Cat breeders face some ethical questions that dog breeders handled long ago

You don’t need to know genetics to breed animals. Trial-and-error works quite well, as early hunter-gatherers learned when they switched over to agriculture shortly after the last ice age ended.

In addition to bringing into being what some experts call “the walking larder”–cows, chickens, and other livestock–the very first farmers also domesticated dogs and horses. And down through the millennia, people changed domesticated animals to suit themselves.

For example:

  • We trained horses not to flee the chaos and noise of a battlefield. Indeed, we somehow developed chargers who would run at full speed into a gunfight or cannon fire.
  • We turned the gray wolf into a dachshund, among other breeds. But the wolf nature is still present. The “weiner dog” is a dwarf canine developed to hunt badgers and wounded wild boars: let’s give it some respect, people!

The cat fancy, with its accompanying establishment of various breeds, has only been around for 150 years or so. There hasn’t been enough time yet to make such drastic changes as those shown in other domesticated animals,

Too, the animal welfare movement has grown up alongside the cat fancy. This, together with the powerful tools that modern genetics provides, forces cat breeders to face ethical questions that never troubled the first dog breeders.
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Cloning Domestic Cats

Judging from the online sales pitches of companies like ViaGen and Sooam Biotech, more dog owners than cat owners want their pet cloned.

Perhaps that’s because the bond between a human and a domestic cat is so individualized and complex, involving factors that just can’t be reproduced in the lab.

Nevertheless, we cat lovers do wonder how cloning works and if it’s possible for cats.

The animal cloning procedure is straightforward enough but there are a lot of practical problems to overcome, as well as some legal and ethical questions to be considered (though this isn’t part of the intense controversy over potentially cloning human beings).

And yes, domestic cats have been successfully cloned.

CC and Little Nicky

Here is a (very) little background on cloning before we meet these two record-holding kitty clones.

Two different but very common ways that life on Earth reproduces itself are cloning and sex. Each has impressive results.

Whales, for instance, are mammals that took advantage of an empty predator niche in the seas after the marine reptiles disappeared in the K/T extinction. They reproduce sexually, like all mammals, and for a while one whale species–the blue whale–was the largest known living being on the planet.

Whales lost that title when experts discovered some extremely large natural clones out there, including Pando, a colony of identical male aspens in Utah (and possibly the heaviest known living organism), and Oregon’s Humongous Fungus–a serious contender for Earth’s largest life form at roughly 4 square miles (10 km2) in size.


Get the record books ready when you need a map of this scale to find an individual. (USDA)

Too, down through the centuries horticulturists and farmers have cloned plants. Some European grapes, according to Wikipedia, have been propagated this way for thousands of years. Potatoes and bananas have also changed a lot from their ancestors thanks to this type of cloning.

In the lab, geneticists do molecular and cell cloning on embryos for research or for therapeutic purposes. And yes, that makes me uncomfortable and it is controversial.

Nevertheless, from the mid-1980s on, researchers presented the world with a series of cloning faits accomplis–two sheep cloned from embryonic cells in 1984 and 1995, and the famous Dolly, cloned from somatic cells (non-reproductive cells like those used today), in 1996.

The news made cloning more personal for the public.  Few people outside labs had been very interested in earlier cloning efforts going back to the 1950s. It’s hard for most of us to relate to amphibians and single-celled organisms, but sheep . . . !. Not only do we herd them, enjoy their weird little “baas”, and wear their wool, but also sheep are complex mammals, just like us. Could humans be cloned, too?

The public debate over cloning ethics began with Dolly and it still goes on, shedding much heat and a little light along the way.

In the meantime, Science just kept its head down and forged ahead after Dolly. The next cloned animal to make headlines was a domestic cat.

CC, a tabby and white kitten, was born in late December 2001, but the news was held until 2002, after she had had successfully completed all her shots and her immune system was fully mature.


CC and her owner in 2003. (Source)

To produce this cloned domestic cat, geneticists put the nucleus of one cat cell into a denucleated egg cell. After cell division began the way it would in a normally fertilized egg, the embryo was implanted into a surrogate mother cat, who brought the cloned kitten to term.

Besides being the first cloned pet, later in life CC also became the first clone to give birth.

In 2003, Nicky, an elderly Maine Coon fancy-cat in Texas, died. His owner paid a new company, Genetic Savings and Clone, $50,000 to clone him. Little Nicky, the first commercially cloned pet, was born in 2004. He was not the next clone after CC, as this company had already cloned four other cats.

Still, cloning dogs was “the Holy Grail of commercial animal cloning.” (Oransky) Genetic Savings and Clone had actually been set up to clone a dog named Missy, and while the company furthered research into dog cloning, which is much more challenging than cats, it closed in 2006 without ever having produced a “Little Missy.”

That was about a year after Snuppy, the first cloned dog, was born in South Korea.

Today ViaGen is the only US company in the pet cloning business. Their first dog clone–Nubia–was born in 2016, and since then ViaGen has produced almost a hundred puppies and kittens.

Is pet cloning safe?

There is no easy answer to this question.

Certainly CC did fine, and while Little Nicky seems to have disappeared from the online news after his birth, I haven’t seen this historic cat’s death announcement anywhere or any news about possible health problems.

Dolly the Sheep lived about half as long as a sheep born the normal way. Some said it was because of her cloning; others said it was natural. Apparently that is still under discussion.

Recent studies from Japan show that clones can live as long as the rest of their species if they make it through birth and the first two postnatal months. That’s a big “if,” though. Fetal and neonatal mortality is high.

And then there are all those egg donors, embryos, and surrogate mothers.  That’s a lot of surgery.

