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Cat & Kitten

The Domestication Of Cats

Val Cairney June 14, 2024 15


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Feral cat sitting outside barn. Image used for The Domestication of Cats feature image.

Hi everyone, and welcome to Val Talk’s Pets.  In this edition, I will dive into the history behind the domestication of cats. The domestication seems to have gone very well based on the popularity of having a cat or cats. But how did they become pets?  

How long have cats been around?

Cats are mammals and come in many varieties from your common house cat to fancy purebred cats.  Our little carnivores have been around for a long time.  But how long?  There is evidence that the world had wild cats roaming different areas.  For example, the Scottish Wildcat roamed the north of Britain up in the Highlands of Scotland for centuries.  Unfortunately, the Scottish Wildcat over the centuries has bred with domestic cats and this has “rendered the animal genomically extinct.” (Science.org)

As science.org points out, “Starting in the mid-1950s, more than 5% of the genetic markers in Scottish wildcats began to resemble those of domestic cats.  After 1997, that figure jumped to as high as 74%.”  As science.org states, “The Scottish wildcat has been wiped out by breeding with domestic cats.  After 2000 years of isolation, a few decades of interbreeding have rendered the animal genomically extinct.”  Today there is the Royal Zoological Society’s Saving Wildcats Project.

Wildcats have been evidenced in many parts of the world.  Many experts believe all domestic cats “descended from a Middle Eastern wildcat,  Felis Sylvestris, which means “cat of the woods”. (Smithsonian Magazine). This is so funny, we all know Sylvester and Felix (sounds like Felis) were cats. I think someone was doing their homework when these cartoon characters were created. 

When did cats become domesticated?

Cat sitting with owner in front of a log burner

Smithsonian Magazine writes “Cats were first domesticated in the Near East, and some of the study authors speculate that the process began up to 12,000 years ago.”  Well, there we have it!  Cats easily began being part of the human domestic world at least 12,000 years ago.  Smithsonian points out, that once humans began to settle into farming and housing, storing grains, etc. cats showed up because mice were becoming more prevalent, hence the symbiotic relationship of cats controlling pests.

Carlos Driscoll, an author of a study in a research journal entitled Science, stated,  “We think what happened is that cats sort of domesticated themselves.”  Cats joined the domestication party bringing their great hunting prowess and some very likable traits and people wholeheartedly embraced these little carnivores enjoying their company and respecting the work they were doing. 

We know that the Egyptians revered cats and Ancient Romans, as the Smithsonian points out, held a reverence as well.  Unfortunately, as the Smithsonian states, “For some reason, however, cats came to be demonized in Europe during the Middle Ages. They were seen as being affiliated with witches and the devil. Many were killed to ward off evil (ironically helping spread the plague, which was carried by rats).  Not until the 1600s did the public image of cats begin to rally in the West.”  Check out my episode on Cats and Their Mysterious Behavior.

Where did cats originate from?

Today’s cats originated from the African Wildcat about 10 to 12 thousand years ago. According to different studies Cats made themselves quite welcome with their hunting skills and ability to join into domesticity. I can see that! 

Today we are familiar with the “average cat”, but there are also purebred cats. I often wonder how these “breeds” came to be when cats originated from the African Wildcat.  According to cat-world.com, “Domestic cats spread across the globe along well-established trade routes of merchants forming distinct landraces (a locally adapted species of animal who has adapted to its environment over time.) 

image of an African Wildcat

As cats ended up in different parts of the world, they adapted. The Norwegian Forest cats have a long thick coat to handle cold weather for example. Some cats like those that arrived in Asia, “remained isolated. This is shown by their genetic differences compared to European and African cats.”   As cat-world states, “Breeds that have come out of Asia include the Siamese, Korat, Birman and Burmese cats.” 

“According to UC Davis Veterinary Medicine, there are eight distinct domestic cat racial groups. Western Europe, Egypt, East Mediterranean, Iran/Iraq, India, South Asia, East Asia.” (Cat-world.com.) My understanding of this information is that cats migrated to different parts of the world. Adapting to the climate and food, they adopt traits that helped them in these environments.  As humans started to get involved the idea of breeding for traits probably took hold.

When did cat shows begin?

According to cat-world, “the very first cat show was held at St. Giles Fair in Winchester, the UK in 1598 although there is very little information about this cat show.  There was no award for best “breed”, instead there were awards for best ratter or best mouser.”  I would hate to know how this was determined.

Held by New England Farmers in the 1860s, the Maine Coon was the first breed exhibited in the United States. They competed for the title of Maine State Champion Coon cat at the local Skowhegan Fair. “The first modern-day cat show in the UK, took place at the Crystal Palace, London, in July 1871.” (cat-world.com). In Canada, according to thecanadianencyclopedia.ca, “The first recorded (cat) show, a 2-day event with one officiating judge was held in 1906 in Toronto.”

Today there are many cat fancier organizations and cat shows, just as there are breeds.  According to catster.com the most popular cat breeds in 2024 are: Ragdoll, Maine Coon, Devon Rex, Exotic Shorthair, and Persian. I have “spotlight” episodes on the Ragdoll and the Maine Coon if you want to learn more about these breeds.  The most popular cat breed in the world for 2024 is the Ragdoll coming in first for four years straight.

What are Feral Cats?

