The history of cats, the world’s most popular pet, starts way back before the modern 20th century right to the beginning of known and recorded history. The ancient history of the domestic cat starts at the time of the ancient Egyptians, 4,000 years ago where they were regarded as sacred creatures.
The origins of cats (domestic cats) are thought to have come from the African Wild Cat. The breed was domesticated in ancient Egypt to control vermin that was harming crops and causing diseases. The cats controlled the rat population, which reduced disease and deaths and also allowed a larger supply of food for the poor. This, therefore, changed the quality of living for the Egyptians and cats became a sacred creature representing life.
By the time the Egyptian empire fell, cats were revered as master hunters and were worshipped like gods by all Egyptians including the pharaohs. If an Egyptian killed a cat, he was immediately given the death penalty, yet the fear of the all mighty cat itself made such homicide a rare occurrence.
The pharaohs were mummified and buried with statues of cats. This represented good luck and safe companionship in the afterlife. Even today, archaeologists are finding more and more hieroglyphics, statues and carvings of cats emphasizing their importance in Ancient Egypt.
It was illegal to sell a cat outside of Egypt as they were such an important asset to the culture’s beliefs and society. The history of domesticated cats started in Egypt where they acclaimed their first home, but like all cats they didn’t want to stay in one place too long!
Towards the end of the Egyptian empire, cats were sold to the Greeks and Persians. In 500 BC a domesticated cat was given to the emperor of China and cats were the most popular pet of the rich during the Song Dynasty. The cats were bred with the wildcats of Asia and became a common asset of the first emperors, then the nobility, priests and eventually the peasants. Cats in China were bred with many local breeds which had helped produce some of the breeds we know today, such as the Siamese and Burmese. The domesticated cat spread to all the surrounding countries of China including India and Japan.
Egyptian traders brought cats to Europe and they were introduced to the Greeks and then the Romans. Cats became common and valuable assets to all those who harvested crops and had problems with rats and disease. They were introduced to Britain around 100 AD and were protected by law by the king of Wales, Hywel Dda, as sacred and valuable animals. Killing a cat could again be punishable by death.
During the Middle Ages cats were associated with superstition and witchcraft. They were considered animals of sin and thought to be associated with Satan. When the Black Death (aka The Plague) started in 1348, the rulers ordered the killing of all cats who were the initial suspect of the disease (or the devil’s work). Ironically, because of this mass killing, the rodents spread and populated Europe in abundance which spread and worsened the pandemic.
Cats were used on ships on voyages of discovery during the 15th and 16th centuries to control the rodent population and disease. A ship crashed off the Isle of Man in the United Kingdom and the cats onboard the ship swam to the shore. This created one of the first known pedigree breeds, the Manx.
When Christopher Columbus discovered America, cats from the ship were left in the country and flourished. The breed today, known as the American Shorthair, is thought to have originated from the British Shorthair which was believed to be used on those ships.
Cats flourished in the 20th century when they were introduced, once again, as household pets by Queen Victoria of England and have become a key part of modern society. Kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers have all owned pet cats during the 20th century.
New breeds were created, such as the Sphynx, the Bengal and the Himalayan. During the 1990s cats overtook the dog as the world’s favorite, and most common, pet and today there is thought to be close to 500 million domestic cats in the world.
Films both animation and sci-fi have been made about cats and they are a huge part of family life and culture among modern society.