Dr. Leslie Brooks: Hello everybody, this is My Lovely Feline’s podcast with Leslie and Liz, and today we’re talking about the history of cats and their relationship with humans.
So essentially the domestication of cats, although I’ve read that cats actually domesticated themselves.
Liz: I think if you ask cats, they would say they domesticated themselves.
Leslie: Probably, so. And in my readings, I read that the ancient Egyptians were the first to domesticate cats, or that those particular cats domesticated themselves as long as 4,000 ago.
And I know we sometimes take this for granted, but domestication doesn’t happen overnight. Liz has been reading this book called The Domestic Cat: Its Biology and Behavior.
I just wanted to open with a question: Liz, can you explain a little more about the process of domestication, specifically with what we refer to as a house cat?
Liz: Sure! What I’ve been reading about is pretty cool. The first step in domestication is always animal keeping. The domestic cat as it exists now was not like that thousands of years ago.
What did you have in animal keeping? You had the keeping of wild cats. Obviously I can’t imagine keeping a jaguar, but apparently they did things like that. The first step is keeping the animal and trying to tame it to see if you can adjust their behavior.
And the next step is the breeding of the animal with the qualities that work for you. If you’re keeping this wild cat and you’ve gotten it to the point that it’s super friendly, there can be parts of the cat that make you think, “Maybe the cat’s offspring would really be outgoing or friendly.” That’s the two steps, animal keeping and animal breeding.
And what I found really interesting is that it goes back like you said, sometimes 10,000 years ago, it’s crazy, and that people were keeping other breeds of cats that aren’t even around anymore.
On the island of Cyprus they had a relatively large animal that’s not the domestic cat as we know now but a different type of cat that was buried with people. Obviously they were living with and close to them or they wouldn’t have been buried with these cats. That’s just nuts to think about.
Leslie: Yeah, for sure. So I mean, did cats just come around people or was it the way civilizations grew? I read that cats came around human populations because of their farming and agriculture which attracted rodents, and then cats gravitated to this area where they had quick and easy meals and did rodent patrol for human communities.
Liz: Yeah, you know, I saw that as well, and it seemed to be in the Middle East where that was going on. When agriculture was growing that started happening, where you had grain and feed which attracted rodents and cats and you sort of see the benefit of having the cat around.
And I imagine the cat would see the benefit of having possible shelter because if they were near a farm or something like that, there’s going to be shelter. Like a barn that they can go in and have something over their head. If people enjoy having the animal, they might start giving them extra food, extra attention, so that’s where you can see there would have been a shift with wild animals coming around and it’s almost mutually beneficial.
It was really interesting that sometimes, if they were out hunting, they would capture young wild cats and bring them home, or even wild animals in general, and they would be adopted as pets by the women in the family.
The weird part was even if the animal would normally be seen as food, this adopted animal was part of the family and it was mourned if it died. You also see a shift during this time period where this love of animals and pets drives domestication..
Leslie: Absolutely. Didn’t you find something that cats were mummified with their person?
Liz: Yes, it seems that ancient Egyptians were the ones to domesticate them the most. I should also say too, Egyptians didn’t only love cats, they loved lots of animals. They looked at animals as connections to gods and goddesses sometimes, and that’s how they’re depicted on artwork from that time period and tomb paintings.
And yes they would mummify their cats and bury them with people. It shows you how much they wanted to stay with the animals and take them with them into the afterlife.
Leslie: That’s so interesting. I know nowadays people try to have their pets buried near them as well.
Liz: And it seems that it really started impacting them around 2000-1500 B.C., which is when cats started changing from symbols of things and they really got to the point where they were domesticated and more respected.
They started to associate cats with the sun god Ra. You don’t need to know a lot about Egyptian history to know that Ra was a very important god to them. Obviously if you’re associating a cat with him, that’s huge.
Leslie: Sounds like it would be a good name for a cat too.
Liz: I know, it really would be. The reason that came about is they believed, and I’m reading this from the book, they believed the sun god would battle each night with the serpent of darkness. They’re seeing a cat as battling serpents, again elevating the animal.
Leslie: It’s interesting too because it speaks to the natural behavior of cats. They’re more nocturnal and more active at night. I know that’s when stray cats or mating cats are loud.
Liz: That’s an unmistakable noise as well.
Leslie: I have pet owners ask me all the time, “How can I get my cat to go to sleep at night because it’s up and has the zoomies.” Well, some cats have that natural instinct to be up at nighttime. So I wonder if the serpent of darkness would roam around at night more.
Liz: Yes, and I would say, even if cats are out a lot during the day, it’s quieter at night with less people outside and less noises, so a cat’s more likely to be out and about when there are less threats.
