This is an article about domestic cat history written in simple language that is designed to be used, primarily, by students. It is meant to be an overview. For that reason any part of this page may be reproduced “as is” (faithfully) under a creative commons license provided a link back is provided, please.
I have divided up the history of the domestic cat into four sections:
- The beginning of the species Felis catus (domestic cat);
- The domestication of the wildcat;
- The creation of the cat breeds;
- Selected pages on domestic cat history and search.
It is fair to say that an understanding of the early years of the cat as a species of animal is not yet completely understood. The scientists disagree on some of the detail, although they agree the wider picture. Students should be cautious is making statements that are quoted as being fact.
The domestic cat is scientifically classified as follows:
The classification of cats is also work in progress, please note. A more detailed and much longer article on cat history written from a slightly different perspective can be seen here.
The Beginning of the Species Felis catus
Cats are carnivores. In scientific classification the “Order” is called “Carnivora”. All carnivores evolved from an extinct order of mammals called Creodonts. They were the main carnivores 50-60 million years ago. Creodonts were about the height at the shoulder of a domestic cat.
Miacids were primitive carnivores that evolved around 60 million years ago. They were twice the size of creodonts with more slender legs and heads. They are believed to have evolved into the modern carnivorous mammals of the order Carnivora. The miacis was a weasel-like animal:
Wikimedia Commons file.
The miacids split into two lines, one of which was the Viverravidae. The first true cat to arise from Viverravidae was Proailurus. These first cat-like carnivores were half cat and half civet. The word Proailurus means “before the cats” in Greek. They existed about 25-30 million years ago and were the size of a very large domestic cat. They were not digitigrades (walking on their toes). They were flat-footed. The best-known species was P lemanensis found in France.
Proailurus gave way to what are considered to be the first members of the modern cat family, Pseudaelurus. They were prehistoric cats. They inhabited Europe, Asia and North America about 8 to 20 million years ago. They looked like modern cats. They were digitigrades – they walked on their toes. They had flexible spines like modern cats; flexible shoulder blades and tails. An example of a species of Pseudaelurus would be Pseudaelurus lorteti which was the size of a modern day lynx.
Pseudaelurus evolved into two main groups one of which one was Schizailurus, which in turn evolved to the Felidae family.
About 12 million years ago, the genus Felis appeared. Felis lunensis (Martelli’s Cat) was a species that is now extinct and which inhabited Europe about 2.4 million years ago (during the Pliocene period) and is believed to be the direct ancestor of today’s wildcat. It is believed that it evolved into today’s European wildcat. However the first modern cats were cheetahs.
By the way, in this context “wildcat” means the small species of wildcat (Felis silvestris). The wildcat is the wild ancestor of today’s domestic cat. See a comparison between the wildcat and the domestic cat.
This, incidentally, and on a different subject, was the time when the saber tooth tiger became extinct (about 10,000 years ago).
Domestication of the wildcat
The domestication of the wildcat was a mutual arrangement (to the benefit of people and cat alike). The domestication of the cat occurred long after the wild dog was domesticated. The initial domestication of the wildcat took place in what is referred to as the “Fertile Crescent”. This includes Egypt and Cyprus. Although most evidence of domestication comes from the fertile Nile Delta (see map below).
The Near Eastern wildcat was, at its earliest, domesticated some 9,000 years ago, it is believed, because feline remains were found in a human grave on Cyprus in the Mediterranean. A cat’s tooth from 9,000 BC was found in Jericho, Israel and remains have been found in the Indus valley near Harappa.
Due to recent DNA analysis it is believed that the domestic cat is a domesticated version of the Near Eastern wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica).
The Egyptians of 4,000 BC began to to create settlements and farms, producing grain silos attracting rodents. The cat had a ready supply of prey and the farmers had protection from rodents.
Ships cats were also employed to protect cargo and it is through the transportation of ships cats along trade routes that the domestic cat was distributed far and wide. in fact the discovery in Cyprus mentioned above must have been a decendant of a ships cat as there were no wildcats on Cyprus.
By about 2,000 BC the domestic cat in Egypt was well established. Many years later the Egyptians began to worship the cat.
The domestication of the cat is self propagating because cat litters raised in and around people produce cats that are socialized to people and other animals. In short they are automatically domesticated. Domestication of the cat has changed the cat.
The Creation of the Cat Breeds
Before about the 1860s there were no cat breeds. Cat breeds are a single species of domestic cat, Felis catus. At that time there were probably purebred cats as we would now define them, but there was no one to formally recognize that fact (meaning no cat associations). There is a modern example of this, the Bahraini Dilmun cat which could be formally accepted as a cat breed.
The cat fancy is the community of people anywhere in the world who breed and show domestic cats. It may also include people who are on the fringes of that group.
The cat fancy started in the late 19th century in England and in America at a similar time. The early cat shows in the USA occurred in the 1860s. At 2011, there is no cat fancy in economically important countries such as China and India.
In the UK the second national cat show in England was in 1871 at Crystal Palace. It was a grand affair.
At the outset in the UK the established cat breeds to be bred and shown were the Persian, Siamese, Abyssinian and British Shorthair on my estimation. These are long standing cat breeds. In the USA the Maine Coon was the first purebred cat breed to be shown and bred.
From this start the cat fancy expanded. Breeders sought to create new cat breeds. Existing cat breeds were “refined” through selective breeding. The cat fancy is somewhat divided between traditionalists and breeders who tend to breed to extreme (ultra breeding). The modern Siamese is an example of extreme breeding and the Applehead Siamese is an example of the traditional Siamese. The Persian also traditional and extreme cats.
New breeds can be created through hybridization – domestic cat to domestic cat and more rarely domestic cat to wildcat – or through “discovery”. “Discovery” means a cat that looks different coming to the attention of a cat breeder, perhaps due to a genetic mutation, who then breeds it and registers it with a cat association. Examples are the rex cats such as the Devon Rex and the Sphynx. Another is the Abyssinian. Discovered cats are imported from the place of discovery to the main cat fancy markets such as the USA and Europe.
Over the course of the 20th century the cat fancy expanded considerably both in terms of the number of cat breeds and cat associations. It is possible to argue that there are too many of both!
The peak years for the creation of cat breeds was from the 1950s to the 1980s.
The first cat breed was probably the Egyptian Mau a supposed descendant of the African wildcat. This cat is still a random bred and feral cat in Egypt. It is the only naturally spotted cat it is said.
You can see a full time-line on when the cat breeds were created by clicking on this link. There are over 100 cat breeds in 2011. It is probable that the market is saturated.
The way the defacto cat breeds developed before the cat fancy existed is interesting. Research based on genetics provides insights.