A Brief History of Cats: From the Wildcat to the House Cat

There are 600 million cats globally, so chances are good that one sits on your lap as you read this fascinating article.

As you look at your sleeping cat, have you ever wondered how much we, mere humans, know about the history of cats and where they came from?

How long have they been a part of our lives?

Is it the history of domesticated cats, or did they simply decide to include us in their lives?

What caused the transformation from the majestic and feral wildcat to your furry friend and cuddly companion?

These are questions that have puzzled scientists for years. They have led to much research and studies into the origin of cats and their bond with humans.

The Natural History of Cats: In the Beginning

For a long time, it was a widely held belief that cats originated in Egypt some 4,000 years ago.

However, there’s now DNA evidence showing that cats and humans have been living together for 12,000 years.

Talk about a long cat domestication history

An analysis of the genetic composition of 79 house cats and their ancestors from all over the world concluded that all domestic cats actually have a common descendant, the African wildcat called Felis silvestris lybica, or “cat of the woods.”

As the name suggests, the ancestors of your precious furball probably made the transition from the forest to people’s homes, from there to their hearts.  

There’s even more proof to dispute the Egyptian theory.

In 2004, a cat was discovered deliberately buried with a human in a 9,500-year-old neolithic grave in Cyprus.

As there are no native wildcats on this Mediterranean island, it’s safe to assume that cats must have been brought to the island. Thus, cats’ evolutionary history and domestication started much earlier than was initially thought. 

Today, it’s believed that wildcats started living with humans in the Middle East’s Fertile Crescent. This is an area of fertile land along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

The people who lived there settled into a life of agriculture—transitioning from being hunters and nomads to becoming farmers.

Farms and crops attracted rodents and vermin, which in turn attracted cats. Thus a beautiful relationship was born between felines and humans.

The History of Cats in Ancient Egypt: Gods and Cats

Everyone knows that the Egyptians worshipped felines as gods, but did you know that cats were so revered there that killing one was punishable by death? 

Like in the Middle East, Egyptian cat history shows they were “employed” by the ancient Egyptians as mouse-catchers.

They were in charge of protecting crops and stopping diseases from spreading among the people. 

They did a great job and raised the quality of life of Egyptians to a whole new level. Thus marking a turning point in the history of cats so much so that felines soon started to be seen as more than just useful animals, but as sacred creatures that represented life and prosperity.

And it wasn’t just ordinary people who held cats in high esteem.

Pharaohs were commonly buried with their cats. They believed that felines brought good luck and a safe journey to the afterlife. 

Moreover, archaeologists are still discovering hieroglyphics, pictures, and carvings of cats shown wearing expensive jewelry or taking up prominent positions, thus demonstrating their importance to this ancient civilization.

So even cat history proves it: felines were born to be adored.  

According to legend, cats were so beloved in Egypt that the Persian army carried cats with them when they fought the Egyptians, knowing that their archers would not fire and risk hurting the precious felines. 

The Egyptian goddess most associated with cats is Bastet, the goddess of love. She had the head of a cat and could also turn into one.

The festival dedicated to this goddess was one of the biggest and most celebrated in all of Egypt. According to the history of cats in Egypt, people showed their devotion to the goddess by leaving sculptures of cats in front of her temple. They even did so by mummifying felines. 

Based on archeological findings, there were many necropolises dedicated to cats. In fact, one discovered in Beni-Hassan was found to contain around 300,000 cat mummies. 

Cats Traveling the World: From Egypt to China and Beyond

Enjoying their popularity in Egypt wasn’t enough for the majesty of the cat.

The domestic cat evolution spread beyond Egypt, and felines soon started being sold to Greece, Persia, and even China. 

However, cat history facts note that China already had its own kind of domesticated cat 5,300 years ago, known as the leopard cat. This was a distant cousin of the African wildcat and thus one of the ancestors of the kitties we have and love today. 

Chinese felines, like their relatives, weren’t kept just for their looks.

As with the history of cat domestication on other continents, they earned their keep by protecting villages, food, and religious manuscripts from pests.

However, modern cats in China are descended from the wildcat. This means that at some point in the cat history timeline, F. silvestris lybica replaced the leopard cat in China.

This led to the spread of domestic cats in China, with other breeds such as the Siamese and the Burmese.

From China, cats moved to Japan and India as stowaways on ships. That is where the popular Burmese and Siamese cat history began

But Egyptian merchants didn’t just trade with the Far East. They’re also credited with bringing felines to Rome, where they were also used to ward off rats and disease. 

It was the Romans who introduced cats to Britain around 100 AD.

It seems that the role of cats throughout history has remained the same, because like other nations before them, the Britons also saw the value of felines as crop protectors and mouse catchers.

Like the Egyptians, they worshipped them as sacred animals, particularly in Wales, where felines were protected by law and beloved by kings. 

When the Romans left Britain, they also left a couple of cats behind who were picked up by the Vikings and taken to Norway.

From there, the cat traveled all over Europe. 

A Brief History of Cats in the Middle Ages: A Bad Time for Felines

Sadly, cats started to be associated with superstition and witchcraft during the Middle Ages. They were even seen as the “devil’s pet,” and black cat history was especially difficult.

No one is really sure why, but many believe that people distrusted the way cats hunt. 

Also, a cat’s wild nature couldn’t have been too helpful either. This attitude particularly intensified during the Black Plague.

As people all over Europe were dying from this terrible disease, the history of the cat took a downturn.

Felines were pronounced as the culprits, and millions were killed in bonfires, hung, or tortured. 

