It’s estimated that around 28% of households in the UK have at least one pet cat, and if you’re reading this, we’re going to guess that you might have a cat or two as well. But have you ever wondered how cats come to be pets in the first place? We were pretty curious, so for this week’s blog we’re investigating how cats became household pets and earned their spots on our sofas.
A Long Long Time Ago…
Studies have found that cats existed alongside us humans for thousands of years before ever being domesticated. It’s been suggested that the initial domestication of cats could have begun around 12,000 years ago (according to one 2007 study). Around this time, people started to settle and form agricultural societies in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, which is where the relationship between humans and cats began.
When we switched from hunter gatherer lifestyles and instead settled down and established societies based upon agriculture, we humans began to exist side by side with cats. Agriculture meant crops like grain needed to be stored, which attracted rodents. Cats came to be seen as useful creatures as they could protect the grain, and humans would have allowed them to hang around.
From here, cats basically domesticated themselves (and we’re not surprised). They adapted to keep the most people-pleasing traits, and eventually became a regular part of people’s lives.
One 2017 study suggested that there were two strains of wildcats that eventually came to be domesticated: those in the Middle East, and those in Africa. It suggests that the cats of ancient Egypt originally descended from African wildcats, then spreading to the Mediterranean and beyond.
It wasn’t just in agricultural communities that cats first made themselves at home. In 1983, cat bones were discovered by archaeologists in Cyprus that were believed to date back around 8000 years. Wild cats weren’t present in Cyprus which led scientists to assume that any cats brought over to the island of Cyprus at this time would have been domesticated.
Cats became popular features on ships throughout history because they served an important purpose: keeping the rodent population down. Rats and mice on ships can cause chaos, damaging food supplies and cargo as well as vital elements of the ship, like ropes. Since ancient times, the “ship’s cat” has kept sailors company on voyages which also contributed to the geographical spread of domesticated cats, as they travelled along common trade routes.
The domesticated cats that now share our sofas haven’t really changed much at all: genetically they’re almost the same as their wildcat ancestors. While the dog’s journey from wolf to domesticated pet is a long and sometimes complex jump, our pet cats are really pretty similar to the wildcats that roamed around the Middle East and Africa in ancient times. All of which goes to show that cats knew they were perfect from the very start.