The domestication of cats

Although cats have not been domesticated for as long as dogs, felines have lived with humans for thousands of years. The earliest indication that cats may have lived with people dates back approximately 10,000 years. A cat's tooth from 9000 B.C. was found in the remains of a settlement in Jericho, Israel.

The next oldest remain dates back to about 5000-6000 B.C. in Cyprus, where the remains of cats and humans have been found in the same area. Since cats are not native to this Mediterranean island, it is assumed that humans brought cats there. Not surprisingly, the remains of rodents were also found at this site, suggesting that humans were using cats to control pest populations at that time.

The domestic cat's (Felis catus) whiskers are extremely sensitive, which enables it to easily locate prey. (Photo by © Pete Saloutos/ Corbis. Reproduced by permission.)

It is not definitively known which species of wild cat is the ancestor of Felis catus, the domestic cat. Felis silvestris libyca, the Libyan wild cat, lived in Egypt and many experts have suggested that this wild cat is the ancestor of F. catus. A few others, however, have suggested that domestic cats are descended from Felis chaus, a jungle cat, or from cats native to Persia or Nubia. However, many experts agree that F. silvestris is the ancestor of today's domestic cats, and most come down on the side of F. silvestris libyca.

The ever closer relationship between humans and cats seems to have been an accidental offshoot of a mutually beneficial relationship. There was apparently no conscious attempt at breeding the domestic cat, but wild cats were encouraged to live in and around human settlements. Humans would deliberately leave out food for them and sometimes raised kittens, resulting in cats that were less afraid of humans than their wild parents.

Over a period of time, cats became incorporated into Egyptian life and were given the onomatopoeic name (a name that sounds like the sound an animal makes) miu. Eventually, cats and humans coexisted along the Nile River, but it is hard to decipher when cats became completely domesticated, and some might argue that cats are not completely domesticated even today.

While cats initially performed a strictly functional role in Egyptian society as mousers, Egyptians gradually started to become more emotionally attached to cats, and even reverential toward them. Many statues and drawings of cats have been unearthed, suggesting their importance to ancient Egyptians. Some of these relics even feature cats adorned with jewelry.

Along with human and other animals, cat mummies have been found in Egyptian tombs. The evidence indicates that these cats were ritualistically killed, sometimes by breaking their necks, and then embalmed. By the fifth century B.C., Egyptians were so attached to their cats that the Greek scholar

Herodotus wrote that they would pluck their eyebrows in mourning when a household cat died of natural causes. Eventually, Egyptians viewed cats as being sacred creatures. Cats were associated with the goddess Bastet. Bastet sometimes was depicted as wholly feline but often had the body of a woman and the head of a cat. She was associated with fertility, joy, and beauty. Many cats lived at her largest temple in the city of Bubastis and thousands of mummies of cats have been unearthed in excavations around this ancient city.

Killing cats (outside of ritualistic events which produced the afore-mentioned mummies) eventually became a capital crime in Egypt. The historian Diodorus Siculus recorded one such incident, which resulted in a lynching.

"Whoever kills a cat in Egypt is condemned to death, whether he committed this crime deliberately or not. The people gather and kill him. An unfortunate Roman, who had accidentally killed a cat, could not be saved, either by King Ptolemy of Egypt or by the fear which Rome inspired."

Although Egypt tried to prevent the export of cats to other countries, their usefulness as mousers led to their spread elsewhere around the Mediterranean and, eventually, throughout the world. The two great epics of Hinduism, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, which were written about 300 B.C., both mention cats, indicating that cats came to India well over 2,000 years ago.

It is not clear when cats first arrived in Europe, although they spread throughout the continent during the time of the Roman Empire, reaching into northern Europe by about A.D. 100.

It took a while for domestic cats to become established in North America, although at least one cat traveled on the Mayflower with the Pilgrims in 1620 and Jesuits brought some cats with them to Quebec back in the sixteenth century. However, cats did not become popular in the Americas until the eighteenth century, when they were imported into Pennsylvania for the very same reason they had become popular in Egypt thousands of years earlier—to control rodents.

While humans have primarily developed a relationship with domestic cats, their ability to hunt rodents and other pests resulted in the use of wild cats as work animals. Cheetahs, for example, have been used as hunting companions in parts of Africa and Asia, in a role similar to what falcons performed in European countries. Sometimes, however, wild cats were used in particularly gruesome situations. The use of lions and other wild cats as a public means of execution in ancient Rome is well-known.

The evolution of the domestic cat

Cats have gradually changed as they became domesticated. Obviously, they are tamer. They are also more tolerant, not just of people, but of other cats. That is why a household can have more than one cat, although anyone who shares a home with multiple cats can vouch that even domestic cats can still be quite territorial. Still, while it may take some coaxing, domestic cats can learn to live together, which is not the case for their wild cousins.

Not dependent on hunting to stay alive, domestic cats have also developed smaller bodies, teeth, and jaws than their wild cousins. Their senses of smell, hearing, and sight are not as well developed. And as camouflage in the natural environment became unimportant for an animal living with humans, the color of cats' coats changed, typically into either a solid coat of one color or a combination of solid colors and/or stripes. One breed of domestic cat, the Egyptian mau, is spotted. Also, while many cat lovers may disagree, there is evidence that domestic cats have a smaller brain capacity than their wild cousins.

The typical adult domestic cat is rather small, weighing 8-2 5 lb (3.6-11 kg). As domesticated cats spread over the globe, they eventually developed into different breeds. Cats, however, lack the great variety of breeds found in dogs and have never been bred to fill distinct working roles (e.g., hunting, guarding, herding) as is true for dogs. The number of cat breeds is increasing and as of 2003, The Cat Fanciers' Association recognizes 39 breeds of domestic cat ranging from the Abyssinian to the Turkish van.

Cats and humans

While always valued for their usefulness in hunting rodents and other pests, cats have not been viewed with affection in all societies. For example, during the Middle Ages, cats became associated with witchcraft, first in Christian countries in Europe and then in America. In 1494, Pope Innocent VIII declared that witches could take the form of animals such as cats.

Islamic countries, however, have traditionally viewed cats in a positive light. Mohammed is reported to have been particularly fond of cats. One popular story relates that when a cat fell asleep while lying on Mohammed's garment, the Prophet cut off the sleeve so he would not disturb the sleeping cat when he had to stand up.

Cats and wildlife

Domestic cats are hunters. They will prey upon wildlife even when they are fed and cared for by humans. If not controlled, cats can have a disastrous effect on local birds. For example, their introduction to the California Channel Islands and northwestern Baja California resulted in the elimination of three local populations of seabirds and the extinction of the Guadalupe storm-petrel (Oceanodroma macrodactyla). One researcher has estimated that cats kill approximately 39 million birds—just in the state of Wisconsin—each year.

Control is difficult. While "belling the cat" is a traditional strategy, cats can eventually figure out how to move without making the bell ring out. It is possible that an electronic alarm will be developed that would intermittently go off as a warning to potential prey.

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