How Cats Became Tame

Posted by Theresa Blood on

How The Cat Was Tamed

Cats have lived alongside us for perhaps as long as 9000 years. The elusive & solitary wildcat, Felis sylvestris, gradually morphed into our familiar friend, Felis catus, with very little human intervention. Other domestic animals have to be selectively bred or carefully trained before they become useful to humans (horses need to be broken in, cows are selected for milk yields and dogs are trained to fetch dead ducks). Cat’s, however, will hunt rodents whether we want them to or not and they don’t need any lessons from us. These exceptional natural abilities explain why we haven’t bothered much with trying to breed cats into different shapes and sizes or trained them to do various tasks. Because of this, cats have changed just enough to settle down happily in our company while retaining many characteristics of their wild ancestors.

Meet The Ancestors.

All species of wildcat are so closely related o domestic cats that they can interbreed, but it is Felis sylvestris lybica, the African wildcat (or a variety of it, sometimes called the Near Eastern wildcat), which we have to thank for our feline friends. This wildcat sub-species is believed to be the direct ancestor of all the domestic cats which live with us today. Lighter and slither than their thick-furred European counterparts, African wildcats look a lot like our cats. They are roughly the same size and they are often tabby, although they tend to have longer legs than domestic cats.

These cats have an extensive range which takes in much of North Africa as well as the fringes of the Arabian Peninsula and the region known as the Fertile Crescent (which covers much of what we know as the Middle East today) is where agriculture began. With agriculture came human settlements and then the domestication of a number of species, including sheep, goats and, perhaps more surprisingly, cats.

These early farming communities had rubbish heaps and grain stores (which attracted rodents), which clearly appealed to cats. Some wildcats seem to have managed to overcome their natural wariness towards humans and approached these settlements looking for food. Cats with a reduced fear towards humans would have been more successful at helping themselves to this plentiful food supply, and would have gone on to reproduce more successfully than timid cats. Eventually, a new type of cat emerged. Still more or less the same physically but different in one crucial respect – these new, fearless cats had come to terms (possibly even terms of affection) with people.

A Cat By Any Other Name

Cat classification (or taxonomy) has been subject to much change and dispute, partly because wildcats are so similar, making it hard to know where to draw the lines. The number of recognised sub-species of the wildcat family has varied between five and twenty-four, depending on who was counting. African wildcat (Felis sylvestris lybica) has long been the name given to the sub-species which is believed to be the direct ancestor of the domestic cat, but more recently the term Near Eastern wildcat has also been used (although, whatever their English name, they are still Felis sylvestris lybiba).

(The African wildcat)

There’s confusion, too, about what to call pet cats. Felis Catus and Felis silvestris catus are both used, and they have also been called Felis domesticus by those who saw domestication as a key characteristic. Whatever you call them and however you choose to separate them, all wildcats (and, indeed, their domestic relatives) are essentially the same. They can interbreed and their physiology and biology differs only in superficial aspects.

Five Fascinating Facts Relating To Cats:
  • Kitten: This word has been used to describe a juvenile cat since the fourteenth century and probably came into middle English from the Old French word chitoun or cheton, meaning a small cat.
  • Tom or tomcat: This was first recorded as the name for a male cat in 1809 and was possibly influenced by a children’s book called The Life and Adventures of a Cat, published in 1760, which was about a cat called Tom. Previously, male cats had been known as gib-cats (since 1400) as well as boar-cats and ram-cats.
  • Queen: Queen (originally queen-cat) has been used since the 1670s to describe a female cat capable of breeding. Female cats have also been known as doe-cats.
  • Moggy: ‘Moggy’ has been used to refer to a non-pedigree cat or, more generally, to a perfectly ordinary cat since around 1910. Initially a variant on the woman’s name Maggie (from Margaret), it was also a name which was given to cows from the 18th century and was also used to describe a scruffy woman.
  • Tabby: The word ‘tabby’ comes from the Arabic place name al Attabiyya, which was a district of Baghdad famous from the 12th century for the manufacture of colourful fabrics, particularly striped taffeta. The word travelled through many languages over the centuries, before arriving in England, first to describe fabric and, by the end of the 17th century, to mean a striped cat.



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