The Domestication of Cats

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Podcast Transcript

Dogs and cats are both domesticated, four-legged, fur-bearing mammals. 

Beyond that, they really don’t have much in common. One of the things that they don’t have in common is how they wound up in the lives of humans. 

Cats established their relationship with humans at a totally different point in history and for a totally different reason. 

Learn more about the domestication of cats and how these wild animals wound up as pets on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

To understand domesticated cats, you first have to understand the animal that they came from, the wildcat. 

Wildcats are cats that look very similar to some domesticated cats. They are roughly the same size, and if you saw a wildcat in the wild, you might assume that it was just a domesticated cat that was on the loose. 

Taxnomocally, cats are members of the family Felidae.

Felidae has three genera.

The first genus is Panthera, which consists of all large cats that can roar. This includes lions, tigers, leopards, snow leopards, clouded leopards, and jaguars.

The second genus is Acinonyx, which consists only of cheetahs. 

The third and final genus is Felis, which consists of all smaller cats, including wildcats.

Wildcats consist of two species: the African wildcat and the European wildcat. Both cats look similar to each other, and there are multiple subspecies of wildcat which are located all over Africa, the Middle East, parts of Iran, India, Central Asia, China, and Europe. 

Some taxonomists do consider the various subspecies to be different species, but it is hard to create a hard division because where wildcat subspecies interact, they tend to breed with each other. 

Wildcats, as you could probably guess, are silent hunters that prey on small animals such as rodents and birds. 

The story of how wildcats ended up living with humans is a very different story than that of dogs. 

Dog domestication predates cat domestication by thousands of years. While the first dogs may have wandered close to humans for food, humans ultimately took an active role in domesticating dogs to use them in hunting, security, and as pack animals. 

If you remember back to my episode on the domestication of dogs, dogs may have come into the lives of humans 20,000 to 40,000 years ago. 

The story of cats and humans is much more recent.  It didn’t have anything to do with humans as hunters, rather, it had everything to do with humans as farmers. 

As humans began to grow crops, in particular grain, they had to store it. This was one of the principal benefits of agriculture.  Grain could be stored for months or years to be consumed later to even out bad harvests.

The growing and storing of grain attracted wild animals that feasted on it. This included animals such as rats, mice, and birds. Agriculture caused an explosion in the population of rats and mice as it provided a very large and abundant source of food. 

These pests weren’t welcome by humans as they not only stole food but could ruin entire harvests and spread disease. 

With the rats and mice came their arch-enemy, wildcats. Wildcats found farms to be just as good of a source of food as rats and mice did, but for totally different reasons. 

Cats didn’t begin their relationship with humans by humans giving them food, like with dogs. It began with cats simply finding farms to be good hunting grounds.

Cats hunted the creatures which ate farm crops, which put their interests directly in line with humans. 

DNA evidence has shown that all domestic cats came from the African wildcat species known as Felis silvestris lybica, which is found in North Africa and the Middle East.

Exactly when cats began their relationship with humans is still an open question, but the answer appears to be around 10,000 years ago, approximately around the same time that humans began adopting agriculture in the fertile crescent. 

The first grain stores date back about 10,000 years and were found in Israel. The first evidence of cats and humans dates back around 9,500 years ago. A grave site was found on the island of Cyprus that had a cat skeleton very close to a human skeleton. 

This is significant because Cyprus is an island and had no native population of cats. If cats were in Cyprus, then humans must have taken them there. 

One of the current theories about the domestication of cats is that humans never actually domesticated cats. Cats domesticated themselves. For thousands of years, cats simply lived alongside humans. Humans and their farms provided a rich hunting ground for cats, and cats provided a useful service for humans.

It was a symbiotic relationship that both parties benefited from, but cats wouldn’t have been living in houses and jumping up on your lap. These cats could be considered tame more than domesticated.

The actual domestication of cats probably only began about 4,500 to 3,500 years ago in ancient Egypt. 

The Egyptians revered cats. They really loved them, and given how much their society was dependent on the production of grain, it makes sense. 

Several gods in the Egyptian pantheon were portrayed as cats or were given feline features, including Mafdet, Bastet, and Sekhmet, the gods of justice, fertility, and power.

Cats were valued not only for killing rodents but also for killing venomous snakes and protecting the pharaoh. 

Cats were also mummified and buried with their owners as a sign of respect and devotion. The ancient Egyptians believed that cats had special powers and were able to communicate with the spirit world. As such, cats were often included in religious ceremonies and were believed to help guide the souls of the dead to the afterlife.

Mummified cats began appearing in royal tombs starting with the 12th Dynasty about 3700 to 4000 years ago.

In the 19th century, over 200,000 mummified cats were found in a cemetery in Beni Hasan in Central Egypt.

Cats were able to spread rapidly to other cultures because they were brought on board ships to kill rats. They would then either be traded or find new hunting grounds in other warehouses and port cities. 

Domesticated cats were first introduced in Greece around 1200 BC, as they were spread by Greek and Phonecian traders around the Mediterranean. 

