In true cat fashion, doing the stray cat strut, felines took it upon themselves to waltz into our lives and stick around. They domesticated themselves, and, as usual when it comes to cats, humans didn’t get a say in the matter. In fact, cats kept themselves as distant companions to humans for thousands of years before they decided to invite themselves in and sleep on our couches and beds.

Scientists and researchers studied the lineage of today’s domesticated cats to determine when and where they came from. Since wild cats are solitary creatures, territorial hunters, and don’t have a hierarchical social structure, felines are an odd choice for domestication. So what happened?

Wild cats lived alongside humans for thousands of years before humans remotely influenced the breeding process. These wild cats were drawn to rodents, pests, and other small (easy) prey gathering where humans were – farms, docks, and villages. It’s probably no coincidence that cats showed up around the same time that farming and agriculture began. This led to a mix of village, barn, and ship cats, crossed with wild cats.

cat in wood fence

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“Accordingly, the domestication process seemingly has not profoundly altered the morphological, physiological, behavioural and ecological features of cats, in contrast to what has been observed, for example, for dogs,” authors noted in the 2017 publication of Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Domesticated cats are now nearly everywhere in the world, but can be traced back to two lineages – mostly from an area known as the Fertile Crescent in the Near East Neolithic period and, later, ancient Egypt in the Classical period. Though wild cats are found all over the world, only one of the five subspecies was domesticated – the North African and Southwest Asian Felis silvestris lybica. Researchers suspect this happened about 9,500 years ago.

“Current hypotheses about early cat domestication are grounded in scanty evidence when compared to other domesticated animals. A complete skeleton found in Cyprus in association with a human burial dated to around 7500 BC suggests that cats were probably tamed by early Neolithic sedentary communities that had been growing cereals in SWA, concomitant with the emergence of commensal rodents. Similarly, the skeletons of six cats in an elite Predynastic cemetery in Egypt, around 3700 BC, may suggest a close cat–human relationship in early ancient Egypt,” stated the authors in Nature.

tabby cat

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Tabby cats, featuring a blotched coat pattern, were technically the first domesticated house cat, dating back to roughly 1,500 years ago in Southwest Asia. Striped tabby cats, however, were found in the wild more than 8,500 to 9,000 years ago.

“It was only in the 18th century AD that the blotched markings were common enough to be associated with the domestic cat by Linnaeus, and physical traits started to be selected only in the 19th century AD for the production of fancy breeds. Thus, both our data and recent genomic data suggest that cat domestication in its early stages may have affected mainly some behavioural features, and distinctive physical and aesthetic traits may have been selected for only recently,” reported the authors of the cat origins analysis published in Nature.

While no hard evidence exists regarding the first house cat, cats have moved in and out of the lives of humans over the years in a variety of ways – from utilitarians to gods to demons to lap warmers.

Ancient Egyptians exalted their cats. According to The Stanley Medical Research Institute, about 3,500 years ago, cults worshiped a cat as a goddess, and many cats were mummified when they died.

Egyptian cat goddess

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“DNA sequencing from an Egyptian mummy found T. gondii DNA sequences in 20135. Herodotus noted the Egyptian fondness for cats when he visited in 450 BCE. The Egyptians attempted to restrict the distribution of cats to other countries and prohibited their export,” according to The Stanley Medical Research Institute.

It’s reported that in the 14th century, the king of England requested “all English vessels to have a cat on board for pest control.” Still, the earliest records of cats as house pets weren’t until the mid-18th century, thanks to writers and artists. At this point, cats were seen as intellectuals and were often featured in advertising. But cats weren’t selectively bred for certain characteristics or desired features until the 19th century, creating the Russian blue and Maine coon breeds.

Russian blue cat

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In the 19th century, cats were still roaming the docks, villages, and barns, helping to keep the rodent population under control. But the value of having felines around was more well recognized. According to The Stanley Medical Research Institute, a gold miner in 1850 wrote about how cats were in high demand due to the overflow of mice in town. “The whole town is overrun with mice, and they destroy a deal of property for us….We were at once offered an ounce of gold dust for every pound the cat weighed.”

As humans realized the potential for another great furry friendship, the love for cats spread far and wide, and today’s domesticated house cat was born. Since domesticated cats stayed so close to their wild ancestors for thousands of years, the lack of breeding created a reduced susceptibility to genetic diseases. This has led to cats typically living longer than dogs.

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