Cats are generally regarded as the human race’s second best friend. They’re part of families around the world, in almost every culture. According to Tuxedo Cat, the domesticated cat is actually the world’s most popular pet — beating the dog narrowly.
But how did this love affair with such a fiercely independent animal come about? It might surprise you to discover that humans have been keeping cats for around 10,000 years… far longer than they’ve been keeping dogs.
The story of the domestic cat probably began in Cyprus. While it’s impossible to be sure where and when cats first become domesticated, archaeologists have discovered human skeletons buried with cats. In some cases, these discoveries are believed to date back to around 9500 BC.
The evidence, however, is few and far between until you assess a major civilization’s relationship with its feline friends.
Cats in Ancient Egypt
It is widely believed that the first civilization to domesticate cats in large numbers was Ancient Egypt. As food stores became increasingly old and decrepit within the empire, rodent infestations grew out of control. In an effort to tackle the problem, vendors introduced cats into their business. It would appear that mice and rats have always made very tasty and nutritious cat food.
Over the years, cat populations grew quickly in all of the major cities in Ancient Egypt. While friendly to humans, cats remained fiercely protective of their territory — which was great news for food vendors. It’s therefore not surprising that children formed a bond with local cats, and it wasn’t long before ordinary Egyptian families began to keep them as pets.
Such was the strong bond between humans and cats at this time, domestication eventually spread to the nearby empires of Greece and Persia, and thanks to one Chinese Emperor’s love of cats, the animal became the number one pet for the rich and powerful in China.
If you want an indication of just how important cats were in Ancient Egypt, take a look at the Egyptian god Bastet — which was half human, half cat.
The Roman Empire
Historians now believe that the Phoenicians were the first to introduce cats to the Roman Empire. Initially, domesticated cats in Rome were used to protect larders and food stores from rodents and other pests. At the time of their introduction (around 500BC), the ferret was actually the pet of choice in the Empire. However, once people realized that cats were less smelly and easier to look after, ordinary citizens started to invite them into their homes.
Very little of modern-day Europe was left unconquered by the Romans, and everywhere the conquerors went, they took their beloved pets and protectors with them. If you want to know why cats have such a large role in modern civilization, you need look no further than Roman history.
Modern-Day Cat History
The modern-day cat we all know and love is known as felis catus. After many years of interbreeding, today’s cats look very different from those kept by the Phoenicians. Thousands of years of evolution has made them more reliant on humans, and many of the natural hunting instincts that made Phoenician cats such good rat hunters have become less obvious.
Nevertheless, even the domestic cats of the 21st century like to hunt prey — even if it’s just a bit of fun. Perhaps this combination of hunting instinct, independence and playfulness is why Western society has grown to love its cats more than ever.
Fun cat fact: Queen Victoria was well known for her love of cats throughout her reign. She kept several at Buckingham Palace, and even held a lavish cat show — the first of its kind anywhere in the world.
Today, cats are an integral part of most societies and communities. Whether they’re feral creatures scavenging in trash cans or pampered pets with their own quarters, domestic cats have a special place in the hearts of humans around the globe.
Got a great cat story to share? Or perhaps you have questions about the history of the domesticated cat? Share your thoughts and questions in the comments section below.
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