The Development of the Domestic Cat

Researchers believe that the African wild cat, a yellow, faintly striped animal somewhat larger than present-day felines is the probable ancestor of the domestic cat. Among the reasons for this conclusion are correlations between human and feline habitats during the period when domestication is most likely to have occurred; morphological and behavioral adaptations in the domestic cat, including a hearing apparatus suited to open spaces like the desert; behavioral evidence, the African wild cat is docile and is still easily tamed today; and etymological evidence, the English word cat, the French chat, the German Katze, the Spanish gato, and the modem Arabic quttah, appear to be derived from the Nubian word kadiz, meaning a cat.

Two other varieties may have also contributed to the cat's development: Pallas's cat, which is a long-coated resident of the steppes in Northern and Central Asia, is believed by some experts to be the longhaired cat's distant ancestor; and the never-domesticated European wild cat may have interbred with domesticated cats. The ancestors of the modern-day cat were either ticked, mackerel, or spotted tabbies. The classic (or blotched) tabby pattern seen in the show ring does not occur in any other member of the cat family except Felis catus, the domestic cat, in whom it appeared as an ordinary gene mutation.

Some experts believe that the cat was first domesticated in Egypt, but the probable date of this event is still an approximation. The earliest pictorial representations of cats from Egypt date from the third millennium B.C., but it is often difficult to ascertain whether these animals were wild or domestic. However, from about 1600 B.C. onwards, paintings of cats become increasingly abundant in Egypt, and it seems that these animals were fully domesticated.

Cats were domesticated, whether by themselves or by humans, to hunt vermin and, to a lesser extent, as house pets. As agrarian societies developed, wild cats moved closer to towns and villages, attracted by food and the large populations of rats and mice that thrived in granaries. When cats proved their skill at protecting grain, farmers began feeding them, hoping that they would stay on the job.

Except for the lion and the cheetah, all cats, unlike other domesticated animals, are solitary creatures. Their survival does not depend on membership in a well-structured group. These animals follow their own counsel.

The cat does not transfer its allegiance so easily. Centuries of complete reproductive freedom have also influenced the cat's personality. Until the late 19th century humans exerted almost no control over the cat's choice of mates. Other domesticated animals had been subject to arranged marriages for thousands of years by then, and only the most docile animals were considered as fit subjects.

Therefore, one can argue that the cat has been domesticated, if at all, for little more than a hundred years, and that its domestication did not commence until people began to exert systematic control over its breeding activities. The more extensive the pedigree, the greater the evolution in that animal whose ancestors it records.

Compared to the tenure of the dog, the interval since the cat was first domesticated has been brief. We can only guess at the personalities of those earliest cats who accepted food from humans, and then agreed to accept their companionship as well. In addition, we can only guess at how the cat's personality will be affected by continued selective breeding. However, one thing is certain: those making the selections should base their choices at least as much on temperament as they do on type.

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