Despite their reputation for aloofness, it is not unusual for a cat to head-butt and lick its owner to show affection.
Those of us who are owned by cats may well subscribe to the theory that humans didn’t domesticate the cat at all, but that the cat domesticated itself by walking into, adapting to and (in many cases) taking over people’s lives. With few exceptions the modern domestic cat remains independent and solitary, and has an indefinable wild streak. It gives you a look that implies: ‘I may live in your household, but don’t expect me to conform.’
Male lions (Panthera leo) within a pride can be particularly tolerant of cubs.
The origin of the domestic cat
A distant ancestor of today’s domestic cat may have been Martelli’s wild cat (Felis lumensis), a species now extinct. It was similar in size to today’s small wild cats. About 600,000–900,000 years ago it may have given rise to Felis silvestris, from which three distinct types evolved according to the region and environment in which they lived. These were the central European or Forest wild cat (F. silvestris silvestris), the Asiatic desert cat (F. silvestris ornata) and the African wild cat (F. silvestris lybica). The latter inhabited most of Asia and North Africa, and because the process of domestication of the cat occurred mainly in the Middle East, the African wild cat was almost certainly the principal ancestor of modern domestic cats.
For the cat, as for other domestic animals, the process of domestication occurred over a long period of time. Wild cats would have associated with humans once the latter stopped being hunter-gatherers and formed permanent settlements, grew grain crops and set up grain stores. Grain stores would have attracted mice and rats, which in turn would have attracted wild cats.
Any sensible agriculturist would quickly have seen the advantage of encouraging these cats to help control the vermin, so a loose but mutually beneficial association would have been forged.
Many statues were made of the Egyptian cat goddess Bast. This bronze figure is dated between 664 and 525BC.
Just when the process of domestication started is unclear, though, and our estimates rely on archaeological discoveries and the excavation of cat remains that can be shown to be closely associated with humans. Although various cat remains have been found in Egyptian archaeological sites dating to 6700BC, there is no firm evidence that these were domesticated animals, and they are more likely to have been wild cats. If you accept that finding a cat skeleton buried with a person is evidence that the cat was domesticated, then a 7000-year-old burial site at Mostagedda, in Egypt, is evidence enough. There, excavations revealed a man buried with two animals at his feet: a cat and a gazelle.
If this doesn’t convince you, then you need to move forward 2500 years and to the earliest depiction of cats in Egyptian tomb art. Cat remains recovered from an archaeological site in the Indus Valley, dated at 2000BC, could well be from a domesticated variety, and paintings and inscriptions from the same period portray cats in situations that suggest that they were domesticated.
Cat worship and culture
Many thousands of years ago a cat cult was well established in ancient Egypt. There was a feline goddess, Mafdet, a snake-killer and protector of the pharaoh in the royal palace, whose pictures appear in magic formulas carved on pyramid chambers of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties (before 2280BC).
Cats were worshipped in ancient Egypt, and many were mummified to accompany their owners into the next world.
The ancient Egyptians recognized the cat’s role as a guardian of grain stores, protecting the animal by law and keeping sacred cats in their temples. In the temple of the cat goddess Bast or Pasht, from which the word ‘puss’ is said to have arisen, many thousands of cats were mummified and laid in tombs. Excavations at other sites have also revealed large numbers of mummified cats, and the height of the cat cult is thought to have occurred at around 500BC, when many other animals were also a subject of worship. It was once thought that all the mummies were of household cats that had died from natural causes and whose remains had been presented to the temple by their mourning owners. More recently researchers have concluded that many of them were cats specially bred for sacrifice, because they had died from a broken neck and many were merely kittens.
From that time on there is plenty of evidence to show that cats became well established in Egyptian homes. A painting at Thebes, in the tomb of the harbour-master May and his wife Tui (dated around 1600BC), portrays a ginger cat sitting beneath Tui’s chair. It wears a collar, and its leash is tied to a chair leg. The inference is that it was a pet, although this could be disputed.