CC, for example, was the sole survivor of 188 cloning attempts, with 87 embryos eventually implanted into 8 surrogate mothers. Only 2 pregnancies happened; of these, only one–CC’s–was a success. (Hartwell)

Does the definition of “safe” include all of the embryos and the lab cats who underwent procedures?

And then there is the more modern meaning of safe–secure. These days you can either preserve some of your pet’s tissue or clone it. Either way, your vet sends the company a tissue sample, which they either store in a freezer or clone.

On ViaGen’s FAQ, the company assures prospective customers that it will not use that tissue for anything other than cloning the pet.

There is no reason to doubt them–it’s good business practice.

But you do have to take their word for it. Regulation of the pet cloning industry is in its early stages, just like data privacy issues were when companies like Facebook were brand new.

Agencies and legislators are still working through the ramifications of cloning livestock for food. Nothing seems to be in place to stop unscrupulous people, if any are out there yet, from using your pet’s tissues for their own purposes, as well as yours.

This is a huge topic, of course.  Here are some examples of what’s being discussed about pet cloning online:

  • The ASPCA wants a moratorium
  • Veterinarians continue to discuss the controversial procedure
  • Science writers are looking into it (here and here, for example
  • Business pitches keep coming–again, most of the attention in pet cloning focuses on dogs
  • 500 new animals are reportedly cloned each day in a South Korean lab
  • China is building the world’s largest animal cloning lab

It’s enough to make you just want to huddle down under a blanket with your OG pet, far away from the world and all its confusion and complications.


You just know somebody’s tapping their fingers or waving a toy at the other end of that throw! (Sam Howzit CC BY 2.0)

Here’s some reassuring news: they can’t clone an animal’s personality. That’s something built from shared experiences. So you and your pet cat are way ahead of Science.

Enjoy all the time you have together, for it is irreplaceable. It will also stay with you and support you when the time comes for parting, whether you choose to then go the cloning route or to say goodbye and move on.

Featured image: The Clone Wars. Piutus, CC BY 2.0.

Sources and more information:

Bennett, O., and Amini, K. 2010. Research Briefing: Animal Cloning. UK Parliament, House of Commons Library. PDF download Last accessed April 13, 2018.

Braun, D. 2002. Scientists successfully clone cat. National Geographic News. Last accessed April 13, 2018.

Campbell, K. H. S.; Fisher, P.; Chen, W. C.; Choi, I.; and others. 2007. Somatic cell nuclear transfer: past, present and future perspectives. (Abstract only) Theriogenology, 68: S214-S231.

Edwards, J. L.; Schrick, F. N.; McCracken, M. D.; Van Amstel, S. R.; and others. 2003. Cloning adult farm animals: a review of the possibilities and problems associated with somatic cell nuclear transfer. American Journal of Reproductive Immunology, 50(2): 113-123.

Gurdon, J. B., and Byrne, J. A. 2003. The first half-century of nuclear transplantation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100(14): 8048-8052.

Hartwell, S. n.d. The pros and cons of cloning (and other reproductive technology techniques). Last accessed April 16, 2018.

Jewgenow, K.; Braun, B. C.; Dehnhard, M.; Zahmel, J.; and Goeritz, F. 2017. Research on reproduction is essential for captive breeding of endangered carnivore species. Reproduction in Domestic Animals, 52(S2): 18-23.

Keefer, C. L. 2015. Artificial cloning of domestic animals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(29): 8874-8878.

Lagutina, I.; Fulka, H.; Lazzari, G.; and Galli, C. 2013. Interspecies somatic cell nuclear transfer: advancements and problems. Cellular Reprogramming (Formerly “Cloning and Stem Cells”), 15(5): 374-384.

Mott, M. 2004. Cat cloning offered to pet owners. National Geographic News. Last accessed April 13, 2018.

Oransky, I. 2005. Cloning for profit: cloned kittens are cute, but how profitable are animal cloning companies?. The Scientist. 19(2): 41-44.

Prothero, D. R.  2006.  After the Dinosaurs: The Age of Mammals.  Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. Retrieved from

Rose, K. D.  2006.  The Beginning of the Age of Mammals. Baltimore:  The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Shin, T.; Kraemer, D.; Pryor, J.; Liu, L.; and others. 2002. Cell biology: a cat cloned by nuclear transplantation. Nature, 415(6874): 859.

Stubbs, E. C. 2011. Why are cloned cats not Identical: Implications for pet cloning and public perception. Biosciences Undergraduate Research at Nottingham, University of Nottingham, School of Bioscences. PDF download:–emma-stubbs.pdf Last accessed April 13, 2018.

United States Mission to the European Union. 2018. Animal cloning. Foreign Agriculature Service, US Department of Agriculture. Last accessed April 13, 2018.

Viagen Pets FAQ. n.d.

Wikipedia. 2018. Pet cloning. Last accessed April 13, 2018.

Cats v. Wildlife: Where’s the Middle Ground?

Predation on wildlife is one of the more controversial domestic cat issues today. That is to say, emotions run very high and there are two extremely polarized interest groups:

  • Conservationists cite horrific statistics about the effects house cats have on wildlife, up to and including statistics like “millions” and “billions” of lost prey animals in some some studies. (McDonald and others)
  • Pet owners simply say “Not my cat.” Nuances range from “my cat doesn’t do that” to “hands off my cat.”

At this point, even though government agencies are involved and some places have passed cat control legislation, owners overall seem to be holding.


A sense of humor helps. (Source)

In order to sway cat lovers, researchers who support such laws now emphasize welfare issues – the risk of road accidents, etc., if cats are let outside – instead of predation on wildlife. (Hall and others; McDonald and others)

The basic problem here is that domestic cats are both adorable pets and very efficient carnivores. We have always used cats for both these purposes, and each of these two very different parts of the feline nature inspires strong emotions.

