When and where felines went from wild animals to adored companions.
There’s no doubt cats are the world’s leading companion animal. Moreover, their domestic history on how they came to enjoy curling up on our laps and weaving between our legs has continued to fascinate scientists, historians and geneticists for generations.
Until the end of the 20th century, historians thought it was the ancient Egyptians in the New Kingdom period—c. 1570 to c. 1069 BCE1—who first depicted feline domesticity, which prompted people such as author Terry Pratchett to claim: “In ancient times, cats were worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this….”
However, more recent research that was independently undertaken by two of the world’s leading geneticists—Dr. Leslie Lyons, associate professor at University of Missouri School of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery, and Dr. Carlos A. Driscoll, World Wildlife Fund Chair of Conservation Genetics at the Wildlife Institute of India—is rewriting the history books. The studies involved taking hundreds of DNA samples from cats throughout the Middle East, Mongolia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and southern. It’s now thought that cats were first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent, the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers (also known as the Cradle of Civilization) some 6,000 years before the Egyptian era, thus setting the clock back 10,000 years.
Drs. Lyons and Driscoll’s research has also been supported by relatively recent archeological findings. A feline molar tooth was found in Israel and is believed to be about 9,000 years old and, from the same era, a skeleton of a young cat was found in person’s grave on the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea.
This latter discovery was made in 2004 by French archeologists Professor Jean Guilaine of the Centre d’Anthropologie in Toulouse, France, and Dr. Jean-Denis Vigne of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. It suggests that a human-animal bond existed between man and felines since cats were not indigenous to Mediterranean islands and thus must have been brought there as companion animals.
The History of Cats in America
It is thought that cats also traveled to America with discoverers such as Christopher Columbus and other adventurers. The Mayflower voyagers and the first residents of Jamestown are said to have brought cats with them to control vermin and act as symbols of good luck.
In the 1800s, although cats were primarily free-range pets—allowed to live in barns and catch their own food—many were finding their way to warm kitchen firesides and allowed to stay.
During this time, cats were becoming acceptable pets particularly for women and young girls, according to Katherine C. Grier, author of “Pets in America.” Families started including their pet cats in family portrait sittings and photograph sessions. Thus, they were sharing living space with families and playing a more prominent role in domestic life.
The first cat show, organized in London in 1871 by cat lover and author Harrison Weir, focused on introducing the British public to cats in general by highlighting their wonderful characteristics and promoting them as pets. Cat shows became very popular with the English and arrived on American shores around 1895.
From a domestic standpoint, however, cats’ role as the family mouser actually continued well into the 1950s in the U.S. After the end of WWII, when people were back to regular jobs and a more structured family life, small animal feed stores started introducing special beds and bowls for family pets and slowly began to cater for cats. Some even sold boxes and bags of sand so that cats wouldn’t have to go outside in inclement weather. It didn’t take long to train cats to use their indoor “facilities.”
The Invention of Kitty Litter
One of the most important inventions to affect feline domesticity was the introduction of kitty litter. In 1947, a salesman named Edward Lowe, who sold clay absorbents to garage owners in St. Paul, Minnesota, discovered the usefulness of fuller’s earth (a type of clay) for cat owners. His neighbor, Kay Draper had wanted some sand for her cat’s box; he offered her some of his absorbent clay instead. Draper was so excited with the results (it absorbed the smell of cat pee) that Lowe soon decided to market this new cat box filler and trademarked the words Kitty Litter.
Thanks to invention of litter, the progression from outdoors to an indoors-only lifestyle for cats accelerated. Most feline advocates now deem indoors-only to be a much safer existence for cats as it protects them from predators and diseases.
The Feline Revolution
Starting in the 1970s and ‘80s, people were no longer serving table scraps to their cats to supplement what they could catch. The manufacture of special food for cats and dogs that slowly started around the 1900s became a booming industry.
This decade also saw the birth of the feline-enrichment movement, which offered a wonderful selection of toys and household furniture items to improvement feline well-being and compensate for an indoors-only lifestyle.
As the calendar ticked over to the 21st century, scientists started researching the human-animal bond. Cats got an additional domestic boost when Adnan Qureshi, a neurology professor at the University of Minnesota, published a paper that stated the relative risk of death from heart attack was 40 percent higher in people who had never owned a cat. Simply put, it’s now a recognized that cats are good for our health.
Currently, 42.9 million American households have at least one pet cat, which translates into 85.8 million (domesticated) cats living in the United States, according to the American Pet Products Association (APPA) 2015-2016 National Pet Owners Survey. In 400-plus years, cats in the U.S. have progressed from being working vermin catchers to the country’s most populous companion animal.
1. Mark, J. (10/7/2016). “New Kingdom of Egypt.” Ancient History Encylopedia: https://www.ancient.eu/New_Kingdom_of_Egypt/
The NY Times
About the Author: Sandy Robins is the 2013 winner of the “Excellence in Journalism and Outstanding Contribution to the Pet Industry Award.” Her work appears on many of the country’s leading pet platforms, such as MSNBC.com, MSN.com and TODAYShow.com. She is a regular contributor and columnist in multiple national and international publications, including Cat Fancy, as well as the author of the award-winning books “Fabulous Felines: Health and Beauty Secrets for the Pampered Cat” and “For The Love of Cats.” Learn more about Sandy on her website or Facebook page. #welovecats