The Origins of the Cat
The origins of our canine companions are often debated among academics and dog lovers alike. But although there is still much to know about how the first dogs came to be, the introduction of cats into the human world seems better established. Cats became part of our lives 7,000 to 8,000 years ago, after people had already begun to live in permanent communities. Apparently attracted to rodents who came to feed on stored grain, the ancestor of today’s cat, the African wildcat, became a frequent and welcome visitor. The cat, as we know her, played an important part in Egyptian culture and lore. It was also at this time that felines and humans began a curious relationship that has proven to be both good and bad for the cat.
The Cultured Cat
The Egyptians thought so highly of cats that the goddess Bastet was depicted as one. Strict limits were placed on taking cats outside of Egypt, and families actively mourned the deaths of beloved household felines. At the same time, however, thousands of cats were bred and raised for sacrifice. Their mummies have been found in huge numbers. Egypt was at the crossroads of great trading enterprises, and cats soon found their way both east and west. Short-haired cats arrived in Italy 2,100 years ago and moved across Europe quickly, finally reaching England some 1,900 years ago.
Almost everywhere they went, cats were welcomed for their ability to control rodent populations. In many places, they were also appreciated for their companionship. Their darkest hour probably came during the Middle Ages in Europe. Christian religious leaders linked cats with the practice of witchcraft, and sanctioned their wholesale slaughter. This is a particular irony, as cats likely played an important role in helping to protect Europe from even greater devastation during the Black Plague, by killing the rats that carried infected fleas from home to home. The Renaissance, which brought new light to many areas of human endeavor, benefited cats, too. They began to appear in paintings and literature as objects of affection. Later, settlement of the New World brought cats across the Atlantic, and they followed the colonists as they spread across the continent.
The Cat as Companion
It was the development of the middle class that profoundly changed the role of felines in our society and homes. Cats were no longer relegated to the role of rodent wrangler, and came more and more to fill that of companion. Their appeal is such that over the past ten years, they have supplanted dogs as the most common companion animal in the United States. Yet as a continued reflection of our mixed appreciation of cats, research shows that we are less likely to take cats to the veterinarian, provide proper identification or keep them indoors where they will be safe. A variety of sources suggest that there may be as many cats living homeless, as strays and ferals, as there are in homes.
Unlike our friend the dog, the cat’s evolution took place largely without the assistance or presence of a human partner. They did not undergo the long-term genetic selection that produced specialized canine breeds for hunting, herding or guarding. As a result, domestic cats have retained many aspects of their original feline behaviors. This may further the mistaken impression that cats can do fine on their own and require limited attention from human caretakers.
Cats have avoided many of the problems that dogs have faced due to selection for exaggerated physical characteristics. There have been just a handful of unusual physical traits fixed as breed characteristics. The shortened muzzle of the Persian family, the ears of the Scottish Fold, and the tailless Manx are among the few examples. It may be important to stay vigilant in this area, however, since the ever-growing popularity of cats may stimulate an expanded desire for “new and different” breeds and varieties, such as the Munchkins and Twisty Cats of recent years.
Much like dogs, cats have adapted to our lives independent of a need we may have for them to work for us. Instead of mice, they now capture our imagination and affection. And while the world may forever remain divided into dedicated dog people and cat lovers, many of us revel in the fun and complexity of having both dogs and cats in our homes. If nothing else, we may want to heed the old Irish proverb that warns, “Beware of people who dislike cats.”
This article was written by Stephen L. Zawistowski, Executive Vice President, ASPCA National Programs Office, and originally appeared in the Winter 2003 issue of ASPCA Animal Watch.