Cats Encyclopedia


(Edited by Susan Feuer)



Egyptian Sculpture, bronze, 6th BC



Julius Carolsfeld


The ancestors of today's cats first evolved about 45 million years ago, during the late Eocene era. By 35 million years ago, ancient cats looked and behaved very much like some members of today's cat family. We're all familiar with the most ferocious ancient cat: the saber-toothed tiger, with its frightening fangs. Though re-lated to the saber-tooth, today's domestic cats descend more directly from another ancestor, an ancient wildcat who was larger than our felines but smaller than lions, tigers, or panthers.
This ancestral wildcat spread slowly around the world, appearing finally in every part of the globe except Australia, Madagascar, Antarctica, the West Indies, and some other islands. By the time the saber-tooth died out about 100,000 years ago, the rest of the cat family had organized itself into the three main groups we still recognize today. The Panthera genus consists of lions, tigers, and other big cats. Cheetahs have a genus all their own, called Acinonyx, for cats whose claws do not retract. Small cats make up the genus Felis, encompassing pumas, lynxes, and other small wildcats, along with their most familiar descendant, Felis cams catus, the domesticated cat with whom we happily share our lives today.

Shojo Kyosai

Researchers can track the evolu-tion of cats by their colors. The fur of most ancient cats was prob-ably the shade called "ticked," or agouti. Today's wildcats often show this coloration, in which each separate hair is brown or black with a yellow tip. In prehistoric times, a mutation probably caused dark spots to appear in the fur of some cats, giving them a camouflage advantage we still recognize in jungle hunters such as leopards and jaguars. Later, another mutation may have created the stripes we see on today's tabby cats and tigers. White spots appeared last of all. For animals who need the ability to hunt undercover in order to survive, attention-getting patches of white are a major disadvantage. That's why white spots are common today only in domestic cats, who have human help to find food and safety. Cat color offers researchers a way to track the history of domestic cats too. The blotched tabby pattern, for example, first appeared in England. In the United States
today, blotched tabby cats are common in areas originally settled by English colonists. But because blotched tabby cats were unusual in sixteenth-century Spain, they're relatively rare now in California, the Southwest, and other areas where the first European settlers were Spanish.

Maitre de Cologne

Because cats are loners, they probably found it harder to adjust to domestication than dogs did. Dogs descend from wolves, who are pack animals, used to living as a group and forming strong social bonds. This instinct for close association made it relatively easy for wolves to learn to live with humans, and that's probably why dogs were domesticated thousands of years before cats were. Cats, being cats, they kept to themselves until they found a very good reason to give up their freedom.
The first cats were domesticated 5,000 to 8,000 years ago, in the Nile River Valley in Egypt. Members of the species Felis sylvestris libyaca, also known as the African wildcat, were first drawn to domesticity by the human shift from nomadic to agrarian living. Once people learned how to farm, they began to store their harvested crops. Stored food attracted rodents, and the rodents, in turn, attracted wildcats. As the cats demonstrated their usefulness by controlling the mouse population, grateful farmers fed them to encourage them to stick around. Liking the food and the freedom from danger, the cats chose to stay. Thus began a long and mutually beneficial relationship. The ancient Egyptians named these cats miu, a name that tells us that, even in ancient times, cats spoke the same language that our cats do now!


