Saturday, April 6, 2019

House Cats: A History of our Beloved Domesticated Felines

Two summers ago, my husband and I adopted two male shelter kittens—one black, one black and white, respectively named Dark One and Purrsnickity. They have added so much joy, laughter, cuddles, and stress relief to our busy lives. While I have loved kitties ever since they were part of our menagerie in rural New Mexico during my teen years, having these little guys romping through our newlywed apartment—and my husband’s special connection with kitties—has endeared the feline species to me even more.
"Playful Kittens" By Karl Reichert, 1890, showing the resurgence of cat appreciation in the 19th century.
Dorotheum: Info about artwork, Public Domain, 

While I know a number of friends who are “not cat people,” cats remain the most popular pet in America today, with about a third of households containing one, or often two, pet felines. So how did human relations with cats begin, and how did this lovely, cuddly, yet independent and often mysterious animal come to be domesticated in the first place? The story is an interesting one, spanning the globe and thousands of years.

The First Pet Cats: Near East, China, and Africa 

Depiction of North African lynx or wildcat, 1846. By Jardine, William, Public Domain
Scientists agree that domesticated cats sprang from the same region as did human civilization: the Middle East and North Africa. While Europe also holds native cat species, such as the Scottish wildcat and European wildcat, our pets are most directly descended from the Near Eastern or North African wildcat. Interestingly, cats have changed genetically over the centuries far less than dogs, who because of the specific jobs they were chosen and bred to perform have been carefully and intentionally developed into diverse breeds by humans over the years. Except for variations in coat color and length and other relatively minor differences, cat breeding has not changed the domestic feline species significantly from its ancestors.

Ancient Egyptian statue of "holy cat," c. 664-332 BC
By Daderot - Own work, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Domesticated cats are believed to date back as far as 9,000 or 10,000 years ago, based on evidence found as far as Cyprus, Egypt, and China. It seems that once human communities started farming and storing grain, cats were attracted by the rodents who swarmed to eat the grain. People were delighted with the pest control, cats were delighted with the easy food supply. And soon, the two species decided to not only co-exist, but become friends. For example, cat bones uncovered in China show evidence of human feeding of cats, and an ancient burial site in Cyprus shows a cat and owner buried together, indicating a close bond.

Ancient Egypt’s reverence for cats is well known, with cats sometimes even elevated to the level of gods. At one point it was a capital offense to kill a cat, and mummified cats have provided interesting DNA study for scientists, who find that Egyptian cats have changed very little over the centuries.

The Middle Ages – A Sad Season

Unfortunately, the positive associations with cats in the ancient Middle East devolved in the European Middle Ages, as cats somehow came to be associated with evil and witchcraft. They even were blamed for the Black Plague, and many cats were killed—ironically helping to spread the plague even farther, since now cats could not control the rats bearing the deadly fleas. It wasn’t until the 1700s that domesticated cats began to make a healthy resurgence again.

1700s-1800s: A Comeback
Painting by Jean-Baptiste Perronneau of little girl with cat, 1745.
- Web Gallery of Art: Public Domain, 

Pet cats began to enjoy favor again in Europe and America during the 18th and 19th centuries, as can be seen through art and literature of the period. What reader of Little Women can forget gentle Beth and her beloved kittens? However loved, domestic cats still lived mostly outdoors, once again popular for their excellent pest control—the ubiquitous barn cat on American farms. This was largely because kitty litter wasn’t invented until 1940, making a true house cat impractical till then…for obvious reasons.

Pet Cats Today

The 21st century is a good time to be a cat. The market is flooded with diverse kitty toy, litter, furniture, and food options, including healthy and organic. Laws against cruelty to animals aim to protect them, and cats are even said to “rule the internet” (well, who can resist those adorable kitten videos?). And 47 million American households include at least one pet kitty.
"Two Kittens" By Sophie Sperlich, early 20th century., Public Domain

However, there are still plenty of cats without good homes, as my husband and I saw vividly when we were looking for our kittens to adopt. Thinking of the rows of cages full of lonely, abandoned kittens—and sweet-natured older cats too—still makes me sad, though I’m so glad we were able to give two at least a good home. So if you are looking for a pet, don’t forget to check out the shelters. Maybe you’ll find new furry friends for your home—and see in them, as they frolic and play, not-so-subtle hints of the wildcats they were not so many generations ago.

