, South Africa in the south and Mongolia in the east.
  • With this division into continents, came a split in habitat for evolving mammals too.  That’s why there’s no history of indigenous cats in Madagascar, Australia, Antarctica and some of the Oceanic Islands.
  •  Designer cats, or hybrid cat breeds, where a domestic cat is deliberately crossed with a wild felid date back to a cat show held in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1875 which included a special class for Wild or Hybrid between Wild and Domestic Cats.  This trend once again became popular in the 1960s with the introduction of popular hybrid breeds such as the Bengal, Toyger and the Savannah.