How Cats Became Companions: A Brief History

While we never really need a reason to talk about our feline friends, World Cat Day is as great a excuse to celebrate the close to 90 million domesticated cats in the United States! Get out the catnip and let’s learn a little more about these amazing creatures with a brief history lesson on how they came to be our furry family members.

  Cassie, one of our foster cats, loves pets and playtime—perfectly suited to life at home!

Cassie, one of our foster cats, loves pets and playtime—perfectly suited to life at home!

The exact timeline of when cats first became domesticated isn’t known, and there are no historical records on how the process took place. In 2004, on the island of Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean, a cat was discovered in a 9,000-year-old tomb deliberately buried with a human, which indicated the island’s cats were likely domesticated. A 2007 study based on genetic analyses of cats, published in the research journal Science, posited that all domestic cats were descendants of a Middle Eastern wildcat, and that the domestication process began up to 12,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent region.

The belief is that when the first agriculturally-based societies began to prosper, the storage of surplus crops attracted mice and rats to the area, which resulted in bringing wild cats into town to hunt them. Then began what the authors of the Science study called “one of the more successful ‘biological experiments’ ever undertaken.” While the cats were pleased to find an abundance of prey in these enclaves, the people were pleased with the cats keeping the rodent populations under control. Over time, the mutual relationship led to the breeding of slightly tamer cats compared to their wild cousins, and these cats were encouraged to coexist within these societies using amenities like food and shelter—things far more prevalent in the company of humans than in the wild.

  Four of our recent foster kittens made themselves right at home! Photo by Ginny LaRoe.

Four of our recent foster kittens made themselves right at home! Photo by Ginny LaRoe.

Simply put, scientists believe ancient cats actually domesticated themselves by adapting to their environment, leading to the house cat breeds we know today. From there, it’s believed humans began bringing cats on shipping and trade routes on both land and sea to help control rodent populations, and along the way, the offspring of these cats spread further and further into the Mediterranean and Europe.    

So there you have it! The feline friends we have today are all thanks to the ancient cats that joined human society back then. Interested in bringing one of these amazing cats into your life? Take a look at Cat Town’s adoptable cats and if anyone catches your eye, send an email to info@cattownoakland.org to schedule an appointment with one of our adoption counselors, or drop in during open hours to meet them! Adoption fees are 50% off all month long, so don’t wait—your new best friend could be waiting!

Want to learn more? Check out our resources for in depth info in to the history of domesticated cats.

How Were Cats Domesticated (Mental Floss) 
A Brief History of House Cats (Smithsonian Magazine)
Cats Domesticated Themselves, Ancient DNA Shows (National Geographic)
Are Cats Domesticated? (The New Yorker)

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