How we domesticated the cat

Our relationship with the African wildcat is ancient, but our attitudes to its domesticated descendants have been in constant flux.

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According to recent DNA studies by Carlos Driscoll in the USA, the domestic cat split from its wild ancestor, the African wildcat Felis silvestris lybica, about 10,000 years ago. The original moggies were probably opportunists, attracted by easy pickings in the form of the rats and mice infesting mankind’s earliest grain stores.

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Domestication proper came much later, in Egypt about 4,000 years ago. Cats were initially valued for their ability to kill rodents and venomous snakes, but tomb paintings show that many of these felines were also household pets and a part of family life.

Around 2,500 years ago, cats became sacred animals in Egypt and were incorporated into religious cults – particularly as attendants of Bastet, the lion (later, cat) goddess. The resultant demand for cats as votive offerings gave rise to commercial catteries, where cats were bred in their millions. Their necks were ritually broken and then they were mummified.

This practice may seem utterly barbaric to modern sensibilities. Yet the ancient Egyptians also protected cats in law and doted on their pets, encapsulating
our inconsistent attitudes to domestic cats.

From Egypt, seafarers spread domestic cats around the world (their arrival in England dates back to the Iron Age). For the next 1,000 years, cats were highly valued as pest controllers. In eighth-century Welsh law, the set price for an adult cat was the same as that for a full-grown sheep.

Between the 13th and 17th centuries, there were several periods in which cats became associated with witchcraft and devil worship. Few people dared to keep domestic cats, the survival of which must have depended on half-wild, feral individuals.

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In the British Isles, cats did not become popular as pets again until the late 18th century. There are now an estimated 10.3 million pet cats in the UK; a quarter of households have at least one.