Although it may well make dogs a bit jealous, the most popular pet in the United States is now the cat. Capable of showing affection, tidy in habit, certainly not as boisterous as dogs, the cat can be the ideal pet and companion for busy households that simply may not have the time to devote to the attention-hungry dog. While cats certainly do enjoy the company of their human friends, they are also quite happy to simply lie on a soft cushion or sun on a window sill when left alone for the day.
The domestication of the cat coincided with the beginnings of agriculture. Once people started raising grain, approximately 12,000 years ago, rodents became a problem. Stored grain would provide an untold bounty for mice and rats, and while dogs were terrific at hunting game or protecting flocks and villages, they weren’t as efficient at rodent hunting as cats.
It is now thought that the domestic cat is descended from Felis sylvestris, the cat of the woods. It is also believed that the partnership between humans and cats began in the Middle East, probably in the Fertile Crescent. Domestication spread rapidly wherever humans were planting crops, and within centuries cats were helping to keep precious stored food safe from rodents over most of the Old World.
Even today, mice and rats destroy millions of tons of food every year, either by eating it directly or by despoiling it with their urine and feces. In addition, rodent urine can spread such dangerous diseases as leptospirosis, salmonella, and Hanta virus. Rats are also responsible for spreading bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death, from fleas.
Unlike the dog, which has basically received ‘good press’ throughout its association with mankind, the attitude of people towards cats has been somewhat changeable over the centuries, often to the detriment of cats.
The Ancient Egyptians revered the cat to such a degree that it was considered to be a demi-god. Harming or killing a cat during this time could bring a sentence of death to the perpetrator. Although Felis sylvestris is the root stock from which most cat breeds have sprung, another cat, Felis chaus, is thought to have been bred with sylvestris during this period. Tomb paintings depict cats hunting birds from boats with their human companions. Cats appear in paintings, frescoes, and statuary from Ancient Egypt, and cats were often mummified to assure them of success in the afterlife.
Another people who understood the value of cats in keeping rodents suppressed were the Norse. Their goddess Freya rode in a chariot drawn by a pair of enormous cats, and the farmers in Scandinavia would leave presents to these cats to help make sure that the harvest would be a good one (and probably protected from rodent predation by cats).
Famines were common in Ancient China and protecting stored food was of the utmost importance. The goddess Li Shou was the personification of all that is good in cats and she was invoked to provide protection for the home and grain. Statues of the goddess were present in many homes and offerings were made to be assured of her good will.
While those in China revered the cat, there were some in Japan who had an opposite point of view. Cats were thought to have the ability to become the changelings of princesses they had killed and so entrap unsuspecting princes and cause their downfall.
Undoubtedly, the worst time for cats was during the Middle Ages in Europe. This was a time when superstition overcame religion, and people’s fear of witches and devils caused them to look upon cats as instruments of evil. Part of this stemmed from the preference of cats for night, and partly because some older women who might still be practicing ancient religions that were thought to be witchcraft kept the animals as companions and hunters of mice. The Black Plague is often thought to have become so widespread and severe because so many cats had been killed, allowing the rat population to blossom.
Fortunately, today cats have moved back into their spot as revered animals once again in many parts of the world. Loving companions, but still deadly hunters of rodents, these independent, beautiful, and intelligent creatures are important and cherished members of millions of homes worldwide.