A Brief History of Cats: Cats throughout the Ages

By John Platt Jr. April 13, 2019

You might be cuddled up on the sofa next to your cat right now, but things haven’t always been this way. Cats didn't used to be the domestic partners that many of us see them as nowadays. That isn’t to say that cats have been treated poorly. In some places throughout history, cats were considered to be either gods or direct links to them. In other places, cats were workers meant to keep the rodent population in check to minimize the spread of diseases and the loss of grain in storage. Although they may not have been rewarded for doing so, by culling the rodent populations throughout history, cats have arguably helped humans. Here we sample a few places that cats have lived throughout history.

Ancient Egyptian Felines

Although some pop culture references are rooted in myths or misconceptions, the idea that cats were incredibly popular in Ancient Egypt is entirely rooted in truth. Ancient Egyptians as far back as nearly 3000 BCE worshipped a cat-headed deity of some sort. In fact, evidence from the tombs of pharaohs suggests that Bastet, a goddess depicted with the head of a lion, was regarded as a protector. Archaeologists also uncovered a tomb dating back to around 2000 BCE that contained the skeletons of 17 cats. It is likely that they believed cats would not only protect the physical body in the tomb from snakes, mice, and insects, but also protect the spirit on its journey to the afterlife.

Although cats have been found buried alongside other humans for centuries, it wasn’t until 1350 BCE in Egypt that the first mummification of a cat was performed. Archaeologists discovered an elaborately carved limestone sarcophagus containing what was likely the beloved pet cat of Prince Thutmose. Archaeological evidence from around 950 BC and on has been found depicting Bastet with her head as a common cat and not a lion. It was during this time that the domestic cat became worshipped and sacred. Most Egyptians believed domestic house cats to be the personification of Bastet, as the protection of the Pharaoh was now left to Sekhmet, who is depicted as having a lion’s head. In fact, archaeologists have even uncovered cat cemeteries filled with embalmed, mummified cats.

It wasn’t until about 30 BCE that cats began to lose their place in Egyptian society. During this time period, Egypt became a province of Rome which began banning paganism and paganist rituals. Thus, people stopped visiting the temples of the old gods and goddesses, and the importance of domestic cats as the embodiment of Bastet faded. As traffic to the temples stopped, so did the offerings of embalmed and mummified cats, which had been tradition for centuries before the arrival of the Romans. As Rome spread across much of early civilization, the places it conquered and annexed became Roman too, thus losing much of their cultural identities.

Cats in Japan

Although cats are not native to Japan, they have a rich history of interaction with humans in Japan. It is likely that cats were first brought to Japan in the 6th century, AD. At that time, the Japanese believed cats to be rare commodities, bringing luck and other good fortunes to whoever owned them. Almost instantly, cats became a cultural good that was incredibly expensive. Thus, only the rich could own cats for some time, and they became a status symbol. After a few hundred years, cats became increasingly popular in Japan, and it got to the point where most commoners could afford to own one. This is evidenced by the fact that popular woodblock-printers were making pictures of cats during the Edo period, and popular novels were written about cats during the Meiji period. Plenty of shrines exist to this day that have depictions of cats as their focus.

One of the most famous depictions of cats comes from Japan: the maneki-neko, or, beckoning cat. If you’ve been in any restaurant that serves Japanese food, you’ve likely seen the maneki-neko. This cute little cat is typically white with red ears or solid gold in color. It is often found alongside other “good luck” charms such as a statue of the Buddha. An old Japanese fable tells the tale of a landlord who was beckoned by a cat, and as he approached the cat a bolt of lightning struck where he had been standing. The man believed the beckoning cat to be a symbol of good fortune, and thus the story spread. Maneki-neko are normally found near entrances to shops, restaurants, and other places of business. They’re so popular, in fact, that they’re often made into piggy banks and keychains.

For much of recent history, cats have been living alongside humans across the globe. Japan is no exception. Few places in the world bring visitors the same way that Aoshima Island does. This island, known as “cat island,” brings tourists from across the planet. Since this island is small and rural, fewer than 50 people inhabit the island; it is great for day trips. There are no accommodations like restaurants, shops, or hotels on the island. On Aoshima Island, cats live freely alongside humans. They are often photographed waiting on the docks for the day’s visitors to show up. The island is famous in Japan, and when referred to many people will say “15 residents, and 100 cats: the cat paradise.”

Cats in the United States

Being a cat in Europe from about 500 AD up until the 1700s was hard. Most people thought cats to be complicit with the work of the devil. By the time Columbus set sail on his fantastic, historic voyage, cats were already part of life at sea.  They lived in the hull catching stowaway rodents and insects. However, some cats jumped on ships set for the New World.

In what is now called the United States, cats became essential to life. As many of the settlers were responsible for growing and maintaining their own crops, cats became handy tools for maintenance of barns and fields. There are some genetic indications today that link American Shorthair cats to the cats brought over by the settlers. By the 19th century, cats were seen by many Americans to be close companions and were brought indoors rather than kept outside.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, cats became increasingly popular across the globe, especially in Europe and North America. In 1906, the Cat Fancier’s Association was established with the expressed purpose of preserving the genetic integrity of each breed, as well as protecting each cat’s health. They often put on shows across the country (the first in Buffalo and Detroit) to educate the public about different cat breeds, care, and maintenance. Today, the Cat Fancier’s Association remains the largest registry of purebred cats that has ever existed.

Currently, cats are the second most numerous pets kept in American households. Cats outnumber dogs in American households by about 10 million, but they are significantly outnumbered by fish (by almost 30 million more)! Although many of us couldn’t imagine life without our furballs, it’s incredible to learn that kitty litter wasn’t around approximately 70 years ago. All those years, cats lived inside and outside without litter boxes. Although cats have played many roles in numerous human societies over the years, gone are the days of working in the fields and hunting for their next meal. All your beloved pet has to do is wait for you to come home after work and dinner will soon follow.

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