The process of domestication in cats is still considered ongoing, but it started around 10,000 years ago, when humans began settling in agrarian societies and stored large quantities of food.
Human food stores attracted rodents, which attracted cats’ ancestral species, the African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica). Although the relationship is often described as providing great benefit to humans via pest control, the relationship between humans and cats was actually most beneficial to cats, as humans already had the ratting services of weasels and dogs.
Regardless, kitties were ready to take advantage of the surplus of rodents. What likely happened was that the friendliest of cats endeared themselves to humans, and the humans provided shelter and care for the cats who warmed up to them. This allowed cats who could be tamed to be more successful, reproductively speaking, creating more human-friendly offspring.
Fast forward to 4000 years ago, when we have the first evidence of cats living closely with humans. Remains of cats were found in Egyptian tombs, and art from that period depicts cats and humans coexisting in indoors environments. Egyptians are known for their love of animals, including a passion for cats. And that passion soon spread.
Since then, cats spread throughout the world, likely accompanying humans on ships, until they established populations on every continent. Although cats have had their ups and downs in history, throughout we find evidence that cats had cultural significance, from witch trials, to subjects of art during the Renaissance, cats had a long and winding road to their place as one of the most popular pets in the world. Their status as pets was cemented during the first cat breeding show in the late 1800s by the 1950s, humans sealed the deal with the invention of kitty litter. Cats were living with us, and now they could stay inside with us at all times.
Compared to dogs, this timeline has happened on an incredibly fast scale, and with very few changes asked of cats. To this day, most cats are random-bred, meaning they choose their own mates and we have not shaped their behavior through controlled breeding. That does not mean that there have not been changes to the genetics and phenotype (meaning the observable characteristics such as appearance and behavior) of cats; but the changes are small and can be subtle.
We have likely selected cats for juvenile behaviors and physical appearances, as the cute faces and baby-sized feline bodies likely simulate caretaking behavior. Today’s cat has a smaller brain than their ancestors, and genetic changes suggest a selection for better memories and reward sensitivity, which might make it easier for them to remember who is handing out the treats!
Because cats’ behaviors have changed so little during domestication, they retain many of their ancestral, instinctive behaviors. Perhaps the most important one is hunting. Cats, even those without exposure to prey when young, will attempt to hunt. A well-fed cat will still chase prey, because instinct says you don’t know where that next meal might come from.
Cats are still territorial and find great comfort in marking their territory, whether through scratching, cheek or body rubbing, or through urine marking. These are effective methods of distributing pheromones, a unique chemical signature that other cats can detect. Much like the graffiti artist marking his or her turf, a cat can leave a message “I live here…” “This belongs to me…”
You may notice that your cat does other behaviors that might seem a little strange or out of place. One example is scratching at and covering their urine and feces, or even at some leftover food. We theorize that cats do this to prevent detection from predators or competitors. You might be thinking, there’s no predators in this cozy house! Why is my cat doing this? But remember, that throughout evolutionary time, these behaviors served a purpose for your cat. And it never hurt them to do these behaviors, so there was no reason for that behavior to disappear during the process of evolution.
When you see these “feline rites” take a moment to appreciate that they are a true representation of your cat’s heritage, and in fact, many of these behaviors are common across many feline species! Although your cat is now a tame housecat, the thread that ties them to their wild ancestors is still very much intact.
[#BeginTLDR#] In true feline fashion, the domestication of cats was very much on their own terms. [#SplitTLDR#] Cats lived alongside humans long before domestication to aid with pest control [#SplitTLDR#] Despite domestication, cats are still obligate carnivores and need to eat meat to survive [#EndTLDR#]