Non-cat-lovers appreciate the pest control but don’t understand the affection people pour out on these little hypercarnivores.

We cat lovers freak out if Fluffy brings in a dead animal, and we ignore the very clear fact that house cats are the dominant small predator in any human-dominated environments.

Zoologists can’t ignore that unpleasantness. The numbers they crunch come from data showing, for example, that 63 animal species (26% of all extinctions today, according to Doherty and others) have already been completely wiped out by domestic cats. This is why they turn to the state–it’s hard for them not to get frustrated over what seems like blindness in cat owners.

We’re not blind, really. We just are wary of any conservation argument that involves killing cats, especially when it appears to be the obvious solution. There are plenty of historical bad examples we could point to for support of this position.

A recent one that doesn’t involve literal demons and witches happened in Singapore where, despite lack of solid evidence, street cats were culled out of fear that they might spread SARS.

Only afterwards was it discovered that domestic cats, feral or owned, have nothing to do with SARS. But those beloved animals cannot be revived and reinserted into Singapore’s complex urban ecosystem. As far as I can tell, no one is even looking at what effect(s) this sudden removal of a top predator had there.

History also shows many examples of hoarding and other ways cat owners sometimes go off the deep end. And we can’t ignore those 60-plus extinct species correctly chalked up to cat predation.

We need to admit that cats can be serious environmental threats.

And conservationists need to look at the practical, ecological, and ethical concerns that some experts have with lethal control. (Doherty and Ritchie)

It wouldn’t hurt for them also to acknowledge that someone who loves a cat probably cares a lot about other animals, too–including local wildlife. We just don’t like getting clobbered with statistics, especially when it’s to change how we view a situation that has political aspects.

Of course, I’m prejudiced. Still, I can see that few stakeholders seem interested in just talking it over. Yet there is plenty of room on the middle ground, if each side can accept that the other has a point.

My review of the literature hasn’t been anything like comprehensive, but I have found three supporters of this approach.

Robertson, who focused on feral cats in 2008, takes down the “cats are non-native predators disrupting an ecosystem” argument by pointing out that most farm animals are non-native, too, and no one has a problem with controlling native predators that attack them. At the same time, she agrees that wildlife is going to suffer if you let your cat out.

Turner, in 2014, flat out says, “Both sides . . . should view evidence before making hasty judgements.”

He addresses flaws in some studies, including mixing different types of statistics, failing to take into account where the study was done, and some factors that skew the results.

Fitzgerald and Turner (2000) note that, when cranking the numbers, you have to consider the combined effects of all predators, not just domestic cats. And cat predation studies rarely use the typical scientific method of dividing feline hunters into two groups: the study group, which is manipulated to test hypotheses, and a control group that is left alone.

Turner (2014) also says that what is observed locally might not be true across every habitat–you can’t just extrapolate to get “millions” and “billions.” As well, estimates of “total predation” are meaningless unless you also take into account the entire population of a prey species and its annual production rate.

Nevertheless, he is in favor of removing cats from islands or restricting them indoors to protect sea birds. If there are other mammals on an island, like rats, mice, or rabbits, cats will leave most of the birds alone, but if not, they easily switch to birds, with devastating results.

Rabbits may not be the first mammal that comes to mind when you think of small islands, but they were an important factor in one of the most famous examples of how challenging conservation and predator control can be.


Sea elephants, royal penguins, and people on Macquarie Island in the 1950s. (State Library of New South Wales. Public domain)

Sea elephants, royal penguins, and people on Macquarie Island in the 1950s. (State Library of New South Wales. Public domain)

Macquarie Island

You might have heard of this little Australian island near Antarctica. Attempts to protect its penguins, seabirds, and other rare wildlife and plants from introduced species have been covered by media ranging from the BBC to an Internet comedy site (F-bomb warning for link).

The successes and failures of Macquarie Island predator control programs are also a hot research topic. Even the short story from a literature review is too long for this post (see source list below), so here is the basic outline:

  • 1810: Tundra-covered island, rich in wildlife, discovered by Europeans.
  • 1818: Cats introduced and do their thing: companionship and pest control.
  • 1820: By now, there are also feral cats.
  • 1830: House mice are present.
  • Late 1870s: Rabbits brought in as a food source; they quickly reproduce and cats switch over to this plentiful prey item.
  • 1890s: When ornithologists visit to collect some native birds, people notice that these two bird species are extinct.
  • Early 20th century: Ship rats arrive.
  • 1950s: People notice that rabbits are overgrazing the vegetation.
  • 1960s: Recognition that the overgrazing is having catastrophic effects. Management begins in 1968 by spreading a rabbit flea; it takes a while for that to get established.
  • 1978: With rabbit flea now common, a rabbit virus is introduced. The rabbit population begins to shrink after this.
  • 1970s: People notice that cats are killing seabirds, and a control program begins.
  • 1980s: People notice that cats are switching to seabirds as the rabbits die off. In 1985, a cat eradication program begins and is ramped up in 1998. “The primary knock-down for the eradication used cage trapping and shooting, with most surviving cats captured with leg-hold traps . . . The successful eradication of cats from Macquarie Island [by 2000] . . . provides valuable experience for cat eradication attempts on other large remote islands . . . with minimal use of poisons and provides possible options for sites where broad-scale poisoning, or where aerial distribution of poisons, cannot be used.” (Robinson and Copson, 2013)
  • Early 2000s: An estimated pulse of at least 103,000 mice and 36,000 rats enters the Macquarie Island ecosystem after cat eradication. (Bergstrom and others)
  • 2006: For technical reasons, the annual distribution of rabbit virus is stopped. After this, rabbit population increases again, with overgrazing of plants and subsequent erosion and other environmental effects.
  • 2007: Australia begins an A$24-million project to eradicate rabbits, rats, and mice from Macquarie Island. Success is claimed in 2014.

