Cats and People

In Maps101 by mapsbecky

Snuggle Relationship Child Together Cat Friendship

For thousands of  years, human beings and pet cats have enjoyed each other’s company. A recent study is attempting to understand where and why that relationship started.

Are you are a dog person or a cat person?

Some people think you can know what a person is like based on whether they prefer dogs or cats.  There are people who claim that dog owners are friendlier than cat owners. Others say that cat owners are smarter than dog owners.

Actually, it is hard to tell what people will be like based on their preference between cats and dogs. Research shows that people tend to prefer the kind of pet with which they were raised. A person who is raised in a small apartment is more likely to have a cat as a pet growing up. As a result, this person may think he or she is a “cat person.” Someone raised on a farm in the country is more likely to have a dog as a pet, because there is more space, so he or she may be thought of as a dog person.

In other cases, preference is based on culture.

“If you were born in Saudi Arabia, you’re more likely to be a cat person,” explains Harold Herzog, a scientist who studies relationships between humans and animals. “Dogs there are very rarely pets because they’re considered vermin.”

Some people who think of themselves as cat people say they enjoy cats’ independent nature, and that they still have much in common with wildcats. For many, this is part of their appeal.

The results of a recent study highlight the domestic cat’s reputation as remaining somewhat wild and independent even after they are kept as pets. Researchers found that modern cats are scientifically not very different from wildcats. It also seems like cats became pets by their own choice, and not because they were captured and tamed by humans.

Cats and Mice

Modern-day pet cats, no matter how different they appear, all descend from a subspecies of wildcat that lived in northern Africa or the Middle East. This cat ancestor is called by the scientific name Felis silvestris lybica. The word felis is Latin for cat, while silvestris is Latin for forest or woods. The word lybica refers to Libya, a country in the north of Africa. Thus this ancestor was a cat that lived in the woods of Libya.

Researchers wanted to examine the DNA of cats who have lived within the past 9,000 years. Unfortunately, they discovered that finding cat remains isn’t easy.

“Cat remains are scarce,” points out Eva-Maria Geigl, one of the authors of the study. A main reason for this is that unlike domestic chickens or pigs, cats were not kept to be eaten. As a result, the bones of ancient cats did not end up in ancient trash heaps as did those bones of farm animals.

However, after much work, researchers were able to collect the bones, teeth, or hair of over 350 ancient cats. Some of these included cat mummies from Egypt, where ancient people revered cats as gods. Of the 350 cats, the researchers were able to collect the DNA they needed from about 200 cats.

The researchers found that cats first started living around human settlements in the Fertile Crescent about 8,000 ago. They proved to be useful. Rodents were a problem for farmers. They still are. Rats and mice can infect farm feed and water with disease germs. These germs can harm both animals and people. Cats are excellent hunters of rodents. Ancient farmers valued them for helping to control vermin. The cats valued humans, too. Farms attracted plenty of tasty mice and rats, so cats had a reliable source of food.

“This is probably how the first encounter between humans and cats occurred,” explains Claudio Ottoni, another author of the study. “It’s not that humans took some cats and put them inside cages.”

As farming spread from the Fertile Crescent into Europe about 6,000 years ago, the cats followed.

Cats in Ancient Egypt

Along with this line of cats from the Middle East, the researchers found a second line of cats from Africa. Wildcats moved north into Egypt where they became a valued part of Egyptian society. While people in the Fertile Crescent were more interested in cats’ ability to control rodents, researchers found that Egyptians were also drawn to the animal because of its social nature and tameness. The researchers concluded that it was the Egyptians who changed the role of cat from feline exterminator to cuddly pet.  Of course, they still were helpful hunters of vermin, too!

Cats from the Egyptian line spread into Europe during the Middle Ages. These cats came along when their owners took them on trade expeditions by ship, in order to help keep at bay the pesky rodents on board. For example, researchers found descendants of the Egyptian cats at a Middle Ages Viking trading port on the Baltic Sea in northern Germany.

While ancient farmers in the Fertile Crescent valued cats for their ability to keep down mice and rat populations, researchers think that the idea of cats as lovable pets arose later on in Egypt. Pictured is bronze cast of a kitten crouching on a long box dated to between 664-30 BCE in Egypt.

Pictured is an Egyptian bronze cast of a kitten crouching on a long box, dated to between 664-30 B.C.E.

Wild Animals or Pets?

While a pet cat looks a lot different than a lion, tiger, or jaguar, the study found that there are actually very few genetic differences between domestic cats and their wild relatives. One key difference, however, involves markings. Modern house cats often have distinctive stripes or dots, but wildcats do not.

Researchers learned that the dotted or striped coats common to tabby cats did not appear until thousands of years after cats were first starting to be domesticated. These fur patterns first arose during the Middle Ages. The first tabby coats appeared in southwest Asia, later becoming common in Europe and Africa. However, it wasn’t until the 1700s that people started to associate stripes or dots with pet cats. Since people liked these markings, they tended to breed cats that had them rather than breed those that didn’t.

Another key difference between pet cats and wildcats is in their behavior. In the wild, most cats are solitary. Domestic cats, however, seem to enjoy the company of both humans and fellow cats. Today, over 70 million cats in the U.S. share their lives with human owners.

A major genetic difference between house cats and wildcats are stripes and dots like those seen on this tabby cat.

A major genetic difference between house cats and wildcats are stripes and dots, like those seen on this tabby cat.

Researcher Eva-Maria Geigl points out that the roles of early domesticated dogs and cats were quite different. Dogs were the first animals to be domesticated by people. They were selected mainly for their ability to be trained in certain tasks, such as hunting or for protection. Because people bred dogs to have certain skills, dogs are now much more genetically diverse than cats.

Unlike dogs, people didn’t own cats in order to train them to help out with tasks around the home. People valued cats simply because they liked having them around.

“I think that there was no need to subject cats to such a selection process since it was not necessary to change them,” Geigl says. “They were perfect as they were.”

Additional Resources

Read more about the cat study at National Geographic and the Washington Post.

Explore the important role cats played in Ancient Egypt at Ancient Egypt Online.

Learn about how to care for pet cats at the Cornell Feline Health Center.

Images and Sources

Cat and woman photo: Max Pixel
Cat and woman photo license: Public domain

Bronze cat photo: Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Bronze cat photo license: Public domain

Tabby cat photo: Oliver Bonjoch
Tabby cat photo license: Creative Commons 3.0