Cats are amazing, just wanted to highlight that particular bias before we jump in…
The history of cats and humans
“The Cat that Walked by Himself” by Rudyard Kipling tells of how the cat made a pact with woman and domesticated itself. Whilst the just so story may not have been how things went down in terms of cat domestication, it’s not the kind of thing we have records of. Instead we have to make educated guesses based on fossil and gene evidence.
We know that about 10-11 million years ago the ancestral cat split off into different species, ranging from the lions to tigers to jaguars and so on. Then, 10,000 years ago, the domestication process took place. This was around the same time that humans were settling down and the agricultural revolution was taking place. Alongside the cat, other species were also being domesticated including cows, goats, pigs, sheep, chick peas, peas, lentils, olives, wheat and barley. All of this was taking place in the fertile crescent, an area of land, predictably crescent shaped, which curves through modern-day southern Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and northern Egypt.
It is theorised that as we settled into farming, and hence growing and storing crops that mice like, cats came closer and closer to human settlements. Over time we realised they were good for keeping pests under control and they realised we were good for easy food sources. And slowly they became domesticated. But not all cats were tamable so it was particular types of cats that were the forerunner to the kitty cat we know today. As with the domestication of the dog, pet cats are smaller than wild cats, probably because they don’t need to grow so big to survive. That said, in all other ways, they are almost identical to wild cats, its just the scale that has really changed.
By 7500 BC, we know that cats were buried in human graves in Cyprus, an island where there are no naturally occurring cats so it is assumed that humans intentionally introduced them.
Jumping to ancient Egypt, we find cats being worshipped as symbols of femininity, fertility, pregnancy and motherhood. Tom cats are depicted in ancient Egyptian art as a manifestation of Ra, the sun god, destroying the serpent of darkness. We have Sekhment, a goddess with human body and lionesses head and Bastet, half hippo, half lioness. We also find examples of cats being mummified as offerings to the goddesses.
By 1200 BC, at least the Egyptian aristocracy were keeping cats in their homes and when they died, cats were mourned. If you were to harm a cat, you’d pay the cost and would likely get mobbed by a gang in the street. Egyptians felt very strongly about their cats and when Persians attacked, they threw cats at the Egyptian city to demoralise them.
In Ancient Greece, ferrets were used for pest control instead of cats so there was a slightly different relationship to that of the Egyptians. Cats were slow to expand out of the middle east but there is evidence of them being kept as pets in Greece.
By the middle ages, the reign of the cat was over. No longer worshipped and revered, the cat had become a target of hatred. The Christian church had made the cat a target, possibly as a scapegoat when they were trying to convert pagans to the new religion. Organised persecution became to occur, justified by saying that the devil was in cats and they were killed en masse, such as in a village in Belgium where there was a regular fete involving throwing cats from a tower. Cats were also burned alive and killed in other horrific ways.
There was also the association with witchcraft and cats suffered there as well. At this point in history we were far removed from the cat as goddess and now in a time where the cat was the devil himself. The cat, with it’s tendency to cross between domestic and wild realms, may have unsettled people at the time and challenged the natural law and separation of man and beast as they saw it. The cat was also associated with unbridled feminine sexuality and, as happens still today, patriarchy likes to quash that as it threatens the system.
In the 17th century, it was identified that cats were a source of allergy and asthma attacks.
By the 18th century, the emerging middle class came to the rescue of cats and started keeping them as pets.
As science developed in the 1800s, animals were beginning to be seen in a different light. Industrialisation meant they were no longer a commodity as such and we were able to start forming different relationships with them. Industrialisation also meant that certain groups in society had more time to spend looking after pets and so pet ownership in general increased at this time.
Over the 20th century, developments in medication, in flea treatments and vaccines made it easier for us to bring cats into our homes and the burgeoning pet industry made it easier for us to meet their needs. Interestingly the number of cats as pets overtook dogs in the mid 1980s, perhaps because more people were working longer and cats were seen as more amiable to that lifestyle.
Today, in the 21st century, there are millions of cat owners and cat lovers across the world and we are back to loving this wonderful creature. So much so that the internet is filled with cat videos and memes.
Cats today can be categorised into:
- Feral and strays – in the US there are almost as many feral cats as there are owned cats
- Outdoor owned cats, such as farm and barn cats
- Indoor/ outdoor cats
- Indoor only cats – purebreds tend to be indoor only
Cats are hunters. They are obligate carnivores and they need to eat meat. They are built to hunt. So it is no surprise that when they can, they hunt and kill. You might think that little sooty is not going to kill anything because she is an indoors only cat who is well fed but trust me, she’s probably attacked at least a spider or a mouse. Anyway, because of this, when they get outside, they go after local wildlife, including species that we don’t want them to. They don’t know that that yummy looking bird is endangered, they are just fulfilling their biological drive.
In Australia, where cats are not native and the local wildlife has not had time to adapt and evolve to defend themselves from cats, cat curfews exist.
Cats were introduced to the area about 200 years ago by European settlers and bred and spread rapidly across the Australian continent and New Zealand. According to one estimate, the approximately 20 million cats in Australia kill around 75 million native animals a day.
Australia is thought to have one of the worst extinction records in the world, losing about 29 native mammal species since the European arrival. It now lists some 1,800 species as under threat.
– The Independent (2015)
The cat as wildlife killer creates conflict between wanting to protect vulnerable species and wanting to let the cat carry out its natural behaviour. Some people argue that all cats should be kept indoors to protect birds and other prey but this ignores the fact that cats will kill in the house, whether it’s a mouse in the kitchen or a bat in the loft space. I’m not going to go into the details right now but cats are built to kill and their skills are pretty impressive! If you want to know more about how cats hunt, or about cats more generally, have a look at the Cats in Context symposium.