The History of Cats: a Look at Feline Domestication

By PetMD Editorial on Jan. 19, 2018

By Maura McAndrew

More than 47 million American households own at least one cat, with two on average per household, according to the American Pet Products Association. As these statistics—plus the cat’s status as the internet’s favorite animal—indicate, the house cat is perhaps more beloved around the world than ever before. But many cat lovers know very little about the history of these animals they take into their families. In fact, the human-cat relationship is thought to extend back about 10,000 years, from a time when wildcats first wandered into rural villages. 

The Origins of the House Cat

While there are a number of wildcat subspecies—European and Scottish wildcats, for example—today’s domestic cat is thought to have descended from the North African wildcat, also called the Near Eastern wildcat. “There are many subspecies of wildcat, and all these cats can actually interbreed, so it’s rather hard to figure out the story now,” explains Dr. Leslie Lyons, professor and head of the Feline Genetics Laboratory at the University of Missouri, College of Veterinary Medicine. “The one that was sampled and actually supported that they are progenitors of the domestic cat is the North African wildcat.” In addition to North Africa, this subspecies may have lived throughout the Levant region, ancient Anatolia and Mesopotamia. These cats could adapt to a variety of habitats and survived by hunting rodents, reptiles, and birds.

Today’s domestic cats are physically very similar to their wild ancestors. “Domestic cats and wildcats share a majority of their characteristics,” Lyons says, but there are a few key differences: wildcats were and are typically larger than their domestic kin, with brown, tabby-like fur. “Wildcats have to have camouflage that’s going to keep them very inconspicuous in the wild,” Lyons says. “So you can’t have cats with orange and white running around—they’re going to be snatched up by their predators.” As cats were domesticated, they began to be selected and bred for more interesting colorations, thus giving us today’s range of beautiful cat breeds.  

The Beginnings of Domestication

“Our genetic evidence, our archaeological evidence, and our geology all tell us that cats were probably not domesticated more than 8,000 to 10,000 years ago,” Lyons explains. It was during this time period that humans first began farming in large numbers in parts of the Middle East, the Indus River Valley region in Pakistan, and the Yellow River Valley region in China. Based on the available evidence, scientists and historians theorize that when farmers began to cultivate grain, they attracted rodents, which in turn lured wildcats out of their habitats and into human civilizations.

“Once the cats were in the villages, the idea is that people would have wanted to keep them around, because the cats killed rodents,” explains David Grimm, deputy news editor at Science magazine and author of the book Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs. By killing their prey, cats offered protection for crops and food storage in these early farming communities.

Because this early human-cat relationship was so mutually beneficial, it is often said that cats “domesticated themselves,” meaning they voluntarily started living among humans and adopted behaviors that would allow them to continue their appealing new lifestyle. “Not only did [these wildcats] have mice and rats to hunt, but if they were friendlier, they were also potentially getting table scraps, and maybe even protection from people,” Grimm says. “So it would really behoove them to be a lot tamer than their feral counterparts.”

Useful, Godlike, Wicked: Evolving Perceptions of Cats

As they became more entrenched in their roles as rodent patrol and grain protectors, cats’ bond with humans became stronger. Archaeologists have found evidence of this relationship in the form of ancient bones in places like China and the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, where in 2004, Jean-Denis Vigne made one of the most significant discoveries yet: the remains of a cat buried beside its owner in a grave dating to around 7500 B.C.

“What’s significant about the burial is that this is a village where people used to bury their loved ones under their homes. And when archaeologists were digging under a home, they found a burial which had a person and a cat,” Grimm explains. The cat and human skeletons were buried about a foot apart, placed so that they faced one another and surrounded by carved seashells. “That suggested that even very early on, there may have been this very close relationship between people and cats,” he says.

In Egypt, the early domestic cat’s roles as helper and protector launched it to peak popularity between around 1950 B.C. (when the cat first appears in Egyptian art) through the Roman period. “Again, they were protecting grain, and they were killing snakes and scorpions,” Grimm explains. “So they became revered to the point where they actually started to be conflated with gods in ancient Egypt.”