The Greeks used to keep weasels as pets to catch mice but switched to cats because they were better hunters and better pets.

The Romans had no cat gods like the Egyptians did, but they also held cats in high esteem for similar reasons. The cat was a symbol of liberty and independence to the Romans. 

Cats were prized all over the world.

In China, cats were prized for their ability to protect manuscripts from rodents. 

In Norse mythology, the goddess Freyja is depicted as riding a chariot being pulled by cats.

In Japan, cats are considered to be good luck, and the Maneki-Neko, a porcelain cat with a swivel arm, can often be found at the counter in shops and restaurants. 

In Islam, cats have always been given a position of respect. According to the hadith, the Prophet Mohammed prohibited the killing of cats. One of Mohammed’s early allies, Abu Saeed, supposedly had a cat that saved Mohammed from a venomous snake. 

He also may have had a pet cat named Mu?izza.

In the Middle Ages, European attitudes towards cats began to change. They started to be associated with witchcraft and the devil. Burning cats alive became a form of entertainment.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this coincided with the rise of pandemics such as the bubonic plague, which was spread by rats.

There were no members of the genus Felis in the Americas, so there were no wildcats. However, it has been proposed that some Native Americans may have domesticated bobcats. There are people who have domesticated bobcats, which behave like much larger housecats. 

The domestication of bobcats theory is far from universally accepted, even though it appears to be technically possible.

Many countries have a tradition that says that cats have nine lives. However, in other countries like Italy, Germany, Greece, and Brazil, it is said that cats have seven lives, and in the Arab world, it is common to say cats have six lives. 

The association with cats and multiple lives comes from their speed and agility, which allows them to escape dangerous situations, and also from their seeming ability to always land on their feet.

Depending on who you talk to, there are between 45 and 70 different breeds of domesticated cats in the world today. The process of selectively breeding cats for particular attributes, something which has been done with dogs for thousands of years, may have only begun about 500 years ago.

Long-haired cat breeds, such as Persians, are thought to have originated in either Western Afghanistan or Persia. There is only documented evidence for them dating back to the 17th century. 

Hairless breeds, such as Sphynx cats, are very modern, with most breeds only having been established in the latter half of the 20th century.

The global domesticated cat population is estimated to be around 500 million, but that number is difficult to estimate because there are so many feral cats. 

Feral cats are a much bigger problem than feral dogs. Because of how they were domesticated, cats can still hunt their own food and have retained many of their natural instincts. 

In fact, even though many cat owners don’t know it, domesticated cats still hunt and kill a large number of mice and songbirds. 

In many places around the world, the introduction of cats has resulted in the extinction of species, often quite rapidly. At least 20 native mammal species in Australia have gone extinct due to the introduction of cats. 

In New Zealand, birds such as the South Island piopio, the Chatham rail, and the New Zealand merganser have all gone extinct, largely due to the introduction of domesticated cats.

In just the United States alone, an estimated 75 million cats are responsible for the deaths of 1.3 to 3.7 billion birds and 6.3 to 22.3 billion mammals annually.

These aren’t just feral cats that are responsible. Almost any domesticated cat which goes outdoors is probably hunting. A study of a feral cat population in California found that even when feral cats are fed, they still continue to hunt as they did before, as their hunting is instinctual, not driven by hunger.

Cat hunting can have downstream effects as well. In Maryland, one study found that cats hunting chipmunks, which is the primary food source for the Cooper’s Hawk, results in decreased hawk populations.

Attempts at introducing cats to control rat populations in cities like New York have largely failed because rats are large and can put up a fight. So, they tend to just focus on songbirds and other native species or just eat garbage.

Sir David Attenborough has suggested that British cat owners just tie a bell to the collar of their cats to make it difficult for them to hunt birds.

There have been many jokes about the relationship between cats and humans. It has been said that there is no such thing as a domesticated cat or that cats domesticated humans, not the other way around. 

There is actually a kernel of truth in those jokes. 

Cats weren’t domesticated like dogs and horses. They largely lived alongside humans for thousands of years in a symbiotic relationship where they hunted pests on our behalf. It wasn’t until much later that they were brought indoors and made part of our families.

However, domesticated cats are not that different from wildcats. Even though they might purr and cuddle up next to you, they still have the instincts of a superpredator. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

I have several reviews for you today. All of these are from Apple Podcasts in the United States. 

The first is from willyhilly who says 

Five stars!

Thanks, Gary for taking the time every day! Love the pod. Right-size bite of something new every day.

Stu Nims says,



Finally, KnBenso says, 

Fantastic podcast

The best podcast I listen to. Hope to soon join the completionist club. Here’s to hoping this isn’t the third hall-of-fame Packers quarterback the Bears have to deal with. Go Bears.

Thanks, KnBenso. I appreciate the review, but I need to make a correction. This would be the fifth Hall of Fame quarterback the Bears have had to deal with. Bart Starr and Arnie Herber are also Packer quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame. 

Also, my sincere condolences for your Bear fandom. I wish you a speedy recovery. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.