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Question How did cats become domesticated?


Domesticated cats all come from wildcats called Felis silvestris lybica that originated in the Fertile Crescent in the Near East Neolithic period and in ancient Egypt in the Classical period.

National Photo Co. Woman holding cat.  1926. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

According to a recent study by Claudio Ottoni, cat domestication took place in two strains, but all domestic cats have a common ancestor: the North African / Southwest Asian wildcat, Felis silvestris lybica (Ottoni et al., 2017). By studying ancient cat DNA from all over the world, the researchers found that cat domestication began in the Fertile Crescent (in the Neolithic period) and accelerated later in ancient Egypt (in the Classical period) (Ottoni et al., 2017).

Other scientists have also discovered another potential instance of cat domestication. Jean-Denis Vigne studied skeletal remains of cats in China and found that there may have been a short-lived domestication of leopard cats in China, independent of domestication elsewhere (Vigne et al., 2016). However, they did not find evidence that any present day domesticated cats are related to leopard cats, so if there was a time that they were domesticated, it did not last (Vigne et al., 2016).

The cat – Felis domesticus. L. Prang & Co., 1872.  Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

The evidence from Ottoni’s study also gives an explanation for the way cats spread around the world. By analyzing the ancient DNA of cat remains found in port cities, the scientists concluded that cats were brought along on ships, most likely to help protect food storages on board by killing rodents (Ottoni et al., 2017). This allowed cats to spread across the world.

Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. A contented cat at Yoder’s Amish Home … near Walnut Creek in central Ohio.  2016.  Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Another interesting element of the history of cat domestication has to do with cat coat patterns. Analyzing the pattern of cat coats is one of the best ways for scientists to distinguish between wild and domesticated cats, since it is one of the few visible differences between the two. Ottoni found that the recessive allele found in most tabby cats today that causes a blotched pattern did not appear in their study until the medieval period. This suggests that selective breeding for coat color did not appear until the medieval period, much later than the start of cat domestication (Ottoni et al., 2017).

Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. Popcorn the cat, one of a dozen or so feline residents at Gammons Gulch, a recreated Old West town and the site of dozens of movies, commerical shoots and the like in the remote desert north of Benson in Cochise County, Arizona.  2018.  Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Scientists have also used coat colors and patterns to study other aspects of cats. For example, V.J. Crossley found that depending on their breed, coat color, and hair length, cats may be more susceptible to hyperthyroidism (Crossley et al., 2017). The study suggests an increased risk of hyperthyroidism for longhair non-purebred cats, but a decreased risk for many pedigreed longhair cats compared to domestic shorthairs (Crossley et al., 2017).

Kittens crawling on Representative Peter Kostmayer in his Congressional office. Roll Call photograph, 1991. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Many experts are also curious as to whether there is a link between coat color and behavior. E.A. Stelow used an online survey study and found that there may be a slightly better chance for tortoiseshell, calico, gray and white, and black and white cats to be more aggressive than others (Stelow et al., 2015).

Another question is whether coat color impacts the length of time a cat will stay in a shelter. W.P. Brown concluded that younger and lighter colored cats generally find homes more quickly than older and darker colored cats (Brown and Morgan, 2015).

These studies show that the history of cat domestication and the connection to coat colors and patterns is a topic of interest in the scientific community today. There is still much to learn about the history of cat domestication.

Hunter, Thomas (Lithographer). Cats.  1881. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Published: 11/19/2019. Last Updated: 3/1/2022 Author: Science Reference Section, Library of Congress

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