Leslie: Very true. A fun fact I learned about cats is they spend about 70% of their lives sleeping.
Liz: Yep, they do. It’s amazing. But at least, and I always tell people, the catnap is literally a catnap because they’re in a light sleep most of the time so they can wake up quickly and defend themselves or move or do whatever they have to do. They’re catnapping most of the time and not in a deep sleep.
Leslie: Cool. What else did you learn? What’s another neat thing you learned about the domestication of cats?
Liz: It’s really interesting because it seemed like, we all know there was a shift around witchcraft, but before that cats were celebrated for the things that became a negative. So they were celebrated for fertility and being independent. During the time when they shifted away from the gods and goddesses, and Christianity was growing and there were other things at play, it wasn’t fertility, it was promiscuity and things like that.
So it took the same idea and flipped it. And it really changed people’s perceptions because they were being told about how sneaky cats were and the female cat is inappropriate – she’s violent when she mates – and these things that at one point were celebrated got totally turned around.
The book also talks about how it doesn’t feel like cats have completely recovered from that. A lot of people who don’t like cats say, “They’re sneaky. I don’t know what they’re thinking.” You know, those sorts of ideas, and really they aren’t those things.
Certainly they stalk their prey but all predators do that. It’s interesting that something that happened so long ago, still impacts cats today and the perception of cats. I think it’s getting better, but their reputation hasn’t recovered.
Leslie: As cultures shift and narratives change, it changes everything that’s involved in it. One of the reasons I like cats so much is they tend to be misunderstood.
Liz: Totally. I agree with you. And you know I do a lot of work with them and their behavior. I feel they are misunderstood and if I can help bring out the best in them but also help people understand their pets better, that’s what I want to do. So many things they do are taken the wrong way. I think they’re compared too much to a dog and they’re a different animal, so that comparison doesn’t work.
Leslie: I remember us talking another time, with the culture and narrative around cats and when it turned negative, I don’t remember what country or time period it was but there was an outbreak of bubonic plague.
People were killing off cats because they saw them as witchcraft or the devil’s animal and the rat population exploded without cats to catch and kill them. Bubonic plague is spread by rodents so there was a huge outbreak of that. It’s interesting how everything – environment, science, nature – ties in so much to culture.
Liz: You know the other thing I read was something I never thought about. Cat allergies are something that’s very common in people. At the time, before humans really knew a cat could make someone allergic, they were believed to come during the night and smother children.
These kids would have problems breathing and there was a cat around, so they had this idea – when in reality, the kid was probably allergic. Or you know I’ve read that in the past sometimes too, when people would sleep on the floor or in lower levels of a home, if there was a problem with something like bad feed or something like that, it hangs low to the ground, and people can sick from those sorts of things, like gases, that they might not even know exist. But during this time period, probably everything was being blamed on cats because they were seen as smothering people.
Leslie: And now we have so many people who have cats as a pet! Even though there are many stray and feral cats out there, people take care of them and feed them. It’s totally changed over the centuries.
Liz: Even though we make jokes about them plotting to kill us in their sleep, I don’t think anyone actually thinks that.
Leslie: Another fun fact I read about was in the 60s, a cat named Felicette was actually sent to space, and it’s the only cat that ever went to space. I think that was pretty cool. She went up there for 15 minutes and parachuted back in her little pod.
Liz: That’s amazing.
Leslie: I’m sure it wasn’t an enjoyable experience for Felicette.
Liz: I’m sure not. I mean, you know a cat is when you have to give them medicine or take them to the vet.
Leslie: I know, poor cat. As we’re ending our podcast on the history of cats and their relationship to humans, is there any other neat fact you wanted to share?
Liz: The only other thing I wanted to share is actually about other animals in general. When we think of witchcraft we tend to think of cats, but the book talks about how cats weren’t the only animals being associated with witches – birds were, dogs were – and it’s all in the records, along with a bunch of non-specific animals.
They actually have a bar graph in the book showing the different animals. I thought that was interesting because every time you think of witchcraft you just think of cats. While they were the most popular, there were other animals labeled too.
Leslie: Thanks so much. It’s so interesting. Even though it seems like they were one of the first animals to coexist with humans, they’re probably one of the ones you can argue isn’t fully domesticated.
Liz: I think it’s incredible that you can take most cats, of course there are exceptions, and put them outside and they’d survive. And you can’t really say that about a lot of animals that live inside. It’s fascinating and makes me love them more.
Leslie: Thanks, Liz. Thanks to you guys for joining us today and we’ll talk with you next time on My Lovely Feline’s Podcast with Leslie and Liz.