The first domesticated cats weren't just wildcats who chose to allow themselves to be tamed. They differed from other wildcats in one crucial respect: They enjoyed human contact. African wildcats are instinctively wary of people, and European wildcats are even more difficult to tame. Wildcats don't learn to snuggle in laps and rub affectionately against their owners' ankles, as domestic cats do.
One researcher tamed and bred some of today's African wildcats to see if their kittens would become domesticated when raised with people from birth. But the wildcats' kittens never lost their fear of humans. Instead, they cowered when people approached them as fearfully as if they'd been born in the wild. And if humans insisted on handling or controlling them, the kittens turned aggressive, spitting, laying back their ears, and even biting. Another researcher made a similar discovery when he crossed European wildcats with domestic kitties. The hybrid kittens couldn't be trusted not to hunt and kill ducks and poultry, and if they weren't kept in confinement, they promptly disappeared into the woods.
Researchers think that the affectionate, gentle personality of today's domestic cats began thousands of years ago, with a genetic mutation that made some African wildcats more adaptable to human companionship. Through natural selection, these gentler mutant cats gave rise eventually to today's worldwide legions of purring tabbies, curled up snug in the laps of their very own humans.
The ancient Egyptians worshipped cats in the cult of Bastet, which began in about 1000 B.C. and lasted until it was outlawed by Theodosius I in A.D. 390. Bastet was a goddess with the head of a cat and the body of a woman, who represented fertility and health as blessings of the Sun. Domestic cats were sacred to Bastet. At festivals in her honor, attended each year by as many as half a million people, hundreds of thousands of cats were sacrificed, mummified, and buried. Mummies examined by today's archeologists show that the sacrificed animals were usually kittens or young cats who died of broken necks. Vast cat cemeteries were located in several Egyptian cities. In 1888, a farmer accidentally dug up one of the cat burial grounds in the Egyptian city of Beni Hasan. Hundreds of thousands of mummified cats were exposed. Children played with them or carried them off to sell to travelers on the Nile, scattering mummy cloth and bits of bones everywhere. Most of the dug-up cat mummies were eventually used for fertilizer. Nineteen tons of mummified cat bones were sent to England to be ground into fertilizer for British farm fields. From that massive shipment, just one skull remains, now preserved in the British Museum.

Simon Bening

The ancient Egyptians so honored their cats that the punishment for killing a cat was death. One unfortunate Roman soldier who made the mistake of hurting a cat was torn limb from limb by outraged Egyptians. Even when a cat died naturally, everyone in its home had to don full mourning and shave their eyebrows. While people wailed and lamented, the cat's body would be rolled in a linen sheet and embalmed with drugs and spices.
Rich people's cats were encased in colored linen, which was folded and wound in complicated patterns. A cat-faced mask made of papier-mache, with ears made of the ribs of palm leaves, was placed over the cat's face, and the resulting mummy was placed in a case made of wood or plaited straw, sometimes decorated with gold, crystal, and obsidian. Even kittens were buried in little bronze coffins.
Poor people's cats got simpler treatment, but they were still buried with honor and ceremony. To feed them in the afterlife, mice and shrews were mummified and put into tombs alongside mummified pets.
The most honored cats were those who served in temples. Their funerals were sometimes so elaborate and expensive that special taxes were levied to pay for them.
Images of cats begin to appear in Egyptian art starting about 2600 B.C., but the first definite evidence of domestication turned up in a tomb dated about 1900 B.C., in which researchers found the bones of seventeen cats buried with little pots of milk. After about 1600 B.C., cats took on a more prominent role in Egyptian art, curled up under their owners' chairs, chewing on bones, playing with one another, and, in what must be the earliest record of human efforts to confine these independent wanderers, tied to the leg of a chair with a red ribbon. One painting shows the mother of Pharaoh Akhnaton at dinner, slipping bits of food to a kitty under her chair. Another depicts a tabby cat eagerly hunting for birds in the company of a human hunting party.
Egyptian artists painted cats by the hundreds on the walls of tombs and on papyrus. They sculpted cats in bronze, gold, stone, and wood, molded them out of faience, and carved them into ivory. Young Egyptian women used cat amulets, called utchats, as fertility tokens, praying to have as many children as the number of kittens shown on the amulet. The word utchat spread through the world along with cats themselves, eventually becoming the root for the word cat in English, French, Italian, Russian, Hindustani, and many other Indo-European languages.