The most commonly cited reason for the resurgence in Macquarie Island rabbits is the loss of their predators–cats. However, some sources (Springer, 2018) attribute it to less effective virus and the recovery of vegetation.

There is no easy summary for what happened to Macquarie Island’s plant and animal inhabitants after humans got there in the 19th century.

Up until the relatively recent time of environmental awareness, such extinctions and other devastating effects routinely happened–it’s a part of the history of life on Earth. Something similar probably happened in Australia when people and their dogs got there many thousands of years ago.

But today we know much more about what’s going on. Unfortunately, we still don’t understand it all. And human nature being what it is, we very much want to believe that we have corrected our “original error” in bringing invasive species to Macquarie Island, especially after spending millions on it.

But computer modeling of the great Macquarie Island predator eradication programs (Raymond and others) shows that it is possible that mice survived it. If this verifies, that’s bad news.

Experience on Marion Island in the South Atlantic in particular, and in a few other places where all introduced mammals except mice were eradicated, shows that mice will turn carnivorous and go after chicks, thus endangering seabirds all over again.

Obviously conservation and predator control is a much bigger problem than just cat control/eradication, but cat owners and conservationists can help solve it by moving past the emotion toward middle ground. The more people work together, the sooner we will find a good solution for everyone.

There must be a better approach than this:

To achieve success, every single individual of the three pest species [mice, rats, and rabbits on Macquarie Island] must be killed. Anything less is project failure.

— Springer, 2018

Life is going to find a way no matter what we do, so we should tailor our efforts around it instead of focusing on death.

Beginnings are much harder than endings, but they are so worth it!

Featured image: Sponchia at Pixabay. Public domain.


Angel, A.; Wanless, R. M.; and Cooper, J. 2009. Review of impacts of the introduced house mouse on islands in the Southern Ocean: Are mice equivalent to rats?. Biological Invasions, 11(7), 1743-1754.

Bergstrom, D. M.; Lucieer, A.; Kiefer, K.; Wasley, J.; and others. 2009. Indirect effects of invasive species removal devastate World Heritage Island. Journal of Applied Ecology, 46(1), 73-81.
Doherty, T. S., and Ritchie, E. G. 2017. Stop jumping the gun: a call for evidence‐based invasive predator management. Conservation Letters, 10(1), 15-22.

Doherty, T. S.; Glen, A. S.; Nimmo, D. G.; Ritchie, E. G.; and Dickman, C. R. 2016. Invasive predators and global biodiversity loss. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(40), 11261-11265.

Fitzgerald, B. M., and Turner, D. C. 2000. Hunting behaviour of domestic cats and their impact on prey populations, in The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour, eds, Turner, D. C., and Bateston, P., 151-175. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Galbreath, R., and Brown, D. 2004. The tale of the lighthouse-keeper’s cat: discovery and extinction of the Stephens Island wren (Traversia lyalli). Notornis. 51(4): 193-200.

Greve, M.; Mathakutha, R.; Steyn, C.; and Chown, S. L. 2017. Terrestrial invasions on sub-Antarctic Marion and Prince Edward Islands. Bothalia-African Biodiversity and Conservation, 47(2): 1-21.

Hall, C. M.; Adams, N. A.; Bradley, J. S.; Bryant, K. A.; and others. 2016. Community attitudes and practices of urban residents regarding predation by pet cats on wildlife: an international comparison. PloS One. 11(4): e0151962.

McDonald, J. L.; Maclean, M.; Evans, M. R.; and Hodgson, D. J. 2015. Reconciling actual and perceived rates of predation by domestic cats. Ecology and Evolution. 5(14): 2745-2753.

Ratcliffe, N.; Bell, M.; Pelembe, T.; Boyle, D.; and others. 2010. The eradication of feral cats from Ascension Island and its subsequent recolonization by seabirds. (Abstract only) Oryx, 44(1), 20-29.

Raymond, B.; McInnes, J.; Dambacher, J. M.; Way, S.; and Bergstrom, D. M. 2011. Qualitative modelling of invasive species eradication on subantarctic Macquarie Island. Journal of Applied Ecology, 48(1), 181-191.

Robertson, S. 2008. A review of feral cat control. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. 10:366-375.

Robinson, S. A., and Copson, G. R. 2014. Eradication of cats (Felis catus) from subantarctic Macquarie Island. (Abstract only) Ecological Management and Restoration, 15(1), 34-40.

Ruscoe, W. A.; Ramsey, D. S.; Pech, R. P.; Sweetapple, P. J.; and others. 2011. Unexpected consequences of control: competitive vs. predator release in a four‐species assemblage of invasive mammals. Ecology Letters, 14(10), 1035-1042.

Springer, K. 2016. Methodology and challenges of a complex multi-species eradication in the sub-Antarctic and immediate effects of invasive species removal. New Zealand Journal of Ecology, 40(2), 273-278.

Springer, K. 2018. Eradication of invasive species on Macquarie Island to restore the natural ecosystem, in Recovering Australian Threatened Species: A Book of Hope, Garnett, S.; Latch, P.; Lindenmeyer, D.; and Woinarski, J. Last accessed April 9, 2018.

