From Wild Cat to Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office

A Concise History of the Relationship Between Humans and their Feline Friends

By Fleur Carter for CatsMatter in memory of Archie.

Anyone who has ever snuggled up with a cat on their lap and listened to the gentle purr of their moggy may well have pondered how this relationship came about? Why are we drawn to cats and why do they seem to like us? What is unique about the history of this bond goes a long way in explaining the character and nature of our fluff-balls and why our relationship with them is different from almost every other species.

Most genetic analysis would seem to indicate that our modern cat is descended from one or more of five distinct types of wild cats. Exactly when and how the process of domestication began is a complex issue. Many items that imply domestication, like collars, simply have not survived the ravages of time for archaeologists to uncover. It is probably worth noting two differing types of relationship here – mutualism and commensalism. Mutualism refers to the ecological interaction between two or more species in which each organism benefits from the association. Commensalism, on the other hand, refers to a symbiosis in which one species gains and the other neither benefits or is damaged. Which of these characterizes our relationship with cats? And, perhaps more importantly, who has been in the driving seat of this interaction?

It is common to read that cats became domesticated with the Ancient Egyptians. However, more recent analysis has highlighted that some form of relationship may predate this era. The oldest archaeological evidence for cats living with humans is from Cyprus in 7500BC. The remains of an 8 month old cat buried with what is believed to be its owner precedes Egyptian civilization and therefore suggests feline-human association has roots further back in time. We can also find indication of the existence of this relationship in the early Neolithic period in China. From approximately 4000BC onwards in Egypt there is substantial proof of the existence of a bond between cats and humans. Cats would have been attracted to the mice that would have gathered around the grain stores of the Fertile Crescent. Cats would therefore have entered into a mutually beneficial relationship as humans’ pest control. Around this time it seems likely that humans would have begun to carry their cats with them along sea and trade routes. The first illustration of a cat with a collar is on an Egyptian tomb in Saqqara from 2500-2350 BC. The Ancient Egyptians’ love affair with their moggies is underscored by countless examples: mummified cats wrapped in the finest linen, an abundance of human jewellery depicting cats and the finding of remains of what is believed to be the world’s first pet cemetery. It is thought that Ancient Egyptians would shave an eyebrow to illustrate they were mourning the loss of their family cat! Ancient Egyptians thought cats to be lucky as they kept snakes and rats at bay. It is believed that it was the qualities of tameness and sociability that made cats particularly appealing to their newfound admirers. From approximately 1000BC domesticated cats were traded secretly from Egypt – particularly to India and other Asian nations. Cats were regarded so highly that if you were caught trying to smuggle a cat out of Egypt it was punishable by death. However, the voyagers and tradespeople were clearly sometimes successful as at this time domesticated cats began to appear in other parts of the globe.

Why did humans seek to strike up a relationship with cats when there must have been other species hanging around the barns of grains seeking out rodents? What advantage did cats have? Psychologists believe that cats possess certain physical characteristics that make them particularly appealing to humans. Cats have round eyes in the middle of their face (they need good binocular vision to hunt), circular faces, little noses and short jaws; all these attributes are reminiscent of infant babies’ faces. Evolutionary Psychologists suggest that the positioning of the facial features of cats gave them a distinct advantage over other species as they look similar to human young and we would therefore be more naturally drawn to them. Experiments by psychologists have found that cats have most likely capitalised on this over the years by evolving cries for food and purrs that match the same frequency as babies’ cries.

The Romans, like the Ancient Egyptians, viewed cats as sacred and believed the cat to be the God of Liberty. Cats were the only animal allowed in Roman Temples! It was the Romans who first brought domesticated cats to Europe and the arrival of Roman feet at our shores in AD43 marks the pivotal moment of the introduction of the pet cat to Britain. The Romans even had cats as mascots for their Army!

A darker epoch emerged for cats during the Middle Ages. It was during the Medieval era that cats became associated with witchcraft – a stereotype that our feline buddies still find hard to shake to this day. Consider how in popular culture we are still exposed to images of a ‘baddie’ stroking a moggy on their lap whilst letting out a cackling howl? Far too many cartoons and films still use a lazy shorthand of evil by depicting a cat. Where does this originate? The Church of the Middle Ages encouraged the association of the cat with the devil as part of their agenda of demonizing the pagan faiths. By converting others’ heroes to villains, you are clearly drawing a line in the sand from your way of thinking to what went previously. And so, the sacred moggy of the Ancient World became the wicked witch’s cat of Europe. The Medieval period became a time of frequent torture and killings of cats orchestrated from the pulpit.

However, the voyages of discovery of the 1600s onwards brought some respite for kitties as cats grew in demand again. They were brought onboard ships to deal with the rodent problem; rats and mice could damage ropes, spread disease and destroy cargo. Cats also provided companionship and there are lots of tales of sailors looking after the cats well onboard.

It was the Victorians who really boosted the image of cats and they became popular pets in households. Queen Victoria was an animal lover and did much to try to improve the treatment of domestic animals. She gave her royal patronage to the RSPCA (hence the R) and spoke out against the practice of vivisection. Victoria had 2 Blue Persian cats and many Britons wanted to emulate her. The desire for a moggy in the home, not just for practical reasons of pest control but as companions to love and lavish with attention, was born. Some Victorians even dressed up their cats so as to protect their modesty! The first ever cat show was held in Crystal Palace in 1871.

In 1914 cats answered a paw to arms (sorry I couldn’t resist the play on words!) when over half a million of them were deployed by British forces during the First World War. Cats were used in the trenches and onboard ships as rat catchers and, even at times, to sniff out poison gas. There are many lovely stories of the moggies providing comfort to the troops.

One of the more curious and prestigious jobs that cats have fulfilled is the position of ‘Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office’ which is the title given to the cat of Downing Street! There is evidence of a cat being employed as a mouser since the 1500s when Cardinal Wolsey sat a cat by his side whilst in the position of Lord Chancellor. Official records highlight that from 1929 an allowance has been granted for the maintenance of an official cat to keep the mice away. The longest serving cat, to date, has been Wilberforce who spanned 4 Prime Ministers. The present cat, Larry, was bought by the then PM David Cameron from Battersea Cats and Dogs Home.

Cats have also been viewed as providing health benefits to humans. Cat ownership and being around cats has been found in some studies to decrease the chance of strokes, reduce high blood pressure and promote better mental well-being.

It is clear that the history of our relationship with cats has provided tangible benefits for both species and therefore can be characterized as an example of mutualism. It was the mice, who thousands of years ago were drawn to the grain stores, who attracted the cats. Cats found easy prey and then began to be fed and cared for by humans. When considering the domestication process it is usual for humans to domesticate animals where it is easy to keep them in confined spaces. Cats detest being kept in enclosed spaces – as most of us are well aware when we try to put our moggies in their carry cases for a trip to a vet! Therefore a more interesting picture begins to emerge – not one where cats have been forced into submission by human dominance (as is the case with many species), but one in which cats largely chose to domesticate themselves. The feline domestication process was most likely voluntary. Interestingly cats became domesticated companions without much evolutionary change which stands in contrast with dogs, for instance, who tended to be selected to perform specific tasks which led to a greater diversification of dog breeds. Our moggy of today is remarkably similar to that of thousands of years ago. Human beings have a long history of trying to control nature and taking what they want from the environment. However, the story with cats is far more nuanced and we are not necessarily the ones in the saddle.


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