People have admired the beauty and mystery of cats for thousands of years. As early as 3500 B.C., the ancient Egyptians were awed by these fascinating creatures. The Egyptians began to tame wildcats from Africa and keep them as treasured pets. This reverence for felines is clearly represented in Egyptian artwork. By 1500 B.C., cats were considered sacred animals in Egypt, and anyone who killed a cat could be put to death. Many Egyptian gods have the bodies of cats, and the ancient Egyptian people shaved their eyebrows to grieve the loss of their pet cats.
Around 1000 B.C., traders began bringing cats to Europe and the Middle East. The ancient Greeks and Romans prized cats for their ability to control rodent populations, and the cat soon became the guardian spirit of households. The popularity of felines also spread throughout Asia, where they were used to protect valuable silkworm cocoons from rodents. In fact, the silk industry would not have been able to thrive in Asia without cats! As they were in Egypt, cats became celebrated in the art and literature of China and Japan.
Cats were not so popular during the Middle Ages, however. In fact, they became associated with evil and witchcraft in Europe, and thousands of felines were killed out of fear. But nature had her revenge. The destruction of cats led to a surge in the rodent population that spread the bubonic plague in the 1300’s. Europeans soon came to realize the value of cats, and in time felines regained their popular status.
In the 1600’s, when Europeans began to settle in the New World, they brought their cats with them. Most of the domestic cats in America today are descendants of European “immigrant” cats. For awhile, cats continued to be valued, especially for their help in protecting food supplies on ships and in new settlements from mice and rodents. But in the late 1600’s with the Salem witch trials, cats and their owners once again became unjustly associated with evil. Fortunately, this changed again as people began to realize the injustice in their treatment of those wrongly accused of witchcraft and their cats.
In the mid-1700’s, short hair cats were once again happily about the business of controlling rodent plagues, this time in Pennsylvania. As more colonists came to the New World, the cat population grew. Cats that made it across the ocean were strong and rugged hunters, and it is believed that the colonies would not have survived without cats to help prevent the spread of disease carried by rodents.
Cats continued to protect people during the 1800’s as people began to move west. At first, cats were conspicuously left out when families gathered their livestock and Wagon trains packed with grain and headed toward uncharted territories. It wasn’t long before the grain feel prey to rodents, and people soon realized the error of leaving their cats behind! By the Gold Rush of 1849, cats were sold for up to $50, a small fortune at the time. In 1884, when San Francisco was inundated with yet another rat plague, people were willing to pay up to $100 for a cat.
Today, more than 65 million cats grace our homes with companionship, and the cat is by far the most popular house pet. There are nearly 40 different breeds, with Persian, Siamese, Exotic Short hair and Domestic Short hair among the most common feline pets.