Cats are everywhere, more popular than ever, purring their way into the hearts of millions. But how did this relationship start? Where did cats really come from and how did they become one of humanity’s most beloved companions?
From cat shows to cat memes you can’t go anywhere without seeing felines, both funny and sophisticated.
Our feline friends are all descendants of the North African / Southwest Asian wildcat, Felis silvestris lybica which literally means “cat of the woods.” According to The Library of Congress these cats originated in the Fertile Crescent during the Neolithic period and later in Egypt during the Classical period.
It is estimated that cats and humans have been interacting for at least 10,000 years. When agriculture and farming changed the landscape of the planet, grain stores attracted rodents and then the stealthy hunting cat became a welcome hero.
According to National Geographic, cats were not even fully domesticated during the first encounters with humans, but they slowly adapted and essentially domesticated themselves, according to a study by Claudio Ottoni of the University of Leuven.
So, in a way you could say that cats actually adopted us. Once the alliance was made and people began choosing cats with impressive traits for breeding, the adaptation went even further with the dozens of resulting cat breeds today.
Cats made their way around the world via trade routes and ships, protecting rations and other items from rodents and other pests. Seafaring merchants, pirates and even Vikings were known to bring cats to ports worldwide.
For decades, it has been believed by researchers that cats were domesticated in Egypt 4,000 years ago, but new DNA map findings and a 2004 discovery in Cyprus of a human buried with a cat changed that estimate to 9,500 years.
Science and history show the origins of the cat-human bond, but how did domestic cats go from being barn dwelling farm hands to some of the worlds most prized possessions?
The journey has been a strange one ranging from the famed Egyptian cat worship to the medieval belief that cats were the cohorts of witches and heretics.
In Egypt cats were all the rage in part because of their beauty, but another being that they protected the home from potentially deadly intruders such as snakes or scorpions. The cat headed goddess Bastet was worshipped as a fierce protector of Egypt.
During ancient times cats were highly popular in China, Egypt and Rome. But by the Middle Ages in Europe the cat was viewed as tolerable as a tool but not as a pet. The church of the time associated cats with pagan faith and rituals. Cats were often viewed as being in league with the devil and they wouldn’t regain good standing until the Age of Enlightenment.
Over time cats and human communication grew into a symbiotic relationship that has led to the cat being one of the top favorite pets of all time. As cats and humans have adapted to each other and grown closer in proximity, they have created a sort of language that carries on thru generations.
This process is known as socialization and it takes place gradually as the feline gets more and more comfortable around people and learning to trust.
According to Psychology Today there is a certain window of time during a kitten’s development that determines a cat’s tolerance of people. When a kitten is handled by humans during the 2–7-week long period after being born they learn to be affectionate with humans. If they miss this crucial step will be unlikely to establish a relationship with humans.
There are many variables that will determine a cat’s personality. The interactions a kitten has with different humans will affect the different traits they develop. Some cats will be more independent and aloof and others will be cuddlier.
It might be easy to say that cats don’t really show affection, they just appreciate a source of food and water. But research has shown that cats are actually more responsive to their owner’s voice than a stranger and that they prefer to interact with their owner over others.
Some science studies have shown that cats can in fact develop affection for their owners. This is dependent on the amount of time and affection the cat is shown, however. By showing the cat attention, playing and giving treats a cat owner can strengthen the feline-human bond.
Having a cat around can also be good for the health of the human. The use of a therapy cat is growing by bounds in popularity. Therapy cats are specially trained to help patients in recovery or who are suffering from anxiety and high blood pressure. It turns out just the presence of a cat can literally relax us.
In fact, research has shown that cats can even be healing for us. One study suggests that people who have owned cats are more likely to survive a heart attack than people who never owned one. Another study confirms that a cat’s presence can release dopamine and serotonin which improve immune functions.
According to science cats are really only partly domesticated and share a high percentage of DNA from their wild cousins…much more than dogs. Overtime the adaptation of cats to humans has tamed them enough that they will seek out attention from humans and have developed a large capacity for receiving affection according to Psychology Today. This is part of why cats have become so beloved by people, they love to be loved. Or at least admired, it seems.
Cats are beautiful and humans have been breeding cats with desired traits for thousands of years and currently there are between 40-70 recognized cat breeds. Leonardo da Vinci wrote, “The smallest feline is a masterpiece.” With their various coats of many colors, some with long hair, short hair or no hair. Cats have round faces, large eyes and small noses which may also trigger a “cuteness” response similar to when we see a human baby.
Another interesting find according to Psychology Today is that having a cat around can release oxytocin which can bring about the “being in love” feeling.
One of the most endearing and mysterious things about felines is the purr. While we usually associate purring with happiness and satisfaction, science now shows the vocalization is likely a communication mechanism that is also present during times of pain or duress. Scientific American states that purring is not always a sign of pleasure or contentment and the subject is still under debate.
The love of felines has grown to include cat shows where the best breeders in the country show off their gorgeous pets. From the hairless Sphynx to the fluffiest Himalayan there is always something fun to see.
One of the first cat shows was held at London’s Crystal Palace in July of 1871. Artist and founder of the UK National Cat Club, Harrison Weir was the first to set standard for different cat breeds. The show included between 150-200 cats and was attended by over 200,000 guests. A new way to admire cats was born.
Cats have spread worldwide to an estimate worldwide population of between 200 million to 600 million. In the United States today, there are more cats per home than dogs and the number is growing.
One reason is people love an independent pet, one that can take care of themselves and don’t need a lot of extra work because people today are busy! People love dogs but they don’t always have the time to give a dog the amount of attention it needs, while a cat is able to withstand much longer periods of solitude. You may get snubbed for a moment but it will pass.
Another reason is they make a good “surrogate family” for single people with busy schedules.
There are some good and bad stereotypes about cat people. One is that cat lovers are more intelligent than dog lovers. Another is that those who favor felines tend to be more neurotic and less sociable.
Some things do appear to be typical of the feline friendly. Cat owners are more likely to live alone and to live in an apartment. Dog owners tend to live in houses. Cat people tend to prefer the city while dog owners prefer the rural scene.
The stereotype of the “crazy cat lady” is beginning to wane as more and more people find out just how amazing cats really are. The idea that cats are aloof, uncaring and stoic are also fading as science learned more about cat behavior and psychology.
There is still a lot of research being done to find out more about where cats originated, how they adapted to humans, how their DNA has spread worldwide and how their interactions with us affect them, us and the planet.
From gods of Egypt to European farmhands to American friends, cats and humans have had quite an amazing story together and it will only continue because the love of cats isn’t going away any time soon. It seems that not only did cats domesticate themselves, but they have somehow trained us too!