What about you? Are you a "cat person"? What facts stand out to you about the history of these enigmatic felines? Please comment and share!

Kiersti Giron holds a life-long passion for history and historical fiction. She loves to write stories that show the intersection of past and present, explore relationships that bridge cultural divides, and probe the healing Jesus can bring out of brokenness. Kiersti has been published in several magazine and won the 2013 and 2018 Genesis Awards – Historical for her novels Beneath a Turquoise Sky and Fire in My Heart. An English teacher and member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Kiersti loves learning and growing with other writers penning God's story into theirs, as well as blogging at She lives in California with her wonderful husband, Anthony, and their two kitties.


  1. I do enjoy cats but currently can't have one due to renting. Any cat I have must be totally an indoor cat as I despise flea bites! My hubby isn't a fan of cats but often he is the one kitties go to first!! Our last cat was very special and we had her for about 10 years. She would watch TV with us, especially the nature shows. She'd get right up close to the screen and try to bat the critters she saw, so fun. I thought it was interesting that not having cats may have contributed to the faster spread of the Plague, and I can totally see the reasoning there. Thanks for the post!

    1. Thanks so much for sharing, Connie! So special to hear about your sweet kitty. One of our kitties loves to watch TV too--for some reason he especially likes the How to Train your Dragon movies. We wonder if it's because the movie makers apparently based much of the dragons' behavior on cats! Blessings. :)

  2. Kiersti, what a fun post. I am definitely a cat lover and have had them since I was a child. My current two are rescue cats. whom I named after the characters in my book Surprised by Love in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Jack is a lynx point siamese tabby. He's nowhere like a siamese. He is a gray tabby with lynx point markings. Meg (Meggie) is a tuxedo and thinks she is the boss of our little family. I haven't had an outdoor cat since the cats I had growing up. Indoor is much better. Less chance of getting hurt or disease.

    1. How fun that your kitties are named after your characters, Pam! I love it. And yes, we keep our kitties inside our apartment too, though they love to sit by the door or window and watch birds. :) Blessings!

  3. Kiersti, I don't consider myself a cat person, but my husband & his family are right up there. Our first cat was a domestic short-haired kitten which we hoped would divert our preschooler from the fact that her dad was gone on a five-week tour. Not that her father could be replaced, but the cuddle aspect was such a tremendous help. 'Trouble' was 19 human-years old when she died after spending her whole life inside.

    We rescued our next cat a few years after Trouble came into our lives. As military members gone for most of the day, we had been told that we need a pet for our pet to keep them out of trouble while we were gone all day. But we hadn't found that special one yet.

    Then, arriving home from work one day we found our neighbor sitting on her front steps with a cardboard box. She said she saw a pickup truck stop on the road for a few minutes and after it left, the box was there. She went out and found 4 long-haired kittens inside. Our daughter was enthralled. She picked one out and we took it to the vet for a check-up. The vet decided on its age, gave it some shots, and said it was a Maine Coon. Our daughter named it 'Fluffy'. Fluffy grew bigger than Trouble and long. Very long. He could stretch from the floor to the tabletop without effort. We had him spayed at the proper age, kept him inside, and he was a wonderful companion for our family, as well as Trouble, for 17 human-years.

    Those 2 cats were a positive contribution to our family life and all 4 of our kids have a special spot for cats and the blessings they received through them.

  4. So fun to hear the stories about your cats, Anita. Sounds like they have been a blessing both to your family and to each other! We got two kittens also for the reason of keeping each other company, since we have a long commute and busy work days, but they've been a blessing to us too. :)