The wild cat species who failed to become the domestic cat

The DNA of all domestic cats has no trace of any wild cat species other than the African wildcat (also Near Eastern wildcat and Arabian wildcat – felis silvestris lybica). However, 10,000 years ago, there were a number of other suitable wild cat candidates who could have become the ancestor of the modern-day domestic cat. Those that had the most potential are listed below (there are a number of other small wild cats not mentioned).

Jungle cat

Jungle cat

Jungle catfelis chaus – Ancient Egyptians tamed them in considerable numbers. However, they are heavier than the wildcat and large enough to prey on young gazelles and chitals. There is evidence that the Egyptians tried to train them to be rodent controllers. Clearly it failed on a large scale. If they had succeeded there would perhaps have been a species of modern (and larger) domestic cat that were descended from the jungle cat. It is thought that the jungle cat is depicted in the statues of cats from Ancient Egypt. This wild cat species looks like today’s Abyssinian cat. Some people think there is a connection. The Abyssinian cat might be a jungle cat x domestic cat hybrid from India. If this is the case the jungle cat does have a stake, albeit a small one, in the history of the domestication of the cat.

Sand cat

Sand cat

Sand cat felis margarita – this is a cute wildcat that looks like a domestic cat that has been breed to an extreme! The ears are very large because they hunt by night and use hearing to detect prey. They can travel large distances searching out prey. The sand cat is comparatively unafraid of people (as is, incidentally, the Andean mountain cat). This very cute and small wildcat would have made a very popular domestic cat on the basis of appearance. It is probably more aesthetically attractive than the wildcat. However, the sand cat is a specialist. They are made for desert life. They are the only true dessert living cats. Their feet are covered in fur to protect them from the hot sands. Because of this, few sand cats would have found themselves in and around the grain storage areas of the settlements of the Natufarians who inhabited the area that is now Israel-Palestine, southern Lebanon, south-western Syria and Jordan from 11,000 to 8,000 BCE. It is thought that the Natufarians first domesticated the wildcat. They lived in wooded areas away from the sand cat’s domain – the desert. This precluded the sand cat from becoming the modern day domestic cat.

Fishing cat

Fishing cat

Fishing catfelis viverrina or Prionailuurus viverrinus – although a small wild cat species it is at the top end in terms of size of the small wild cats. It is a strong cat that is genuinely built for catching fish and aquatic birds but can catch young deer. It is a good swimmer and can swim under water. Although it will hook fish out of the water while standing near it. Small rodents are part of their diet. The fishing cat’s diet precluded in from being domesticated as the first farmers wanted a cat that mainly fed on rodents to protect grain.

Pallas's cat

Pallas’s cat

Manul (Pallas’s cat or Pallas cat)Otocolobus manul – this is a very interesting looking small wild cat species that could have become the ancestor of the domestic cat. In fact, at one time experts thought it was the ancestor of the modern Persian cat. It is found in Central Asia. The manul was occasionally tamed and kept as a rodent catcher. I suspect the manul did not become the domestic cat because of where it lives – relatively remote. It’s character too was no doubt less suited to domestic life.



JaguarundiPuma yagouaroundi – this is a strange looking wild cat species that looks half otter and half cat. If this cat had become the ancestor of today’s domestic cat we would have had a completely different looking cat companion in our homes. This species of small wild cat was also tamed, we believe. However, it did not catch on to become a worldwide phenomenon. This cat is found in South/Central America and Mexico. Once again I suspect the location is a factor in limiting the domestication of this cat.



MargayLeopardus wiedii – this is a cute (but athletically strong) small wild cat species living in Central America that is tamed and the cubs are stolen to be used as pets (sadly). They are quite good “pets”. The non-central location in respect of early human settlements probably prevented the domestication of this cat spreading throughout the world. Also the Margay is far less prevalent than the wildcat.

Therefore, it is the species of small wild cat that is confusingly called the “wildcat” that came out on top in the race to be a human companion. Did it work out well for both parties?

It is interesting that a subspecies of wildcat, the Chinese desert cat (also called Chinese mountain cat) was not domesticated. The Chinese desert cat is an equal to the African wildcat in terms of suitability for domestication. China has an ancient culture and society. Domestication could have happened but it seems on this occasion the reason why it did not was because the Chinese did not desire it to happen.

The wildcat was (still is) found across a huge part of the planet from Britain to China. At one time the wildcat population was much larger and denser and the cat’s range more continuous than it is today. That widespread presence would have been a major factor in bringing human and cat together to form the partnership that we now accept as a norm.

The pictures are from this video and copyright the artists (you’ll see their credits in the video):

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The wild cat species who failed to become the domestic cat — 15 Comments

  1. Oh my! What a wonderful treat for the eyes. So many wildcats. The two artists are really good. The water colorist is very skilled. So much talent, and used for a worthy cause to promote awareness. Very impressive. I am happy to know about them. Thank you Michael.

