Living With Animals: The Sort of Domesticated Cat

The story of the domestication of cats has many sentences which begin with “Probably…” and “Most but not all authorities…” and even the occasional “Your guess is as good as mine.” There are something like 74,000,000 cats sharing homes here in the U.S. alone and none of us seems quite sure how they got there. That is just so very cat, isn’t it?

The latest DNA analysis suggests that cats lived alongside us for thousands of years before deciding that they were domesticated. Cats starting hanging around human settlements about 8,000 years ago, drawn to farming communities (more precisely, drawn to the mice and rats which were drawn to those communities) of the Fertile Crescent. Later on, beginning around 1500B.C., a separate line of cats from Africa caught the imagination of ancient Egyptians and, appealing to the aesthetics but no doubt still to the more pragmatic pest control desires of that culture as well, cats started globetrotting alongside humans on our land and sea trade routes. The thinking goes like this: cats saw a ready supply of tasty prey, we saw a resulting reduction in rodent damage to our crops but no personal threats from the little predators, and eventually the cats decided to make the deal permanent. And other than the distinctive stripes and dots we see on tabbies, there’s not been much change in their genetic makeup over those many millennia.

Genetics shows that gene for tabby coats dates back to the Ottoman Empire in Southwest Asia and later, in the Middle Ages, became common in Europe. It was not until the 18th century, however, that the markings became so common as to be the one real distinguishing characteristic separating our fuzzy, fussy feline friends from their wild cousins. And it’s only since the 19thcentury that cat fanciers began intentionally pairing cats to further accentuate what are today’s house cat breeds. As a cat might put it, cats were already perfect and needed no changing. A cat would also point out the same can’t be said of dogs, but that’s next week.

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