Humans and Cats - A History

True Nature Series

Despite the fact that approximately one third of American households have cats as pets, there's still a lot we don't know about the cats we live with every day.

To further our understanding of our cats, and our ability to give them the care that they need, we took a look at the history of humanity's relationship with the cat.

Meeting in The Fertile Crescent

Scientific evidence leads our journey back 9,000 years, to the Fertile Crescent, an arc of land that included present-day Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel. It was in this region's growing agrarian settlements that cats were first thought to mingle on the edge of human society.

As groups of people began harvesting and storing grains, cats found a natural role in this process - preying on the mice and other critters that attempted to steal the grains.

Taking care of the pests that interfered with the harvest is most likely where cats and humans experienced their first mutually beneficial relationship.

The Bond Strengthens

While humans were breeding many types of animals for their own purposes, historical evidence suggests their relationship with cats was more natural. Humans embraced early cat's hunting instinct, and co-existed with cats without interfering with their genetic breeding.

It's speculated that natural selection eventually further separated cats that favored human company from those that preferred living in the wild, creating, over many years, the cats we know today.

Cats Around the World

According to historians, as civilizations in The Fertile Crescent grew and prospered over time, people began to travel. Since cats were known to provide a useful service, they went along for the ride. Here are some interesting examples of cats' early interactions with humans around the world.1

Egypt
Believing their ability to see in the dark was a mystical power, cats were sacred to the Egyptians and thousands have been found mummified in burial chambers.

Europe
In Europe, their skills helped control the rat population and the spread of plague along with it.

Japan
In Japan, during the rise of Buddhism in the 6th century, it was customary to employ a pair of cats in each temple to protect the manuscripts from mice. And by 1602, it became law to release all cats into the streets so they could eradicate the pests hampering the silk trade.

America
It's thought the first cats brought to our country were in the company of the Pilgrims.

Cats in America, Today

Head to the Internet and you'll see cats have an incredibly strong presence in online culture. While clearly cats have the ability to make us smile, their main significance in America is as the pets we take care of every day.

Despite their popularity, there still remain many misconceptions - some of them negative - about cats' behavior. By better understanding the relationships between people and cats, it's possible to dispel myths and shift perceptions. Here are a few.

A Social Animal?

One stereotype about cats is that they are unfriendly, preferring solitude over interaction. But is that true? Let's take a look at how cats interact socially in the wild.  

A cat's social unit is a colony with a queen and her kittens. These colonies can overlap with one another, especially when cats have relatives in fellow colonies. Within linked colonies, social interactions abound. Queens share responsibility for raising the young, spreading the tasks like grooming, nesting, guarding, and even nursing. Nonetheless, male cats experience less social interaction, often leaving the colony before maturity to settle into a more independent existence. 2

Cats aren't inherently antisocial, just removed from their regular patterns of interacting with others. Instead of looking at cats through a human lens of what "friendliness" means, it's worth learning the unique ways that cats show affection. For example, if your cat rubs up against your leg, she's telling you you're part of the colony.

Exploring the World with Your Cat

Many dog behaviorists have spread awareness of dogs' unique behavioral cues, and given tips to owners that help them establish their dominant role "in the pack" with their dog.

At the core of these teachings is the importance of the walk, since it allows a dog to explore their environment with their owner, exercise and socialize with other people and animals.

Some cat behaviorists see similar benefits for felines. While cats have increasingly lived their lives indoors, you can still let them explore outside by taking them out on a leash.

This is a good way to help them get in touch with their instincts, while keeping them safe from the threats of experiencing nature on their own. It's also a great way to strengthen the bond with your cat.

Cats and Companionship

Another common stereotype associates cats with female owners, but in reality it's becoming more and more popular for men to own cats as well.3

In higher populated urban areas where people gravitate toward apartment life, more and more people are discovering that a cat can often be a good match for smaller dwellings.

An increasingly common trend also reveals that due to cats' playful nature and trainability, they are a great addition to families and households of all sizes.

A Continuing Journey

We've had a long and fascinating relationship with cats, but it's one that still requires more understanding. When we take the time to learn more about cats, we'll be even better at giving them the care they need, and our bond with them will grow even deeper. 

J. Wastlhuber, History of Domestic Cats & Cat Breeds, (3).

Merck Veterinary Manual,   http://www.merckvetmanual.com/mvm/index.jsp?cfile=htm/bc/140218.htm  (2011).

3 Abby Ellin, Sorry Fido, Its Just a Guy Thing,  http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/05/fashion/05cats.html (October 2008).