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Nutrition Nuggets is the newest offshoot of petMD's Cat Nutrition Center. Each week Dr. Coates will use her expertise and wisdom to blog about the intricacies of cat nutrition.

Early Domestication of Cats Included Grain Rich Diets

January 10, 2014 / (4) comments

We talk a lot about how important it is to have enough protein of animal origin in a cat’s diet. The National Research Council's recommended allowance for protein for an adult cat is 50 g/1,000 kcal metabolizable energy (ME), while it is half that (25 g/1,000 kcal ME) for an adult dog. Also, the amino acid profile of plant-based sources of protein does not ideally match the nutritional needs of cats.


For example, cats need an adequate dietary source of the amino acid taurine, which is not naturally found in plants. Omnivores like us can synthesize taurine from other amino acids, but feline physiology is incapable of doing so and if cats don’t ingest enough taurine they can develop a potentially fatal form of heart disease.


It is an indisputable fact that cats are carnivores. So, I was absolutely fascinated to learn that grains may have played a central role in the domestication of our feline friends. This is exactly what a recent article entitled “Earliest evidence for commensal processes of cat domestication” theorizes. The paper’s abstract states:


Domestic cats are one of the most popular pets globally, but the process of their domestication is not well understood. Near Eastern wildcats are thought to have been attracted to food sources in early agricultural settlements, following a commensal pathway to domestication. Early evidence for close human–cat relationships comes from a wildcat interred near a human on Cyprus ca. 9,500 y ago, but the earliest domestic cats are known only from Egyptian art dating to 4,000 y ago. Evidence is lacking from the key period of cat domestication 9,500–4,000 y ago.


We report on the presence of cats directly dated between 5560–5280 cal B.P. in the early agricultural village of Quanhucun in Shaanxi, China. These cats were outside the wild range of Near Eastern wildcats and biometrically smaller, but within the size-range of domestic cats. The δ13C and δ15N values of human and animal bone collagen revealed substantial consumption of millet-based foods by humans, rodents, and cats. Ceramic storage containers designed to exclude rodents indicated a threat to stored grain in Yangshao villages. Taken together, isotopic and archaeological data demonstrate that cats were advantageous for ancient farmers. Isotopic data also show that one cat ate less meat and consumed more millet-based foods than expected, indicating that it scavenged among or was fed by people. This study offers fresh perspectives on cat domestication, providing the earliest known evidence for commensal relationships between people and cats.


The idea that wild cats were attracted to human settlements due to the presence of rodents feeding on grains is straightforward. However, I find the mention of a cat who ate “less meat” and “consumed more millet-based foods” fascinating. Perhaps cats have been eating grains for a whole lot longer than commercial pet food manufacturers have been adding them to their products.


Dr. Jennifer Coates



Earliest evidence for commensal processes of cat domestication. Hu Y, Hu S, Wang W, Wu X, Marshall FB, Chen X, Hou L, Wang C. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013 Dec 16. [Epub ahead of print]


Image: Inna Astakhova / Shutterstock