  2. All such beautiful cats and living natural lives, fraught as the world is. It makes me wonder if the species other than the African wildcat are better off for not having been domesticated, because the descendants of the cats who were, have had so much taken from them by people.
    Yes the cats with loving homes are safe but many have paid by losing their claws and many more are unwanted and their lives taken from them. Many have been thrown out and become feral and are hated and chased.
    This is what the human race have done/are doing to cats

    • My feelings exactly. I hate to say it but I struggle to believe that the domestication of the wildcat has been a success. It appears to be a failure. It has gone wrong.

      The better scenario would have been no domestication, no cat breeds, less people, plenty of habitat for the wild cats who were left in peace.

  3. The Margay can’t be properly housetrained; it can be tamed to a degree but not enough to consider it domesticable in the long term. The Jaguarundi’s predatory drive could not be curbed; they are kept in limited numbers as pets in their native habitat, but they cannot be stopped from hunting chickens. The Manul is clased as intractable – those few that were tamed were as unusual as tamed grizzly bears. The Chinese Desert Cat was self-domesticating and there is some archeaological evidence that it lived as a domestic with people 1000s of years ago and has interbred with imported F lybica derived domestics. F Chaus didn’t contribute to the Aby, the Indian Wildcat (a form of F lybica) was the wild species that bred with an early Aby.

    • Thanks Sarah. Very useful as usual and greatly appreciated.

      The Manul is clased as intractable – those few that were tamed were as unusual as tamed grizzly bears.

      Made me smile.

  4. Hi Michael. Thanks for the wonderful video. How could it not be wonderful with such a cast?
    A couple of South and Central American cats that are quite amenable to people but never graduated to pet status on any scale are Geoffroys Cat and the Oncilla. I imagine the cultures of the American native peoples was not conducive to small cat taming and having them as companions. Their interest verging on an obsession with the jaguar speaks of a quite different way of looking at cats. That of power and fear.
    Jaguarundis are known in Latin America as ferocious predators and will kill anything on 2 or 4 legs if they can.
    The Greeks at one time used weasels for rodent control but they decimated their chickens and pigeons. A wonderful thing about the cats descended from the F s Lybica is that they leave any domestic fowl and birds strictly alone.
    I wonder why the F s Caucasica doesn’t get much of a mention. Perhaps because it only a sub-species of the F s Sylvestris, but it is the most likely candidate for the genesis of long-haired heavy-boned Turkish cats well adapted to the cold and has the same geographic range. The Feline Genome DNA results suggest that the domesticated cat originated in Anatolia since Turkish cats are very homogeneous whereas the cats of Egypt are a mix of cats from Turkey, Iran, Israel, The Lebanon, and E Africa. The flow of cats thus seems to be from north to south. The Caucasus area which is homeland of the F s Caucasica is contiguous with Anatolia and may well bne considered as the same. The Ascent of the Cat Breeds study has a phylogenetic tree which shows the domestic cat has 3 wildcat ancestors F s Sylvestris, F s Caffra, and F s Tristami, the latter 2 being regional variations of F s Lybica. Why does F s Sylvestris appear as an ancestor when it is an extremely intractable cat? I think what they are seeing is the DNA marker of F s Caucasica which could well have transformed into the Turkish random-bred cats. Today I met a cat which looks just like these 2 Caucasian wildcats. Her face, markings, and body type are exactly the same but her tail is soft and fluffy and she likes cooked chicken.

    • Their interest verging on an obsession with the jaguar speaks of a quite different way of looking at cats. That of power and fear.

      Totally agree. There are a lot of myths and legends connected with the jaguar in S. America.

      I suspect the oncilla and Geoffroy’s cat may well have been tamed on occasion. It still happens today in America.

      There are quite a lot of Americans who keep the Geoffroy’s cat as sort of pet. But these cats will never be true companion animals.

      As you say, the two cats in the snow, look like wildcats – stocky with dense coats and thick tails. The look similar to Scottish wildcats, all of which are probably hybrids.

      I believe the Turkish cats developed as domestic cats in parallel with the first domestic cats in nearby regions.

    • wow!

      What a photo – those 2 cats in the snow are beautiful. They really do look like the Scottish Wildcats from what I understand.

      Love the photo – saving to my computer! (with a little difficulty, actually it’s good Michael protects these images from being copied easily).

        • I totally agree with that. People don’t bother if it’s not easy so it is probably quite effective. The average computer user won’t know how to download it and that’s a good thing.

          • Most of the copyright violations are by people in non-industrialised countries. Asia features quite a lot. They start a blog and have no idea about copyright and if they know it they ignore it. I have many complaints to Google but it is too time consuming.

            Most can’t do screen shots and then cut out the picture so no right click helps.

  5. To me these 2 Caucasian wildcats do not have the look of the Scottish wildcat or European Forest Cat. They have a sweet facial expression and their demeanor is gentle judging by their posture. They are indistinguishable from many tabby Turkish SLH’d cats except for the fur texture. In most cases just a glance at a Scottish wildcat even in a photo is enough to tell one ” stay clear”. I went today to take a photo of that cute F s Caucasica lookalike in town but she wasn’t there today.

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