Long story short: It's complicated
No other animal carries the same level of paradoxical mystique than the cat. Cats were worshipped in Egypt and demonized in Europe. They’re either harbingers of bad luck or good luck depending on their fur color and your culture. They can be born two-faced, like Janus cats, or with two sets of genes, like chimeras. Even Catwoman was a frenemy to Batman!
How can this be? Are we mapping their behavior onto our perceptions, or forming superstitions based on their behavior? For example, cats can go from being content to hissing at you in 0.3 seconds. Does this mean they could easily turn on us and are not to be trusted? According to lore, they can suck the life out of your baby. Why would we think that?
To better understand the cat, let’s look at our history together.
From wild cat to Instagram cat
10,000 Years Ago — Before Cats
This is a long time ago, even before the musical “Cats.” After hunting and gathering for 190,000 years, modern humans finally invent farming and decide to settle down in the Fertile Crescent (in the present-day Middle East). By this time, dogs have been domesticated for at least 5,000 years.
9,500 Years Ago — How It Did Not Happen
The first farming family domesticates and trains a wild cat to hunt mice. They name it Mr. Flufferton and tame him with catnip and a spoon to reflect a small spot of sunlight on the wall. This is not what happened. The idea that we domesticated the cat is a myth, as if cats ever did what we want.
9,500 Years Ago — How It Likely Went Down
Farming means storing grain. Stored grain attracts a smorgasbord of rodents. Cats eat rodents, not grain. So to obtain an easy meal, cats domesticate themselves. And they’ve been putting up with us ever since. A man buried with his cat in Cyprus will be the first archeological proof of domestication.
3,800 Years Ago — Cats Are Sacred
Orange cats are favored, pampered and honored as deities. The downside? They are bred in enormous numbers, sold to pilgrims, sacrificed to the goddess Bastet and mummified. The Egyptian lineage will one day dominate the genetic code of cats and account for most, if not all, orange cats.
2,453 Years Ago — Weasels Try to Weasel in
Yes, without the color preference of ancient Egyptians, Garfield would not be orange. Even more shocking: For a time in Greece and Rome, weasels and ferrets are considered more adept at controlling rodents. If cats were any less pleasant, you’d be reading about the history of your pet weasel.
865 — Cats Are Vikings
Ivar the Boneless and the Great Heathen Army invade England. Their secret weapon? Cats — they are considered good luck on a longboat. Vikings love the Egyptian-bred orange cats as much as they love invading England. Maps of ginger-cat populations and Viking expansion match each other to this day
1233 — Cats Are Evil
In response to reports of a cult in the Rhineland, Pope Gregory IX declares cats an instrument of Satan. Many see it as the impetus for the great medieval purge and killing of cats, which includes throwing them from the bell tower in Ypres, Belgium. (Yeah, that happened.) Or it could just be that cats are the new scapegoat.
1500 — Cats Get Ships
Except for the coming association with witches, fortunes for cats improve. As global trade picks up, cats proliferate thanks to being ideal shipmates for pest control. Folklore holds that cats swim for it after being shipwrecked off the Isle of Man. Their mutation creates the tail-less Manx, one of the first breeds to emerge.
1871 — Cats Get Fancy
Despite diverging from wild cats some 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, domestic cats are surprisingly similar to present-day wild cats, which have longer legs. While dogs are bred for function, cats are bred for aesthetics alone. Five breeds of cats exist, not including the Cheshire cat, discovered by Alice six years ago.
2020 — Still the Hypercarnivore
There are now about 40 cat breeds. After 80 years, Tom never catches and eats Jerry, and Sylvester is constantly outsmarted by Tweety Bird. When your cat brings you a dead mouse, it’s cute to think they’re bringing you a present. More likely, your cat is trying to remind you that they’re still a stone-cold killer.
Will cats always land on their feet?
It’s ironic that throughout history, it’s cats we characterize as untrustworthy and duplicitous. When cats were considered goddesses, they died. Cats who were considered demons or witches died. No wonder cats need nine lives. So who should not be trusted? Humans or cats? If cats seem indifferent to us, that’s actually a pretty generous response after how we’ve treated them.
Now we are more accustomed to permanently conforming our pets to fit the whims of our desires. Because about 70% of cats in the United States are indoor only, declawing has long been an acceptable means of protecting our furniture. Illegal in most of Europe, this painful practice was just recently outlawed in New York as well as in several cities throughout the country.
Cats don’t suffer from as many genetic disorders as dogs, but some live with gene mutations perpetuated by breeding. The Scottish fold has malformed cartilage, which gives it tiny floppy ears and arthritic pain throughout its body. While there is a move to ban the breeding of them in the U.K., the breed is gaining popularity in the U.S.
It's important to consider the unintended consequences of the physical qualities we choose for our cats.
Reflections on cats
Being notoriously hard to read, it’s impossible to know how cats see the world. Because of this, we have felt compelled to project our own feelings onto them. After all, our deep need to understand or at least explain the universe has been with us longer than cats. It turns out that the inscrutable cat is merely a mirror that reflects our own bias, our own hopes and fears. Perhaps this is all we can understand.