Hieronymus Bosch

Cats had been domesticated in Egypt for at least a thousand years before they appeared in the rest of the world. Their spread was slowed by the Egyptians themselves, who revered felines so deeply that, for centuries, they prohibited their export. When Egyptian travelers found domesticated cats living in other countries, they purchased or stole them in order to bring them home to Egypt, where they believed they belonged. Seeing a business opportunity in this Egyptian-imposed feline shortage, the trade-savvy Phoenicians smuggled cats out of Egypt when they could, selling them to wealthy animal lovers in other countries. Thus, domestic cats first appeared along established Phoenician trade routes, spreading later into the rest of the world. Domestic cats arrived in Greece in 500 B.C., in India about 300 B.C., and in China in 200 B.C. It took longer for cats to make it into Europe. The first domestic cats did not appear in Italy and Switzerland until the first few centuries after the birth of Christ. The domestic cat changed as it spread through Europe. Interbreeding with the European wildcat, Felis sylvestris sylvestris, made European domestic cats stockier and broader than the lean, elegant feline that had first emerged in Egypt. We can still see that difference today by comparing the relatively sturdy European or American shorthair, a breed with plenty of European wildcat genes, to the leaner breeds that evolved in Asia or Africa, such as the graceful Abyssinian or the refined Siamese.
When Herodotus, the Greek traveler, visited Egypt in the fifth century B.C., he was so intrigued by the cats he saw that he wrote cat-sighting reports in his travel journals. Domestic cats must have arrived in Greece soon thereafter. The first representation of a cat in Greek art appears in a bas-relief from about 500 B.C., showing a cat on a leash facing a dog who is also leashed. As cat and dog eye each other, their owners and a few spectators lean forward, waiting eagerly to see how the animals will respond to one another—an explosive outcome that today's cat and dog owners can predict without pause!
The words the ancient Greeks formed for cats still appear in our language today. Ailouros, the Greek name for cat, turns up in our words for someone who loves cats—an ailurophile—and for someone who detests or fears them—an ailurophobe.

Joachim Wtewael

Although the 200,000-year-old bones of a jungle cat have been found near the Thames River in England, no domestic cats lived in Great Britain until Roman soldiers brought them onto the island. Evidence of cats first begins to appear in British ruins dating from about the fourth century A.D. In Silchester, Hampshire, a cat walked across tiles laid out to dry by an ancient kiln, leaving footprints for archeologists to find fifteen centuries later.
Remains of another cat were found in ruins from the same period in Kent, where a fire destroyed an ancient house and trapped a cat in the basement.
Enough of this cat's body remained for researchers to determine that it was larger than our domesticated cats of today, but smaller than its mummified Egyptian forebears, with a skull that showed the beginnings of the foreshortened nose of today's felines.
By the fifth century in Ireland, a cat was included on a list of goods considered essential for a housewife. And in the ninth century A.D., an illustration of a cat was included in the famous Irish illuminated manuscript, The Book of Kells.

Jan Vermeyen

The first cats in Great Britain were revered and respected for their mousing abilities. A cat killer would be severely fined by having to give over a lamb or a sheep, a substantial penalty in those days. In Wales in the tenth century, the legal definition of a hamlet consisted of a place with nine buildings, one herdsman, one plow, one kiln, one churn, one bull, one cock, and one cat. Welsh law established the value of cats. Until its eyes opened, a kitten was worth a penny (the value of a lamb, kid, goose, or hen). When its eyes opened, it was worth two pennies, and once it began to kill mice, its value escalated to four pence. When a husband and wife split up, the husband got to keep a valuable piece of property: the household cat. In the tenth century, one Welsh king punished a cat killer by requiring him to pay the penalty of a pile of grain heaped high enough to cover the cat's body, which had been hung up by its tail so that its nose touched the ground. And in twelfth-century Saxony, anyone who killed a cat had to pay its owner sixty bushels of corn.
In Europe in the Middle Ages, he early reverence for cats began to shift to suspicion, fear, and finally, outright hatred. Pagans worshipped the Norse goddess Freya, who kept cats around her, used cats to pull her wagon, and was worshipped with cat rituals. As the Christian Church grew, it campaigned against witchcraft and barred the worship of pagan gods and goddesses, including Freya. Friday, the day named after Freya, became known as the Witches' Sabbath, and her cat companions were scorned and feared as witch's familiars.