Now one thing that is important to talk about is the huge overpopulation of cats.  Cats are pretty good at breeding and it doesn’t take long before you have kittens having kittens.  Many cats begin life as feral. Without human intervention, the kittens are raised in abandoned buildings, fields, or under a dumpster. A feral will not want human contact and once an adult, it may never adapt to living with a human. As cats.com writes, “Although they are wild, feral cats are still technically domesticated cats.”

These cats have had no human contact and how they ended up in this cycle is usually through being born to a feral or stray cat and then the kittens are raised feral.  Now, a stray cat will be a cat that has had a home but for many reasons ends up outside fending for itself.  Stray cats will often join a feral cat colony.  As they say, strength in numbers.  So although feral cats are products of domesticated cats, they are considered wild.

Do feral cats do well in shelters?

Feral Cat in a shelter

For this reason, feral cats do not do well at a shelter.  As cat.com states, “This is why trapping them and trying to surrender them to a shelter is not an ideal thing to do to help them.  Sadly, many cats that arrive at shelters will be euthanized due to limited funding and overcrowding.  And surrendering a feral cat deemed unadoptable often seals this fate.”  What many organizations do, however, is trap the adults, get them spayed or neutered, and then return them to the colony.  If there are kittens that have been weaned, the rescuers will take the kittens into foster and these cats will be able to be socialized and adopted.  The adults however will not. 

How do you know if a cat is feral?

On occasion, a stray will be noticed in a feral colony as it will have learned to meow when it sees a human and maybe will be more engaging seeing a human.  Also, as cats.com, mentions, “Life on the streets is very tough on a stray cat who once had a roof over their head and always knew where their next meal was coming from.  And their coat certainly reflects their desperation.  Feral cats, however, appear well-groomed, with shiny coats that are well cared for.”  This is the difference between knowing how to live outside and dealing with living outside.

Even though feral cats do not do well in a shelter, sometimes it is possible to rehabilitate a feral, but it will take a lot of patience, understanding, and love.  I’ll tell you my feral cat story. 

My feral cat story

When I was about 18 years old, living in the city, we had a garage where the door would not quite shut completely.  One day I saw this big grey cat going under the door and into the garage.  I went into the side man door and if the cat was in there, he either hid or shot out before I could see him.  Anyway, I kept seeing this guy going into the garage and after a bit of time I snuck into the side door and there he was lying on the top of the car.  Of course, as soon as he saw me he slowly got up and shot out the door.  So, I started leaving him food and eventually, he’d let me stay watching him while he ate, and over several months he let me touch his head. 

Was this cat feral?  Or was he a stray that became feral? 

Feral Cat on a car

He was big, a real tom cat, unneutered. Very possibly a feral.  Well, the time came that changed the tide when I went to feed him. He was lying in the car and had a terrible gash across his head, between his ears.  He let me pick him up and take him inside.  I cleaned his wound and put an antiseptic on it and then a bandage.  He had surrendered.  He wanted help.  I kept doctoring his wound and it healed. We got to know each other better.  Then on a hot summer night with the windows open, he created a big hole in the screen and let himself out.   I found him back in the garage. 

You would think that was the end of the story, but it wasn’t.  I took him back inside, fed him, bathed him, and set him back up with comfy blankets.  This time it stuck. The vet neutered him and gave him shots and that cat became my person.  He was an amazing cat and I’m so glad he came into my life.  He was big and grey and pretty feral at the time.  I named him Greystoke, like Lord Greystoke, Legend of Tarzan.  
According to cats.com, “Animal rescue experts categorize these wild house cats into three distinct groups: feral, semi-feral, and socialized.”  Maybe Greystoke was semi-feral.  If he was, he embraced being a house kitty.

What are Barn Cats?

In my area, many people have what is called barn cats.  These are colonies of cats that live in someone’s barn. Their job is to keep the mice down, just like how their ancestors ingratiated themselves to humans in the first place.  Barn cats have a wide level of care depending on the humans.  Some barn cats are well cared for and get good food, are spayed or neutered, have their shots, and are generally looked after.

Other barn cats get low-end food but at least are spayed or neutered.  Some barn cats get food but that’s about it so you will often hear of barn cats with kittens.  And then of course more kittens and more kittens and a source of contribution to the cat overpopulation. Some barn cats are quite socialized and some are more semi-feral.  Life for a barn cat is a crap shoot.  It depends on how they lucked out with the particular barn they showed up to. 

Summary

So, it is interesting to see how cats have evolved from wild cats into cuddly companions.  Cats are resilient as they make the best of things when life throws them a curve.  Feral cats tap into their ancestral memories live off the land and take care of themselves like their ancestors did.  Cats that end up going from a couch to the streets, may not fare as well as their feral cousins but they do survive. 

Either way, cats have been with us for at least 12,000 years, so they must be doing something right.  Check out my episode on animals in war and you can read about some cats that became pretty well-known for their efforts during both great wars.  See, it’s amazing what cats can do!  And if you want a fun read about cats, check out my episode on cats and their mysterious ways.  You may find some answers to why your cat does certain things, because as I say, knowing is caring. 

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Val
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Val Cairney

Hi everyone, and welcome to Val Talk’s Pets, the forum for pet parents and enthusiasts alike. So, I have been working in the pet industry now for almost 10 years and, on a daily basis, I handle a lot of issues and questions arising from pet parents. I am not a veterinarian but I do have certifications in Canine, Feline, Small Animal, Fish and Herptile and Avian Health and Nutrition from the University of California, Davis Extension, the Vet College.

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