One common practice in Egypt at this time—which has proven useful today for scientists studying the house cat’s origins—was the mummification of cats as sacred offerings. By around 600 B.C., Lyons explains, cats were being mummified by the thousands. “It became a business, actually,” she says. “We know that the cats were probably tamed, and that people were breeding them, but they were purposely sacrificing them to make them into mummies so that people could buy them and do offerings to the gods.”

In 2012, Lyons coauthored a study that compared the mitochondrial DNA sequences of excavated Egyptian cat mummies to the sequences of various subspecies of modern domestic cat. The results were fascinating: “All of the mummies had the same DNA sequence that was common to the Middle East,” she explains, “[and] the cats that are living [in Egypt] today have the same sequence as the mummies, which probably means that the cats that were the mummies are their ancestors. So they’re descendants of the cats of the Pharaohs.” This study offered the first genetic evidence that the cats being sacrificed in ancient Egypt were, in fact, domestic cats, further supporting the theory that domestication occurred prior to this period.

Following its Egyptian heyday, the domestic cat’s path to worldwide popularity was far from a smooth one, particularly in Europe. “In the Middle Ages, especially around the 1200s and 1300s, cats start to be associated with things like witchcraft,” Grimm says. “And you have a lot of cat-killing, cats being thrown into bonfires, being tortured and hung, because they were believed to be evil and the incarnation of the devil.” Pope Gregory IX, who crusaded against pagan religions in medieval Europe, led the charge. His campaign against cats was so effective that this purge lasted for centuries, and by 1700, they had all but disappeared in certain areas.

From Outdoor Hunters to Indoor “Fur-Babies”

“It wasn’t until probably the 1700s or 1800s that cats on a large scale started to come back into favor,” Grimm explains. But from that point, it was still a long road to the “house cat” as we know it. While cats were cared for as outdoor pets in the 19th and early 20th centuries, “the majority of cats being indoor animals is actually a very recent development,” he says. “And that’s because kitty litter wasn’t invented until 1940.”

Grimm notes that as cats developed this closer relationship with humans, their legal status also began to change. “Up until about 100 years ago or so, cats and dogs were legally so worthless that they weren’t even considered property,” he says. Now, not only are they legally protected as property, they receive additional protection under anti-cruelty laws as well as natural disaster evacuation laws, which were first implemented after Hurricane Katrina.

The 20th century has been an incredible period of change for the domestic cat. “This transition from them being outside animals to coming inside is a major turning point in them being considered more than just animals or pets, but becoming members of the family,” Grimm says.

Why Study the History of the Cat?

Delving into the history and evolution of cats is fascinating—and also has implications for feline health. Veterinary institutions around the world are now using genome sequencing to identify genetic mutations and attempt to eradicate some diseases in cats. This is the main goal of Lyons’s Feline Genetics Laboratory at the University of Missouri. “We can use the information from the cat to help with human medicine, too, so it’s called translational medicine,” she explains. The lab also launched a project titled the “99 Lives Cat Genome Sequencing Initiative,” which allows interested cat owners to submit their own pet’s DNA for sequencing.

If you want to learn more about the personal ancestry of your own feline family member, that’s possible too, says Lyons. “There is a DNA ancestry test for cats that can tell you is your cat from oh, eight to 10 different racial populations throughout the world. And you can tell if your cat has recently been related to a breed as well.”

Aside from its practical implications for health and breed identification, the domestic cat’s history imparts a valuable lesson: these are truly amazing and highly adaptable creatures. “I think one thing that gets lost, especially with cats, is appreciating how far they’ve come,” Grimm says. “They are very domesticated animals, they’re easy to have around, and they’re very loving and comforting. But 10,000 years is really the blink of an eye in terms of their evolutionary history. And so somewhere inside of them, there’s still a wild animal. It’s important to honor that.”

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