Sunquist, M. and Sunquist, F. 2002. Wild Cats of the World. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. Retrieved from

Turner, D. C. 2014. Social organisation and behavioural ecology of free-ranging domestic cats, in The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour, eds D. C. Turner and P. Bateson, 63-70. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vikings Had Cats

This fact in my upcoming ebook on the domestic cat was inspired by one little comment in a groundbreaking 2017 DNA study on how cats spread across the world (Ottoni and others):

In medieval times it was compulsory for seafarers to have cats onboard their ships…

Whose ships? They don’t say, and unfortunately the reference given is an obscure one that I can’t check. All of my usual sources of information, mostly online, came up blank, too.

It might have been the Vikings, because the reference given is about the remains of domestic cats found at Hedeby, an important Viking trading center back in the day.

As odd as it seems to most of us, the presence of cats among the Vikings doesn’t surprise scholars.

These experts know that cats have been found in Viking graves as well as in settlements; they are often the central character in a certain type of Viking art known as Borre; Vikings harvested domestic cat pelts; and cats even may have been a part of Norse religious rituals.

The Vikings and cats

It’s anyone’s guess how Vikings and cats first met.

Norsemen raided their way into recorded history with an attack on Lindisfarne Island in the late eighth century–around eighty years after the island’s monks had begun adding cats to their beautiful illustrations of the Bible.

But this wasn’t the first time that Vikings and domestic cats had met.

A century earlier, according to that 2017 DNA study mentioned above, descendants of the original Egyptian cats were living in the Viking port of Ralswiek–a small but busy Viking town on the Baltic Sea. (Ottoni and others) The earliest cat remains in Sweden go back even farther, to around 200 AD. (Prehal)

Domestic cats weren’t common in the north back then. That wouldn’t happen until the tenth or eleventh century, after Vikings had well-established trading connections with the Frankish Empire in Europe as well as the Byzantine Empire and Arabia’s Abbasid dynasty.  This is when cats were sometimes bred for their pelts. (Prehal; Sindbaek)

Those first few Viking cats were very rare, probably the pets of high-ranking families or individuals who may have come across the beautiful little ex-gods on a raid or some voyage of exploration into the east, south, or west.

While traveling, Vikings might have picked up cats even if this feline loot hadn’t been so valuable because of its association with the glory days of Rome and Ancient Egypt. They just loved animals and included images of them in all Viking artwork.

The “gripping beast” was one of their signature designs.  It’s found in intricately interwoven brooches, pendants, and other artwork and is exactly what it sounds like: an animal holding on to the frame, to other animals, or to itself.

Cats were common gripping beasts in the Borre style that Viking artists used during the ninth and tenth centuries. Here is one shown on a pendant from Hedeby:


Casiopeia. BY-SA 2.0 DE.

That is clearly a cat’s head, and you can follow its ribbon-like body well enough until it meets the first gripping paw. Then things start getting weird, with dragon/serpent heads, a strange assortment of arms, and apparently–another body?

It’s hard to describe what is going on here. Everything is broken up, connected but dreamy.

This type of portrayal is one reason why some researchers suspect that domestic cats were a very important part of Norse magic and rituals.

Vikings, cats, and magic

Next to nothing is known about Viking religion.

All that about Thor, Loki, Odin, Yggdrasil, and Asgard? Apart from recent takes by Marvel Studios, it comes from collections of legends and poetry that were written down a few centuries after Scandinavia had converted to Christianity.

In other words, the writers were not believers and so aren’t totally trustworthy narrators.

There is no Norse “Bible”–just some observations by visiting foreigners, like someone who described the sacrifice of 99 people and some animals every nine years in Lejre, Denmark. (Prehal)

Most animal sacrifices were horses or livestock, but sometimes cats were offered even when they were still rare in Scandinavia and therefore very expensive.

Archaeological evidence like cremations or burials is helpful, but there isn’t all that much from the Viking Age. Too, there are no tomb paintings or other clues about what a site might have meant to people back then.

The most famous cat-related Viking religious story is that Freya, Odin’s wife, got around in a sled pulled by two male cats.


You must be Old Norse to see the cart and Freya. (midorisyu, CC BY 2.0)

You might have come across that tale already, but did you know that Freya was also in charge of a warrior heaven like Valhalla (Odin’s place)?

It was called Folkvang, and apparently it was separate from but equal to Valhalla. No one knows what their criteria were, but Freya and Odin went halvsies on the fallen warriors. In both places, heroes partied on forever in exactly the same way.

These two Norse gods were also sorcerers. Indeed, legend has it that Freya taught the All-Father seiðr, the Norse magic. Most human practitioners were female, and they were known to wear garments and gloves made of white cat fur–this, again, at a time when that was very costly material.

Unfortunately there isn’t much evidence to support some very intriguing suggestions by Prethal (see source list):

    • A high priestess of seiðr would be a very prominent person, someone who could afford to own a highly treasured cat.
    • Some Borre jewelry, with the trippy-looking cats, might represent a magical transition between secular and magical worlds.
    • Vikings may have seen cats as magical beings whose fur, like that of the bear and wolf that Berserkers draped themselves in, granted certain powers.

Of course, this is a long way from laws that may have required Vikings to pack cats along with their axes, swords, and shields for a trip.

But you never know where you might end up when you follow the domestic cat and its winding, curious path down through human history.

Featured image: Cat illustration in Lindisfarne Gospel. Eadfrith at Wikimedia.

Aberth, J. 2012. An Environmental History of the Middle Ages: the Crucible of Nature. Routledge. Retrieved from

Fairnell, E. H. 2003. The utilisation of fur-bearing animals in the British Isles: a zooarchaeological hunt for data. University of York MSc thesis. Retrieved from Accessed April 2, 2018.

Ottoni, C.; Van Neer, W.; De Cupere, B.; Daligault, J.; and others.  2017.  The palaeogenetics of cat dispersal in the ancient world.  Nature Ecology & Evolution.  1:0139.