Ironically, the mass killing of cats actually helped spread the disease because it allowed rats to thrive and thus worsened the epidemic. Scholars now suggest that countless people could have survived the plague if cats had been spared. 

This was an unfortunate time for all cats, but black kitties had it the worst.

These felines have always had an image problem, but the history of black cats was darkest during the Middle Ages. 

During this difficult history of house cats, people believed that black cats were witches’ familiars who helped them do dark magic.

Some even thought that witches could turn into cats, so it wasn’t uncommon to burn felines along with those suspected of witchcraft. 

It wasn’t until the 1600s that cats stopped being seen as doing the devil’s work and were once again in people’s good graces all over Europe.

By then, felines had already made the brave journey to the New World. 

History of Cats in America: Settling in the New World

Early colonists started seeing the value of cats once again in the late 15th and throughout the 16th Century—despite still being persecuted in Europe. They gave them jobs on ships as rodent catchers, once again putting the cat evolution timeline back on track. 

It’s believed that Columbus brought cats with him to America, particularly the British Shorthair, which is rumored to be the ancestor of today’s very popular American Shorthair.

Cats seemed to have taken a liking to the New World, where they thrived and flourished. 

Felines even moved to the White House—a pinnacle in the history of domestic cats.

Abraham Lincoln was the first president to take two felines to Washington. His two companions, Tabby and Dixie, were the first two White House cats. 

He is also said to have loved kitties so much he even took in strays.

This started a tradition of other presidents bringing their cats to the White House with them.

Teddy Roosevelt’s cat, Slippers, known to fall asleep in the hallway, was also a famous White House cat. He enjoyed forcing guests at banquets to detour around her so as not to wake her.

Another famous White House cat was George W. Bush’s cat, India, the family pet cat. 

The History of Cats in the 20th Century

Regardless of their popularity, cats still weren’t treated as pets until the early 19th Century.

In fact, like dogs, they were employed by cowboys and even the US army.

The evolution of the cat from wandering mouse killers to furry companions happened gradually as more and more people started bringing them indoors. 

But the invention of certain technological and scientific developments, like fridges and kitty litter, was a turning point in the history of cats as pets. They turned felines into an integral and beloved member of households and families everywhere.


When did cats first appear on Earth?

No one is really sure how cats first appeared. Some theories indicate that both cats and dogs share a common ancestor, Miacis, a weasel-like animal that lived about 40 or 50 million years ago. 

The cat evolution tree reveals that cats belong to the Felidae family, whose evolution began 25 million years ago.

It produced 37 different species of cats, including lions, tigers, cheetahs, and the African wildcat, the ancestor of all domestic cats. 

Where did the first cat come from?

The first contact between humans and cats occurred almost 12,000 years ago when wildcats started hanging around farms in the Fertile Crescent, searching for food and shelter.

Farmers saw their skills and value in getting rid of rodents and protecting crops. Thus, an unbreakable bond was born between felines and people.

How are wildcats and domestic cats similar?

Despite thousands of years of cat evolution, wildcats and domestic cats are very similar.

In fact, the only thing setting them apart is the tabby coat pattern, which is characteristic of domestic felines only. 

Of course, domestic cat evolution has also changed them in other ways.

They aren’t as solitary as their cousins in the wild. They put up with humans and other animals (more or less), but some of that feral animal is still in them and comes out when they play or hunt. 

If you think that cat evolution has wholly removed your pet from its ancestors, just try disturbing it while it’s napping.

You’ll see that there’s no need for DNA evidence to determine his connection to the African wildcat.

Are cats given jobs?

Throughout history, cats have managed to hold down some jobs. Admittedly, not as many as dogs, but cats’ careers are still pretty diverse.

Cats have worked as station masters, astronauts, and spies. They’ve been elected mayor and even tried to deliver mail in Belgium (unsuccessfully).

But still, the primary role of cats throughout history is catching mice.

In fact, the British government employs around 10,000 cats to keep Downing Street a rat-free area.

There’s even the title of Chief Mouser, given to the cat that resides with the Prime Minister.

There’s been a Chief Mouser in England since the 1500s.

However, perhaps the most famous of them all is Larry. He was fired from his position for sleeping on the job, spending time with a neighborhood cat, and making just one confirmed kill. 

When did cats become house pets?

Although cats have been domesticated—i.e., they can live with humans—for as long as 12,000 years, the cats of early civilizations could hardly be called pets.

Felines started to be kept for company, in addition to their usefulness, around the start of the 19th Century.

By the end of World War I, they were found in many households worldwide. 

What are some of the myths and legends connected to cats?

Many people love cats, but perhaps none as much as the Japanese.

The history of cats in Japan is closely connected to the myth of the Maneki-Neko, or beckoning cat, which is commonly found at the entrance of shops, restaurants, and other businesses.

According to Japanese legend, one day a landlord saw a cat beckoning to him with its paw.

When he came close to the cat, lightning struck the place where he had just been standing.

The landlord believed that the cat was responsible for his good luck, and since then, the Maneki-Neko is believed to bring good fortune. 

Not all legends throughout the entire history of cats reflect favorably on them.

For instance, people in England believed for centuries that cats stole the breath of babies.

At one time it was even thought that felines could make beer go sour or that stepping on a cat’s tail means you won’t get married that year. 

Bottom Line 

Cats have been through a lot: from being revered as gods and good luck charms to becoming associated with disease and witchcraft.

However, if there’s one takeaway from the rich and captivating history of cats, it’s that felines have always had a special place in the lives of humans and will likely continue to be a big part of their homes and hearts in the future. 

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