A picture in the tomb of someone named Baket (dated around 1500BC) depicts a house attendant watching a cat that is eyeing a rat. Other tombs in Thebes also contain paintings of cats. One of them, dated at 1400BC, depicts a kitten sitting on the lap of the sculptor Ipuy. There are also some interesting, though inconclusive, artifacts to suggest that by this period in history cats were not only kept as pets in homes, but also used to help people to hunt. At least three tomb paintings, one of them in the tomb of the sculptor Nebuman (around 1400BC), show cats apparently participating in the action while wildfowlers are using throwing sticks to catch and kill ducks and other birds. Were these cats helping to flush out game from the reed beds and/or helping to retrieve it? A sceptic might suggest that they were simply there to take advantage of a free lunch.
Don’t be surprised to hear your mother cat purring loudly when she suckles her kittens.
The taming of the cat
It has been suggested that during the process of domestication a genetic change to wild temperament (a ‘domestication mutation’) must have occurred to reduce the wild cat’s innate aggression and make domestication possible. The basis for this reasoning is that in wild cats tameness (lack of aggression) is not inherited; although individual animals can be tamed, their kittens are born with a wild temperament and in their turn must also be tamed. In the domestic cat, kittens inherit tameness from their mother – therefore, the reasoning goes, some genetic change must have occurred in the domestic cat to cause this.
A lioness (Panthera leo) is forever vigilant, watching for potential danger to her cubs, even when they are no longer tiny and hopelessly vulnerable.
The idea of a domestication mutation is intriguing, for its exponents suggest that when this occurs it prevents the development of certain adult behaviour patterns, with the result that adult animals still retain some juvenile behaviours. Retaining these behaviours makes them better suited to domestication.
The term for this is neotony, and it functions as follows. In the wild, adult cats are solitary. A close-knit ‘family’ group is formed when a female gives birth to and rears her kittens, but once the kittens become independent there is no continuing association, and each individual becomes a ‘loner’.
Domestic cats, on the other hand, behave rather differently. They are more gregarious, and the suggestion is that this is because they retain some of their ‘kittenish’ instinct to keep together. There are several examples to demonstrate this. If the owner of a female cat that has given birth to kittens decides to keep one or more of those kittens once they have been reared, the mother and offspring will often form close family bonds.
Even when domestic cats are feral, their families tend to stay together, while in urban areas, where there are comparatively dense domestic cat populations, unrelated adults will often form loose associations. Groups of them may even meet together at certain times of the day for ‘cat conferences’, which seem to be the cat equivalent to humans ‘hanging out’ together.
Neotony could arise from a genetic mutation, but it could also result from the process of human selection. People would choose to keep and breed the cats that were the easiest to manage. Those displaying juvenile characteristics were more family-oriented and less independent than adults, and therefore more suited to life within a human family.
Neotony is not just a characteristic of domestic cats. It occurs in domestic dogs, too, where adults retain certain puppy characteristics that make it easier to integrate them into a human family.
Whether such a genetic change occurred, and if so, when, we shall never know. We can only surmise that people kept the kittens of wild cats, and that some of these (probably females) proved tame enough to keep to adulthood and breed from. Eventually, for various reasons, kittens were born that were less aggressive and more suited to living with humans.
The origin of the Russian Blue is uncertain. It is said that sailors brought back specimens to Britain from the northern Russian port of Archangel.
Nevertheless, the domestic cat’s wild temperament is only just below the surface, and not all cats show the same degree of ‘tameness’. There is a wide range of temperaments within the domestic cat population – some cats are extremely tame and others have a definite wild streak. Also, lack of aggression in domestic cats needs to be reinforced by human contact from an early age. If it is not, then some of the cat’s wild attributes reappear. For example, kittens born to a domestic cat that has gone feral are distrustful of humans, and must be subjected to at least a basic taming process in order to adapt to living in a human home.
The spread of cats
As more trade routes developed between countries around the Mediterranean and in Asia, the spread of domestic cats also grew. Around 900BC, Phoenician traders took them to Italy, and from there they spread slowly across Europe, during which time genes from the European wild cat were introduced (by accident, design, or both).
We know that cats had arrived in England by AD1000, during the period of early Viking settlement, because cat remains have been discovered at several archaeological sites dating from that period (including the ancient Viking village of Jorvik, in York, England).
All these cats were shorthaired, but further to the east, longhaired varieties were being developed. It has been suggested that the gene for long hair may have come from the manul (Felis manul) of central Asia, but it is more likely to have originated from artificial selection for the gene that produces long hair. The gene for long hair spread from southern Russia into Pakistan, Turkey and Iran, and eventually showed up in the Angora and Persian breeds. Longhaired varieties arrived in Italy from Turkey during the 16th century, at about the same time as the Manx cat arrived in the Isle of Man, brought in from the Far East by Spanish traders who regularly plied those routes.