Overton, N. J. 2016. More than skin deep: Reconsidering isolated remains of ‘fur-bearing species’ in the British and European Mesolithic (abstract only). Cambridge Archaeological Journal. 26(4): 561-578.

Prehal, B. 2011. Freyja’s cats: Perspectives on recent Viking Age finds in Ϸegjandadalur North Iceland. Hunter College MA thesis. PDF download, accessed April 1, 2018.

Westerdahl, C. L. 1995. Society and sail, in Ship As Symbol in Prehistoric and Medieval Scandinavia: Papers From an International Research Seminar at the Danish National Museum 5th-7th May 1995, 41-50. Nationalmuseet. Last accessed April 2, 2018.

Hatting, T. 2012. Cats from Viking Age Odense. Journal of Danish Archaeology. 9(1): 179-193.

Sindbæk, S. M. 2007. The small world of the Vikings: networks in early medieval communication and exchange. Norwegian Archaeological Review. 40(1), 59-74.


Unlike Dogs, Cat Resemble Their Wild Ancestor

Dogs don’t look like they evolved from wolves (though they did). Cats still closely resemble their African wildcat ancestor both in form and behavior.

First, let’s meet the wildcat.

In this cute little video, look carefully for the only two clues that prove Sid and Louise here are true African wildcats, not domestic cats–the reddish-brown fur behind their ears and their very long legs (hard to see because both cats keep their “elbows” bent; wait until around 5:35, when one of them walks past the camera like a cheetah–the typical African wildcat walk is something shorter-legged domestic cats can’t do).

Besides the physical resemblance and a shared taste for rodents, both African wildcats and domestic cats:

  • Are widespread and can adapt to different habitats.
  • Supplement their main diet with other prey items
  • Are solitary and, unlike lions or cheetah males, don’t cooperate during a hunt.
  • Spray urine.
  • Divide up their territory the same way: females base theirs on food, while a male wildcat includes as many females as possible in his territory.
  • Are born blind and helpless, though their developmental milestones may be a little different (at least for captive African wildcats–it’s hard to study this in the wild)
  • Captive female wildcats sometimes bring food for a nursing mother, just as domestic cats will occasionally.
  • Interbreed. Wildcat/domestic cat hybridization is a serious conservation concern in some regions, like Scotland, but thus far it seems to be limited in the Kalahari.

Unlike their relative, the European wildcat (F. s. silvestris), African wildcats will sometimes approach human settlements. But they never do something that is very common among feral domestic cats–form colonies.


Linda Tanner. CC BY 2.0.

Increased tolerance of its own kind is one of the few permanent marks that domestication has left on our cats to distinguish them, even when they go feral, from their beautiful but wild African ancestor.

Domestication has affected dogs much more strongly.

Dogs and cats

Wolves are sociable. So are dogs. So why aren’t there more feral dog packs?

Apparently we “broke” their pack behavior somehow by stepping in as a substitute pack leader during domestication.  (With cats, it was more a combination of “yes, you may hunt here” and blatant bribery.)

Now feral dogs live in groups of breeding pairs, with membership in the group constantly changing. They no longer hunt as a functional pack. Also, feral puppies aren’t taught to hunt the way wolf cubs are, and the adults have tragically poor parenting skills.

Dogs have been domesticated at least 9,000 thousand years longer than cats, and it shows. Besides the loss of pack behavior away from us, they now have fewer developmental stages between puppy and adult.  Even as an adult, a dog’s face is more like a juvenile wolf’s face, with a shorter mandible, steeper forehead, and smaller molars.

This process of juvenilization in domestic animals is called neoteny.

Of course, modern dogs come with a variety of looks, because people have developed them down through the millennia for many different uses.


Possibly including use as a fashion accessory. (Eli Christman. CC BY 2.0.)

We left cats more on their own during domestication, since their major function was pest control.

Human beings have played some role in domestic cat evolution but mostly in terms of coat color and a few other appealing physical features (taillessness in the Manx, for instance).

Unlike dogs, cats are only semi-domesticated. We do control their breeding and food to some extent, but not completely. Cats will be cats.

And people will be people, which is why most cat registries have added the household pet category to their show competitions.


“There’s no need for a piece of sculpture in a home that has a cat” – Wesley Bates. (Image source. Public domain)

How much more will the domestic cat drift apart, physically and in its behavior, from the ancestral African wildcat? Only time will tell.

Featured image: Helena Jacoba. CC BY 2.0.


Driscoll, C. A.; Menotti-Raymond, M.; Roca, A. I.; Hupe, K.; and others. 2007. The Near Eastern origin of cat domestication. Science. 317:519-522.

Goodreads. Wesley W. Bates quote. Last accessed March 28, 2018.

Herbst, M. 2009. Behavioural ecology and population genetics of the African wild cat, Felis silvestris Forster 1870, in the southern Kalahari. PhD thesis, University of Pretoria.

Montague, M. J.; Li, G.; Gandolfi, B.; Khan, R.; and others.  2014.Comparative analysis of the domestic cat genome reveals genetic signatures underlyling feline biology and domestication.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, USA.  111(48):17230-17235.

Sunquist, M. and Sunquist, F. 2002. Wild Cats of the World. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. Retrieved from

Wikipedia. 2018. Southern African wildcat. Last accessed March 28, 2018.

Wright, M., and Walters, S. 1980. The Book of the Cat New York: Summit Books.

Yamaguchi, N., Driscoll, C. A., Kitchener, A. C., Ward, J. M., and Macdonald, D. W. 2004. Craniological differentiation between European wildcats (Felis silvestris silvestris), African wildcats (F. s. lybica) and Asian wildcats (F. s. ornata): Implications for their evolution and conservation. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society. 83:47-63.

