The extinction of the dinosaurs 70 million years ago left a variety of ecological niches unfilled, and paved the way for a variety of mammals to fill these gaps. One of the main groups of carnivorous mammal evolved into the cat family, or felids. Of this family, one species found its niche in the human environment: the domestic cat, Felis silvestis catus.
In this article, we'll travel back through history and take a look at theories about how cats came to be domesticated.
The ancestral cat
The domestic cat, Felis catus, is almost certainly descended from the small wildcat, Felis sylvestris, which is still found throughout Europe, Africa and southern Asia. Throughout this wide geographical range, numerous different races, or subspecies, of the wildcat have evolved as they adapted to local environment and climate.
It seems most likely that the original ancestor of the domestic cat was the African wildcat, Felis sylvestris libyca. This animal is only slightly larger than the domestic cat, and is often found living close to people. With the spread of the domesticated form, interbreeding probably took place with local wildcat races that may have contributed, in varying degrees, to the ancestry of modern domestic cats in different places. The striped tabby domestic cat in Europe has a coat pattern that combines the characteristics of the European and African wildcat. And the spotted coat of some domestic cats in India suggests an ancestral relationship with the Asian subspecies.
However, humans' long association with the dog's ancestor, the wolf, began many thousands of years before that, when the hunting and occupation territories of the two species would have frequently overlapped.
Domestication of the cat
While dogs were already domesticated by the end of the last Ice Age, some 12,000 years ago, cats were domesticated much later, probably not until agriculture developed and flourished in the "Fertile Crescent" of the Middle East. Houses, barns and grain stores provided a new environmental niche that was rapidly exploited by mice and other small mammals, the favored prey of small wild felids. From early times, a mutually beneficial relationship would have developed in which the cat got an abundant food supply, in return for controlling troublesome rodent pests. It seems likely that these wild cats would have been tolerated, initially, or even encouraged with scraps of food. Like the wolf, the more docile of these wild cats would have been gradually absorbed into human society, and in this way, a founder population of semi-tame cats may have been established.
Over thousands of generations, many of the typical physical changes associated with domestication occurred in the cat. These include reduction in overall size, shortening of the jaw, reduction in brain size and cranial capacity, changes in carriage of the ears and tail, and changes in coat color and texture. Unlike the dog, however, cats in human societies have remained largely independent, and had far less selective pressure for desirable traits than other domesticated species. So, the domestic cat has changed relatively little in appearance from its wild ancestors.
Cats in ancient Egypt
Taming of the cat is widely attributed to ancient Egypt, where it may have begun about 4,000 years ago. The Egyptians were greatly interested in animals and would have recognized the value of cats as controllers of vermin such as rodents, snakes and other poisonous reptiles. Cats had great religious significance in this culture, and were often seen as representatives of deities or as objects of religious cults. So cats would have been well cared for in captivity, and many cats would have been kept as cult objects or as household pets. Since they were a protected species, causing the death of a cat was punishable by death.
The Egyptians restricted the spread of cats to other countries by making it illegal to export them. But domestic cats were eventually taken to other countries. Eventually, the cat travelled with human settlers to all areas that were colonized, crossing the Atlantic to North America in the 17th century in response to demands from settlers who were dealing with an invasion of rats. The cat's appearance in Australia was probably also related to its usefulness in exterminating vermin and its ability to adapt to life on board ship.
As the cat spread throughout the world, geographically separated populations may have developed certain features that differentiated them from other cats. This would have been a result of inbreeding within the group and of occasional interbreeding with local wildcat races. In most cases, however, the modern breeds of cat have been produced by selective breeding, a relatively new phenomenon only popularized within the last 150 years or so.