With over 400 million animals thought to be in existence world wide, domestic cats have become one of the most popular pets of all time. Their sleek, athletic look and often aloof, independent demeanour are seen by cat lovers as a welcome opposite to the barking, panting ‘I’ll do anything for you’ enthusiasm of the domestic dog. A soft, quiet, companion in the body of an efficient, determined hunter, the domestic cat may fill a need for a touch of wildness in people who are becoming increasingly removed from the natural world.
All current domestic cats are descendants of a group of Wildcats from 9,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent of Western Asia. This area is believed to be the origin of agriculture, when nomadic tribes first began to settle and grow crops. The grain was stored in granaries that attracted rodents, which in turn attracted Wildcats. With no further need to forage widely for food, the Wildcats and humans began an alliance that is still in place today.
Feral domestic cats are largely nocturnal, but can be seen early and late in the day. The cat at home can appear to be resting or sleeping almost constantly throughout the day, but this does not mean that it is not alert. Cats, as with many non-human animals, do not sleep for hours at a time, but take a series of short sleep cycles. They will wake up to check out a sound or blur of movement, going back to sleep if nothing interesting is happening (thus the term ‘cat nap’). Their ears are also constantly moving, tuning into a variety of sounds such as high frequency sounds from prey species. These are beyond the range of human hearing.
Cats seem to enjoy rolling around on strong smelling objects or areas of ground, then coming back into the house and reeking of these questionable odours. This is thought to aid in hunting by covering up the cat’s own scent with another, stronger smelling odour. A domestic cat usually depends on humans to feed it, but this doesn’t mean that it is not perfectly capable of hunting on its own. They prey on a wide variety of small mammals and birds, insects, fish, and domestic chickens. Cats often eat grass or other green vegetation, and it is thought that they may be obtaining certain vitamins or other nutrients that are not present in their normal diet. One reason for swallowing fur that can form ‘hairballs’ in the stomach may be that it helps cushion the stomach against the bones of their prey.
Another interesting phenomenon is the response of domestic cats to catnip, or catmint. This is a plant that produces an active ingredient that causes many cats to roll or rub in it, or sometimes shake their heads. These actions are similar to some of the motor actions of a female cat in oestrous. The reaction of a cat to catnip is apparently governed by the presence or absence of a certain dominant autosomal gene. Cats that don’t inherit this gene do not react to catnip.
Domestic cats are basically solitary, but individuals in a given area do have a social organization and hierarchy. In areas of high prey density or other reliable food sources, there can be a dense population of cats that tolerate and interact with one another. Cats in any one area are familiar with one another, mostly through olfactory signs, such as areas where they have sprayed urine, marked with scrapes and fecal material, and rubbed their scent glands.
Males and females come together to mate in response to the female giving off certain scent and vocal signals to indicate that she is receptive. Strange males are initially driven off and must be persistent in following before a female will allow close contact, but familiar males may be allowed to mate almost immediately. Females are polyestrous, coming into oestrous three to four times a year. They are receptive for an average of three days, longer if they are not mated during this time. Two litters of one to eight, usually three to five, kittens per year are usually born, often in abandoned burrows, hollow logs, the bases of trees, or in rock shelters or thick vegetation. The gestation period averages 63 – 66 days, and the kittens weigh 85 – 110 grams when born. Their eyes open between seven and 20 days, and they begin to walk between nine and 15 days. Kittens begin to eat solid food at four weeks of age, and are weaned around eight to ten weeks. Independence is gained around six months, and sexual maturity is reached around 10 – 12 months. Record longevity has been recorded at 34 years.
In Egypt, male cats were sacrificed to the sun god, Ra. They believed that Ra adopted the form of a tomcat during his daily battles with the serpent of darkness, Apep. Female cats were regarded as representations of the mother goddess, Bastet. She symbolized female virtues such as beauty, grace, fertility and motherhood. They were also associated with the moon (a source of the earth’s fertility), and with the 28 day lunar cycle.
At the time, cats in Egypt appeared to be the equivalent of cows in present day India. Anyone causing the death of a cat, even by accident, was liable to be lynched by angry mobs. When a cat died of natural causes, its owners would shave their eyebrows as a sign of mourning. Dead cats were also mummified and buried. So abundant were these remains that during the nineteenth century, mummified cats were used as ballast on ships or ground up to be used as fertilizer. One shipment of 19 tons of mummified cats found its way to Manchester, England to meet such a fate.
The rise of Christianity in Europe heralded a fundamental shift in attitudes towards cats. During the Middle Ages, the cat’s link with the ancient pagan cult of the mother goddess inspired a wave of persecution that lasted several hundred years. Branded as agents of the devil and chosen companion of witches, cats, especially black ones, were enthusiastically tortured and executed during Christian festivals all over Europe. It was also believed that witches disguised themselves as cats as a means of travelling around incognito, so anyone encountering a stray cat at night felt obliged to try and kill or at least maim the animal. The cat’s eyeshine was thought to spring from the fires of hell itself. By teaching people to associate cats with the devil and bad luck, it appears that the Church provided the underprivileged and superstitious masses with a sort of universal scapegoat, something to blame for all of the many hardships and misfortunes of life.
Compare your favourite chair sitter with their ancestor, the wild Felis silvestris.