Cats: From hunters to housemates

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Cats have been domesticated for about 10,000 years, but how did we do it?

A recent study analysing ancient cat DNA from all over the world has revealed some fascinating facts. The study found that the domestication of cats began during the Neolithic period in the Middle East. Scientists believe that African wildcats were drawn to these early human settlements by rodents around the farms, and were then tamed by the Neolithic farmers.

When farming began, so did the domestication of cats. This then accelerated later in Egypt between the 8th century BC and the 6th century AD.

The ancestors of today’s lapcats spread into Europe from the southwest of Asia, and Romans saw the high value of having cats around for pest control.

The domesticated cats would have been brought through Gaul (early Western Europe) and then into Britain by the Romans. However, when the Romans left Britain in the 5th century AD, they left many of their cats behind.

When the Vikings invaded Britain around 400 years later, they must have also seen the value in these rodent hunters. It is thought that the Vikings took some of the domesticated cats left behind by the Romans back to Norway when they left Britain.

During the Middle Ages there was a sharp decrease in the cat population, which some historians put down to a ‘mass killing’ brought about for socio-religious reasons – it is widely thought that the lack of pest control brought about by this decrease is in part responsible for the plague which took hold at this time, killing an estimated 25 million people.

The cat population bounced back, however; by the 1500s they were just as popular as before and were about to embark on a new adventure…

The cat’s incredible pest-hunting prowess secured their passage with Britons and Spaniards exploring the New World in the 17th and 18th centuries. Cats were routinely brought along for these journeys across the seas, eventually introducing domesticated cats to America.

And here we are in the 21st century. Cats are now the second most popular household pet in the UK. According to the PFMA 2018-19, 17% of UK households own at least one cat, with a total of 7.5 million pet cats throughout the country.

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WLP Team

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