Published by: Ingrid King. Last Updated on: June 28, 2023 by Crystal Uys
Written by Elizabeth Colleran, DVM
Earliest evidence of companion cats
The first evidence of companion cats comes from the island of Cyprus about 7,500 years BCE (Before the Common Era). This island is somewhat unique because even when water levels around the globe changed dramatically a land bridge to any continent never existed on the island. Thus, the only animals that lived on Cyprus came there by either swimming or flying. Given that cats are mostly loathe to swim in salt water, the only way cats got there was on ships, likely Phoenician ones. These ships were quite small, making cat stowaways unlikely.
Cats probably worked aboard ships the same way they did on land, protecting food stores and trading material from rodents and other pests. It also may be true that Phoenician ships delivered the first rodents to Cyprus and then brought the first solutions to the problems they introduced, cats to hunt them!
On an archeological dig on the island, an elaborate burial site was discovered. In it was a male skeleton laying a short distance from a cat. Both had been prepared for burial in the same ceremonial way and were buried with tools, weapons and other implements that indicated that this person came from some wealth and status. This represents the first evidence of connection between cats and people.
Cats in ancient Egypt
Much more profound evidence comes later, about 4,000 BCE in Egypt where cats were companions and gods. Both in the elaborate sarcophagus art and in the carvings and informal images created by artists and artisans tasked with creating burial images, cats are often found. Drawings of vagabond cats, collared cats, and cats sitting with or playing with humans were common.
Meanwhile, three gods of considerable importance evolved from having the heads of lions to the heads of cats. One of them, Bastet, became most closely associated with domestic cats. Worship of her began in the city of Bubastis, in the Nile Delta, over 4,800 years ago. Her head at this time was a lion, however, her attendants were smaller presumably domestic cats. 2000 years later, her lion’s head was replaced by the cat and she evolved from a simple god of luck to one associated with playfulness, fertility, motherhood and female sexuality. Arguably, all of these traits associated with domestic cats. Her popularity spread all over Egypt as her annual feast day became the most important of the calendar.
Cats began to spread to the Mediterranean
Cats began to spread out of Egypt about 3,500 years ago but these were not the only domesticated cats as is evidenced by the relics on the Island of Cyprus. Paintings from this period show cats aboard ships whether immigrating or emigrating is unclear. The sailors of the time were Phoenicians operating out of areas now known as Lebanon and Syria. The introduced lybica cats (African wildcats) to many of the islands of the Mediterranean as well as the mainlands of Spain and Italy.
Around the same period cats were common in Greece. Two Greek colonies on the southern coast of Italy minted coins showing a man sitting in a chair, dangling a toy in front of a cat who is reaching up with forepaws. A bas-relief carved in Athens at about the same time depicts a cat on a leash. Other Greek paintings show cats relaxed and laying about with people nearby and a name for domestic cats emerged “aielouros” or “waving tail”.
In Rome, meanwhile, paintings showed cats in domestic situations – under benches at a dinner, on a boy’s shoulder, or playing with string dangling from a woman’s hand. Women were more often depicted with cats as were dogs with men. “Felicula” – little kitten – became a common name for girls in Rome around 2,000 years ago.
From pest controller to companion
The migration of cats continued around the world as cats evolved from pest controller to companion. As the practice of agriculture spread so did the cat. Rivals emerged to hunt specific predators like the mongoose and weasel, but none had the staying power of the cat. The capacity to evolve from hunter to beloved companion, so much more powerful in cats, led it to this place of primacy in the companion animal world.
Dr. Elizabeth Colleran is a 1990 graduate of Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. She holds a Masters of Science in Animals and Public Policy, also from Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. In 2011, she was the President of the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP). She is a Diplomate of the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners, Specialty in Feline Practice. As the spokesperson for the AAFP initiative Cat Friendly Practice, she speaks at major conferences around the country. Dr. Colleran owns the Chico Hospital for Cats in Chico, CA and the Cat Hospital of Portland in Portland, OR.
Featured Image Credit: Wanwajee Weeraphukde, Shutterstock
About the author
Ingrid King is an award-winning author, former veterinary hospital manager, and veterinary journalist who is passionate about cats.