The first colonists took shorthaired cats with them to the New World, and later settlers took a variety of cats to Australia and New Zealand. Domestic cats are now distributed throughout the world.
Coat colours and patterns
Some of the coat colours and patterns in domestic cats are thought to be very old, as they have had time to spread all over the world. They include black, blue (a slate-grey colour which is a ‘dilute’ form of black) and orange (ginger). The Siamese and Burmese colour patterns, on the other hand, are more recent and originated in southeast Asia – they were preserved and spread because of human interest.
Most, but not all, ginger cats are male. The coat colour is a sex-linked gene.
Blue eyes are the most striking feature of the Siamese cat.
Some colour patterns spread of their own accord. For example, some hundreds of years ago in Britain the blotched tabby appears to have arisen as a mutation of the striped tabby. For reasons yet to be fully explained, it appears that the blotched tabby and black cat are better able to thrive in a high-density urban environment, and in some areas (especially in England) these colours are becoming predominant among alley cats and non-pedigree domestic cats.
Cats are remarkably agile, and are powerful and accurate jumpers.
By their very nature, cats, especially mature males (toms), are wanderers. Before the concept of selective breeding about 150 years ago, this wanderlust in domestic cats provided plenty of opportunity for the intermingling of genes. If there were two distinct races of cat in any region they blended over a period time, so we cannot be sure of the origin of many of our modern domestic breeds.
Today there are more than 160 colour varieties of the Persian cat.
Nevertheless, studies of the skeletal structure, body type and hair length of modern breeds enable us to make an informed guess. The heavier, more thickset body type, found in British Shorthairs and Persians, shows the influence of the European wild cat. The foreign and Oriental breeds (such as the Abyssinian and Siamese) retain the lithe body of the African wild cat.
There seems to be no evidence for the claim that some domestic breeds (such as the Angora, Chinese cat and Siamese) have an Asiatic origin and may be descended from Pallas’s cat (Otocolobus manul) or its close relatives, as the skulls of these cats show no similarity to the Asiatic species.
The development of pedigree breeds
It was not until the middle of the 19th century that the idea of breeding and recording pedigree cats took hold in Britain and Europe. Some breeders started their breeding programmes using ordinary shorthaired ‘moggies’, selecting them for their body shape and coat colour. From these ancestors, over the years and through selective breeding, today’s British and European Shorthair breeds were created.
Cat shows are an ideal venue to familiarize yourself with the characteristics of different breeds. Cats are judged on their condition, their head shape, coat, eye colour and shape, and even their tails.
In America the foundation stock for shorthairs also came from local cats, but these were the descendants of the cats taken over by the early settlers 200 years earlier, and had developed quite distinctive characteristics of their own. These are now reflected in the American Shorthair.
During the early days of cat breeding there were already longhaired domestic cats, but the main development of the pedigree longhair breeds came initially from the Angora cat, which had originated in Turkey, and later from other longhair breeds imported from Persia and Afghanistan. Both the latter types quickly became known as Persians and became popular at the expense of the Angora, which almost disappeared from the breeding scene. By the late 19th century, exports and imports of pedigree cats were starting in earnest, and by the end of that century the Siamese, Russian Blue and Abyssinian had already reached Britain.
During the 20th century the export and import of cats continued. The first Birman arrived in France in 1919 and the ancestor of the modern Burmese entered the United States from Rangoon in 1930.
During the 1950s the Egyptian Mau and Korat reached the United States, and Turkish cats were brought into Britain. The Japanese Bobtail arrived in the United States in 1968, and the 1970s saw the arrival in that country of the Angora and Singapura. Later that century Maine Coons arrived in Australia, where the Spotted Mist was developed, and Ocicats entered New Zealand.
The spread of pedigree cats and the development of new breeds or colour varieties continues throughout the world. There are now dozens of different breeds and hundreds of different colour varieties.