Willem Van Mieris

In the fifteenth century, Pope Innocent VIII ordered all cat worshipers in Europe to be burned as witches, making cat-related witchcraft prosecutions common. In seventeenth-century Denmark, a woman was prosecuted as a witch for allegedly giving birth to a baby with the head of a cat. Doctors today would recognize a tragic birth defect, but to the Danes of that time, the baby's strange features were proof that its mother had consorted with the devil. In 1699, more than 300 children were prosecuted as witches for keeping pet cats. For this offense, fifteen of the children were executed, and others were whipped in front of the church every Sunday for a year. As late as the seventeenth century, Edward Topsell wrote, "The familiars of Witches do most ordinarily appeare in the shape of cats, which is an argument that this beast is dangerous in soule and body."
Historians believe that those who persecuted cats in the Middle Ages may also have punished themselves too. The widespread mistreatment of cats caused the feline population to drop by as much as 90 percent from its previous level. This, in turn, allowed rats to overrun human settlements. As rats increased, so did their fleas, which may have contributed to the spread of the dreaded disease that medieval people called the Black Death.
Today, we know this illness as bubonic plague, and we understand that it is caused by Yersinia pestis, a bacterium living on fleas. But medieval Europeans believed that the Black Death was caused by witchcraft, Satan, or poisoned wells. In the fourteenth century, bubonic plague swept through Europe and parts of Asia, killing one-fourth to one-half of the population. Ironically, the cats whose mistreatment may have contributed to the plague epidemic may also have helped to bring it to an end.
While the Black Death raged through Europe, people were too distracted by their own suffering to kill and torment cats. In this climate of relative safety, cat numbers increased. The cats brought the rat population under control, which helped to stem the spread of the plague at last. But those who survived the Black Death failed to show proper gratitude to the cats who had helped them. Instead, many people went right back to killing cats again.
While people in Europe were torturing cats, people in the Middle East and Asia were honoring them. Muslims believed that Mohammed was so fond of his cat that he cut off the sleeve of his robe rather than awaken his cat, who was sleeping on it. As long ago as the thirteenth century, a Muslim sultan directed his heirs to use the earnings from his orchards to care for the stray cats in his neighborhood.
He ancient Chinese kept cats as good-luck omens. Many Chinese people still believe that those who are born in the Year of the Cat have admirable catlike qualities, such as refinement, cleverness, discretion, and high virtue.

Lucas Cranach

In Japan, the first cats arrived in the tenth century. For hundreds of years thereafter, only nobles were allowed to own cats, and the lucky felines were cosseted in every way. At that time, the Japanese name for pet cats was tama, which means jewel. All cats in Japan were kept on leashes until 1602, when the government ordered them released, perhaps to aid in exterminating rodents who threatened the silkworm industry.
Far from being associated with evil, cats in Japanese folklore often help people or bring good luck. Tourists today can visit a cat cemetery in Tokyo founded centuries ago. The cemetery's temple facade is decorated by a procession of cats raising their right forelegs, as if to bless the felines buried there in honor.
Some of the first domestic cats to emerge in Asia probably developed a genetic mutation that affected their tails. As a result, strange tails have been common in Asian cats throughout history. In 1868, Charles Darwin reported, "Throughout the Malayan Archipelago, Siam, Pegu, and Burmah, all the cats have truncated tails about half the proper length, often with a sort of knot at the end." Ascribing tail problems to all Asian cats may have been an exaggeration. But in 1959, a cat researcher named A. G. Searle confirmed Darwin's observation in part, noting that about one-third of the cats in Hong Kong, and twothirds of those in Malaysia, had kinks in their tails.
The prevalence of tail oddities in Asian cats led scientists to conclude that the Manx cat, first noticed in England, must have arrived there on ships originating in Asia. Some Manx, called "rumpies," have no tails at all, while "stumpies" have only partial tails.
Siamese cats, who also originated in Asia, often have kinks in their tails. An old legend explains that the purpose of this kink was to allow princesses to keep their rings safe while bathing. The royal ladies were said to hang their jewelry on the tails of their Siamese cats, where the kinks kept the valuables securely in place. A more scientific explanation holds that the kink is an inherited abnormality of the caudal vertebrae, caused by the same genetic mutation that altered the tails of many other Asian cats.

