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Cat History

polandeze [Flickr]

Cats have been associating with people for thousands of years.  Cats were even official employees of the Postal Service in Great Britian in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  Their job?  Mouse control.  Probably the most famous was Tibs the Great, a 23-pound cat that served for more than 14 years; when he died, he was honored with an obituary in the Royal Mail's in-house magazine.


Although dogs first appear in Stone Age carvings as early as ten thousand, B.C., it was not until almost eight thousand years later, around two thousand, B.C., that the cat appeared in Egyptian records. It was a lean, Abyssinian-like cat, and was closely associated with the cat-headed goddess, Bast. These animals were working deities, earning their keep by ridding granaries of rodents. The cat was so important as a defense against famine and disease in Egypt that the punishment for killing a feline, even by accident, was death.

It was also illegal to export cats from Egypt. Nevertheless, they were smuggled out, and by nine hundred, B.C., they could be found in all parts of Europe, where they bred with local wild cats, producing two other basic types of cats, the short-haired tabby and the flat-nosed longhair.

Throughout its association with humans, the popularity of the cat as a domestic animal has swung, pendulum-like, from one extreme to the other. Cats were idolized by the ancient Egyptians to the point that, when cats died of natural causes, their owners shaved off their eyebrows as evidence of their grief. The cat was also valuable in the fourteenth century as a defense against rodents carrying bubonic plague throughout Europe. But felines fell victim to witch-hunting during the Middle Ages, when they were brutally tortured and murdered.

Cats even played a part in American history. Considered lucky by captains of sailing ships, a tabby cat was a crew member on the Mayflower. American colonists valued their expensive imported cats both as ratters and as pets.

Today there are still some working cats, but the modern feline is more often a pet and companion nowadays. June is Adopt-a-Cat month – a great time to visit your local animal shelter or rescue group to adopt one of these prized companions to take home and treasure for your very own, when you’re speaking of pets.


Mindy Norton has been “Speaking of Pets” on Alabama Public Radio since 1995.
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