The first recorded cat show was held at St Giles Fair, Winchester, England, in 1598. During the 19th century, as cats increased in popularity, shows also became more popular. At the earliest events cats were brought along and shown in a variety of containers, or even in their owner’s arms. The cat show as we know it today originated from an idea by an Englishman called Harrison Weir, who decided to house and display cats in rows of cages on a bench or table. His first show, called the National Cat Show, was held in 1871 at the Crystal Palace in London, and at least 160 cats were displayed. This type of display became known as a ‘benched’ show, a name that is still used today.
Judges examine a British Sealpoint kitten and award points for certain characteristics that are defined in the breed’s standard. A kink in the tail would immediately disqualify the cat.
Cat shows are now regular events and an integral part of the pedigree cat scene. However, more and more shows are including a section for non-pedigree cats, thereby attracting ordinary cat owners to display their pets and in turn view the pedigree entries. These shows increase the public’s awareness of advances in the pedigree world, known as the Cat Fancy.
This sorrel Abyssinian, a breed that does not like being confined, is clearly an old hand at cat shows.
The Cat Fancy
During the late 19th century, as interest in breeding and showing increased, it became clear that there was a need for some form of control, and for the official recognition and recording of different breeds. In 1887 the National Cat Club, the first organization of its kind, was formed in Britain, with Harrison Weir as its president. It instituted a stud book and set up a system for the official registration of pedigree cats. This organization later amalgamated with another to become the Governing Council of the Cat Fancy (GCCF). In 1983 a further registering body was set up in Britain: the Cat Association of Britain (CAB).
Although your cat instinctively hunts birds, it is not impossible for an assertive parrot to learn to dominate a feline member of the household!
In America the first registering body was the American Cat Association (ACA), established in 1899. Still in existence, it is one of several similar organizations that operate in that country, where the Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA) operates the largest American (and world) registry of cats.
Most countries now have at least one governing body (and some have several) to oversee the recognition and registration of cat breeds and to set the standards for each of them. In each country these standards are contained in special publications that are regularly reviewed and provide guidelines for breeders and judges.
Not all organizations classify their breeds in the same way, and breed standards can vary markedly between one country and another. The biggest variations occur in the United States.
Cats and people
In modern society pet animals are one of the many factors that make up what we call ‘quality of life’.
During the last 20 years, numerous studies have confirmed the psychological and medical benefits of pet ownership. These benefits have also become a basis for programmes based on animal-assisted activities (AAA) and animal-assisted therapy (AAT), also referred to as ‘pet-facilitated therapy’ and ‘animal-facilitated therapy’. In these programmes, interactions with animals are used to assist humans with physical or psychological problems.
Animal-assisted activities are informal ‘meet and greet’ programmes in which any progress on the part of the human recipient(s) is not measured.
Examples are taking pets to visit the elderly residents of nursing homes and hospitals, and the use of pets to help relieve loneliness and isolation in specific groups of humans such as abused children, prisoners, and persons in various forms of therapy.
Animal-assisted therapy is based on a formal programme that sets out to achieve a specific target, and is documented by a professional in the field of health or human services. This person may be a physician, occupational therapist, physical therapist, certified therapeutic recreation specialist, teacher, nurse, social worker, speech therapist or mental-health professional. The animal may be handled by the professional, or by a volunteer under the direction of a professional. The aim of the programme may be improvement in social skills, range of motion, verbal skills or attention span, for example. Each session is documented in the person’s record with the progress and activity noted.
For example, an occupational therapist may use the assistance of a cat and its handler in work to increase a person’s range of motion in the arm. By making the effort to stroke or hold the cat that person improves his or her mobility. The progress made during each session is documented by the occupational therapist.
In industrialized societies, increasing affluence, a falling birth rate and looser family ties have resulted in pets playing an even more important psychological role. More couples are choosing not to have any children, or to have them later in life after the female partner has established a working career, and for many of these people a pet becomes an important member of the family. But whatever the composition of your human family, owning a cat is likely to provide you with some important benefits.
For the majority of cat owners this is by far the most important feature of cat ownership. It is enough simply to have the cat living in the same house, as a partner and a friend in which we can confide. If you talk to your cat as if it were another human being, you are not unusual. Most of us behave in a similar way.
As well as talking to our cats, we instinctively use methods of communication that we would use with other humans. To console them we use standard ‘primate gestures’ such as stretching out our hands and stroking them, pursing and smacking our lips and ‘soft-voicing’.