Zeder, M.A. (2012) Pathways to animal domestication, in i>Biodiversity in Agriculture: Domestication, Evolution and Sustainability, Gepts, P., ed., 227–259. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Domestic Cat Territories, Part 2

Congratulations! You have just moved into a quiet, shady suburban neighborhood with lots of fenced-in back yards filled with sheds, trees, and other structures that add three dimensions to a roaming cat’s world.

As you and your kitty relax by the window, you note a few other cats out there: a black one two yards down, sitting high up on a shed roof; a ginger cat walking along the fence, across the alley; and something that just ducked under the laurel bush in your new back yard–ah! there it goes up a tree: brown and white spots, and quite a large cat it is.

Good! you say to yourself. With so many feline neighbors, Fluffy won’t be lonely while I’m at work.

Fluffy, on the other hand, is seriously considering switching over to 100% indoor living. Spots out there is huge and obviously owns the yard, while the other cats – including three more whose scent marks Fluffy can smell although you are oblivious to them – will all have to be faced, too.

New cat on the block

When we move, we plunk our pets down in the middle of a complex and foreign terrain. And it contains serious challenges.

Neighborhood cats may ignore a neutered cat, but they will gather and call out Fluffy to see what he’s made of.

We don’t usually see all this drama. Loveombra, at Pixabay.

The good news is that Fluffy only has to go through this “blooding” once to earn a place in the local pecking order.

House-cat territories

All cats need an organized space around them, just like people do. Walls work very well for indoor cats, even in a multi-cat household (as long as each animal respects the others’ core area, which is usually a favorite sleeping spot).

The house itself is a free-roaming pet’s central core. (In Fluffy’s case, though, the back yard isn’t–when push came to shove, he couldn’t take down Spots, who dominates the block. Fluffy did earn enough respect to claim time-sharing rights in both the yard and the tree. He also intimidated Ginger and one of the scent-mark cats with an impressive combination of vocals and threatening moves – no battles – but he blinked first in staring contests with each of the other two scent-marking cats. Never mind Blackie – he’s kind of a wuss and everybody picks on him. Oh, and there is a yellow she-cat with kittens, three yards down, who will not take harassment from anybody, not even Spots, at any time of the day or night.)

Each of these cats has its own territory–even Blackie, who can claim the shed roof, although the rest of his owner’s yard belongs partly to Ginger and partly to one of the scent-marking cats. Spots, of course, has the largest range of any of them.

The fences are neutral pathways, and there are also a couple of safe routes on the ground.

Most scratching is done along these paths rather than around the territorial borders. Urine spraying, however, is done throughout a cat’s range, except in its sleeping area.

These marks all let other felines know who is where at any given moment. Time sharing reduces stress and keeps down the number of fights in an area where people have brought so many pet cats together.

Domestic cat brotherhoods

Feral she-cats in a colony will share nursing duties, like lionesses do in a pride, but only domestic cats seem to have a “boys only” hangout.

Spots, Fluffy, Ginger, and the other neighborhood he-cats–even Blackie!–sometimes gather together on neutral ground and pull an all-nighter. They forget the hierarchy and just relax, chatting, purring, and grooming each other sociably until it’s time for the sun to come up. Then each goes back to his own territory and resumes business as usual.

Felinologists call this a brotherhood.

Feline brotherhoods reduce aggression in the neighborhood, but only for the cats! Library of Congress.

Have humans enabled this unusual behavior by building enough excess infrastructure for cats to expand their neutral ground into a commons?

Who knows. Maybe it’s just a side effect of domestication. African wildcats – Fluffy’s closest ancestor – are never seen socializing this way. But then, they don’t gather in groups, either, the way feral cats will around a food source (a dumpster, say, or a dockyard).

No human being understands the he-cat’s social club. But whatever is going on, it seems to be working.

Domestic cats are very adaptable, even when we force them into closer contact with each other than they would normally tolerate in the wild.

They adapt their territories to the limits we set for them, whether that is an interior wall or a fenced-in yard. When it all feels right, the domestic cat then does its thing, just as it has been doing for many hundreds of centuries while sharing its life with us.

Featured image: Nico Nelson CC BY 2.0.


BBC Horizon. June 12, 2013. Secret Life of the Cat. Last accessed March 10, 2018.

Bowen, J. 2015. Feline social behaviour. WikiVet. Last accessed March 11, 2018.

Bradshaw, J. 2013. Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You A Better Friend to Your Pet. New York: Basic Books.

Brown, S. L., and Bradshaw, J. W. 2014. Communication in the domestic cat: within- and between-species, in The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour, eds D. C. Turner and P. Bateson, 37-59. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hart, B. L., and Hart, L. A. 2014a. Normal and problematic reproductive behaviour in the domestic cat, in The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour, eds D. C. Turner and P. Bateson, 27-36. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hart, B. L. and Hart, L. A. 2014b. Feline behavioural problems and solutions, in The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour, eds D. C. Turner and P. Bateson, 201-221. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Liberg, O.; Sandell, M.; Pontier, D.; and Natoli, E. 2000. Density, spatial organisation and reproductive tactics in the domestic cat and other felids, in The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour, eds D. C. Turner and P. Bateson, 119-147. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stella, J. L., and Buffington, C. A. T. 2014. Individual and environmental effects on health and welfare, in The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour, eds D. C. Turner and P. Bateson, 185-200. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sunquist, M. and Sunquist, F. 2002. Wild Cats of the World. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Turner, D. C. 2014. Social organisation and behavioural ecology of free-ranging domestic cats, in The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour, eds D. C. Turner and P. Bateson, 63-70. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wright, M., and Walters, S. 1980. The Book of the Cat New York: Summit Books.