Fedorico Barocci

By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, European hostility toward cats was beginning to subside. Slowly, cats began to take their places once more as valued pets. In mid-seventeenth-century France, Cardinal Richelieu kept dozens of them at court, and when he died, he provided for the care of his kitties in his will.
As the eighteenth century began, European princesses and fashionable French court ladies pampered their pet cats, holding salons to discuss their virtues, engraving their images on medals, and burying them in lavish tombs. French artists like Watteau and Fragonard included cats in paintings of pastoral outdoor scenes, as well as in pictures of ladies' boudoirs. One French astronomer, Lalande, even added a new constellation in the shape of a cat, called Felis, to eighteenth-century star charts. In England, too, domesticated cats began to reappear in stories, poems, and pictures of happy family life. The painter Stubbs even celebrated a friendship between a horse and a cat when he included a black stable cat in his portrait of the famous racehorse, Godolphin. By the nineteenth century, Queen Victoria's cat, White Heather, was so popular that she had her own biography. Soon thereafter, the first societies for the prevention of animal cruelty were established, in part to make sure that the cruel treatment meted out to cats and other animals during the Middle Ages would never be socially acceptable again.
As the Industrial Revolution virtually transformed nineteenth-century England, almost everyone went to work in factories, offices, and warehouses—including cats, who controlled rodents for many burgeoning new businesses. In the British Post Office, the rodent-control contributions of cats were so valued that in 1868, a Cat System was inaugurated to provide for the comfort and upkeep of all the Post Office cats.

driaen de Gryeff

Muriel Beadle, author of The Cat: History, Biology and Behavior, writes that under the system, the secretary of the Post Office financed the purchase of cat food by providing each branch office with six or seven pence per cat. But to make sure the feline employees didn't get so comfortable that they forgot their jobs, the secretary never provided quite enough money. He directed that the cats "must depend on the mice for the remainder of their emoluments." In the tradition of bureaucrats everywhere, branch managers appealed regularly for higher cat budgetary allotments. In 1873, one postmaster succeeded when he explained that he needed extra money not just for the cost of cat food, but also to make up for "the loss of dignity when carrying the cat's food through the streets in Her Majesty's uniform." The Post Office cats proved to be so helpful in controlling Post Office mice that official cats still prowled British post offices in the 1970s, more than a century after the Cat System first began.

Otto Van Veen

Throughout history, animals have helped people. Cows give milk, sheep give wool, horses provide transportation—and cats prove their value to humanity by hunting. In the late fifteenth century, Conquistador Diego de Almagro paid 600 pieces of eight for the first domestic cat in South America, imported to control mice. Frederick the Great, king of Prussia in the eighteenth century, ordered every town he conquered to pay a levy of cats, who kept rodents out of his army's stores.
Centuries later, cats came to the rescue one more time as part of the Marshall Plan, executed by the United States to help rebuild Europe after World War II. To feed starving people, Ameri-cans shipped hundreds of thousands of tons of grain into Europe. Borrowing a time-honored technique from the ancient Egyptians, they sent 10,000 cats along with the grain to keep it safe from mice. The cats did their part, helping to keep the grain intact so that hungry Europeans could restore their strength and begin the long process of rebuilding the war-shattered continent.
In 1964, an epidemic of Bolivian hemorrhagic fever swept through San Joaquin, a remote settlement in the Andes, caused by wild mice who carried the Machupo virus. After a radio appeal for help, hundreds of donated cats were airlifted to the stricken community, bringing the epidemic to a halt.
The basic body structure and appearance of the cat has changed surprisingly little through history. People created dog breeds on purpose, selecting traits like size, aggressiveness, or speed that suited dogs for particular tasks. But most cat breeds arose accidentally, as a result of genetic isolation in far-flung parts of the world. People did not begin to notice or value the different cat breeds, with their fascinating variety in color, fur length, and temperament, until Victorian times, when travelers began to bring home some of the odd-looking cats they encountered in exotic spots.
The shorthaired cats are the oldest European breed, descending from the first cats distributed through Europe by the Romans. Manx cats first came from Asia, the Angora from Turkey, the Persian from Asia Minor, the Siamese from the Far East, and the Abyssinian from Ethiopia. As breeds like these acquired names and popularity, cat owners began to want to show them off to one another.
The first cat show was held at the Crystal Palace in London in 1871. In Europe and North America today, more than 100 different pedigree breeds have been officially established with standards and registries. But for all their remarkable differences, cats from the various breeds are all variations on one theme: the astonishingly beautiful, complex, and well-loved domestic cat.

Eduard Gartner



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