At seven weeks, kittens such as these are fully weaned and eating solid foods, happy to interact with people and ready to go to a new home.
Comfort, support and relaxation
Comfort may come either from the affection that your cat displays towards you, or from direct physical contact such as when your cat rubs up against you, you stroke it, or it lies on your lap.
Many of us need comforting when we feel sad or depressed, and our cat can certainly help cheer us up. This aspect is particularly relevant to younger family members in times of trouble. If a teenager is going through a particularly difficult period in his or her life, your cat can provide much-needed emotional support.
Your cat will certainly help you relax. It has been conclusively demonstrated that a person in a state of tension shows a slowing of the heart rate and a drop in blood pressure when their pet comes on the scene. Owning a pet is an important stress-management practice for people with high stress levels in their work.
An ever-present reminder to relax – a cat’s ability to let go and take it easy yet remain alert is the envy of every stressed, overworked cat owner.
A cat can also provide us with psychological protection. For example, it can give us the emotional security to face or overcome irrational fears, such as a fear of the dark or anxiety at being left alone.
Helping to establish new friendships
There is plenty of evidence to show that people who like animals are more likely to like other people, and are more socially interactive. If you own a cat you are probably good at establishing new human friendships, and are unlikely to allow your cat to become a substitute for, or a distraction from, relationships with other people.
Cats can certainly act as catalysts for contact between humans, and also act as an important link between the young and the old.
Self-fulfilment and self-esteem
We all need to feel good about ourselves. Many of us achieve this through success in our family relationships, work, sport or other recreational activities. Others achieve it through reflected glory by owning or breeding a cat that is an object of prestige. It may be a winner in the show ring, or a rare or unusual breed.
Your cat doesn’t have to be a show winner. Every common or garden ‘moggy’ has a unique character and appearance, and simply by looking at it and knowing that it is yours, you will get a deep sense of satisfaction.
For some of us the mere responsibility of caring for another living creature can result in a sense of self-worth, and by doing it correctly we may be rewarded by the approval of other people.
An aid to leisure activities
Cats are an important part of our leisure experience. They like to play, and they stimulate us to play with them. This helps us to relax and develop a more active zest for life, diverting us from the comparative drudgery of the family chores or work. For many of us merely looking after a cat, such as feeding and grooming it, can become a leisure activity in itself.
The Siamese is an extrovert, people-oriented cat and loves human company – it may even be taught to walk on a leash.
Benefits to children
The majority of families that own a cat also have children. We might ask ourselves why parents coping with a growing family would want to saddle themselves with another, nonhuman member, and the answer is not entirely clear. Many of us think that having a pet cat will help teach our children responsibility: that a child who learns to respect and care for a pet is more likely to have a caring attitude towards fellow humans.
There is also an educational value. If our children learn about a cat’s body processes and how to cope with its health problems or illness, they may be better prepared for their own experiences later in life. The life cycle of a pet cat averages about 15 years, and may match the period during which our children are growing to maturity. The life of our cat might help to teach them about growing up, learning, old age, suffering and death. Caring for it during that lifetime may teach them some valuable ‘parenting’ skills.
The presence of a cat in your household can help your children to overcome anxiety, control aggression, develop self-awareness and deal with the problems that occur in life.
Research has shown that when their parents or siblings aren’t around, children will often talk to the family cat about the day’s successes or failures. It is interesting to note that the children most likely to develop social skills and empathy with other people are those who talk intimately and at length with their pets and their grandparents.
It has been shown that families with pets are generally more hygiene conscious than those without.
Your cat will probably bring you plenty of other benefits. Statistically you are likely to:
ο live longer
ο have lower blood pressure
ο be in less danger of heart attacks
ο suffer less stress and gain more relief of tension
ο be emotionally stronger and less likely to become depressed
ο have better motivation and be more purposeful
ο be less aggressive
ο be less self-centred and more supportive of others
ο be less judgmental of other people.
Benefits to the elderly
Cats can be of special benefit to elderly people, who often fail to feed themselves properly. Feeding their cat stimulates them to eat, too, and their cat provides them with company while they are doing so.
Elderly people moving into retirement homes would certainly benefit if they could take their pet cat with them, but this is often impractical. For that reason some retirement homes keep one or more cats for the benefit of the residents.