Domestic Cat Territories, Part 1

…out here I had been putting what little money I had in Ocean Frontage, for the sole reason that there was only so much of it and no more, and that they wasent making any more…
Will Rogers, US comedian, April 13, 1930

Like Will Rogers, domestic cats know that land is precious. Throughout their adult lives they invest a lot of time in getting and holding on to a territory big enough for both hunting and reproduction.

This is even true of indoor cats–the need for food and sex is hardwired in after millions of years of evolution.

If you live with more than one cat, you may already know this, but according to one research study, two cats in a household spend much of their time out of each other’s sight, even though sometimes they are only a few feet apart.

Multiple kitties living indoors have the house divided up into territories that we can’t perceive. These go/no-go zones may overlap to some extent, and the cats may even play and groom each other in a “kitty commons” area.

Core sleeping areas must be respected, though, and there may be trouble if the cats are fed at the same place or have only one litter box. If they are allowed outdoors, the two (or more) cats may share hunting grounds, but they never will hunt at the same time.

Since they’re cats, not dogs or people, the best-case scenario in any shared-living environment is mutual toleration rather than friendship. If worse comes to worst, one of the animals may leave to find new territory, no matter how well off it is at home in human terms.

Insecurity about territory is one of the biggest stressors for any domestic cat. (Bradshaw)

When left to themselves outdoors, domestic cats divvy up the land in two basic ways:

  • Females, who must bear and raise the young, look at the food supply: how big the local prey is and where it’s located, the presence of cover for stalking, and so forth.
  • Males base their territory on the distribution of females.

They do it instinctively, but this behavior makes evolutionary sense–the sooner you can get territory and the longer you can hold onto it, the more offspring you will produce. For cats, natural selection is all about having kittens.

There usually isn’t any range overlap for cats of the same gender, but there is some flexibility. In hard times, a female has to travel farther for prey, and her territory may overlap with others. Similarly, in a region where female cats are few and far between, males roam hither and yon.

Exact details of the local scene vary according to personalities and pecking order, too.

From this perspective, it’s hard to think of domestic cats as solitary. They live

…embedded in a social system that is maintained by scent marks, vocalizations, and occasional encounters.
— Sunquist and Sunquist

Young cats have to break into this close-knit hierarchy somehow and establish themselves in life.

The females are philopatric, that is, they usually stick close to home when enough resources are available. This results in clusters of related female territories.

But when a male cat matures, he must go out into the world and get his own territory by either finding some unoccupied real estate or successfully challenging a resident male somewhere.


Not a safe refuge, but he might be too young to know that. (rihaij at Pixabay. Public domain.)

These inexperienced cats pay a heavy price in terms of accidents and predators, but enough survive to maintain a population of “floaters,” all of whom know that territory does not confer an advantage to whoever occupies it.

The occupant knows it, too. So, in addition to hunting and reproducing, he must continually defend his territory passively (usually by scratching things and leaving a variety of scent marks) or actively, with confrontations and, when all else fails, fighting.

That’s tough, too, and it gets harder with age. Conditions may also change, setting up an environmental situation that one or more of the floaters may be a little better suited for.

It’s a harsh, unforgiving system, but the end result is that the most “fit” genes always get passed along.

Believe it or not, the domestic cat’s territoriality outdoors isn’t affected much by the presence of people. We don’t realize that, but our house pets certainly do.

When you and your cat move to a new place, your pet must manage somehow to fit into the local social scene. Just because you claim the property as your own doesn’t mean that the feline neighbors are going to let your cat get away with it.

To be continued . . .

Featured image: StockSnap, at Pixabay. Public domain.


BBC Horizon. June 12, 2013. Secret Life of the Cat. Last accessed March 10, 2018.

Bradshaw, J. 2013. Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You A Better Friend to Your Pet. New York: Basic Books.

Brown, S. L., and Bradshaw, J. W. 2014. Communication in the domestic cat: within- and between-species, in The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour, eds D. C. Turner and P. Bateson, 37-59. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hart, B. L., and Hart, L. A. 2014a. Normal and problematic reproductive behaviour in the domestic cat, in The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour, eds D. C. Turner and P. Bateson, 27-36. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hart, B. L. and Hart, L. A. 2014b. Feline behavioural problems and solutions, in The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour, eds D. C. Turner and P. Bateson, 201-221. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Liberg, O.; Sandell, M.; Pontier, D.; and Natoli, E. 2000. Density, spatial organisation and reproductive tactics in the domestic cat and other felids, in The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour, eds D. C. Turner and P. Bateson, 119-147. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stella, J. L., and Buffington, C. A. T. 2014. Individual and environmental effects on health and welfare, in The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour, eds D. C. Turner and P. Bateson, 185-200. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sunquist, M. and Sunquist, F. 2002. Wild Cats of the World. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Turner, D. C. 2014. Social organisation and behavioural ecology of free-ranging domestic cats, in The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour, eds D. C. Turner and P. Bateson, 63-70. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cat Chronology: 27 BC to 1571 AD

The story of cats and people expanded in richness and beauty during these years. The challenge in this post is to include everything relevant to cats without getting side-tracked by other events.

This stretch of human history is full of battles and other events that I will only bring in when there is a feline connection, even if that might be indirect, like the Silk Road.

A word about sources

I don’t normally use informal sources without double-checking. I did here because the human story overall is so complex; Wikipedia is also a wonderfully detailed encyclopedia of exactly the obscure kind of information I needed sometimes.

Just keep in mind that almost everything below without an academic source has not been double-checked.

Witches and cats

The biggie during this general period in the West, of course, was the witch hunts. But those didn’t just suddenly start up–such horrible episodes of mass hysteria and scapegoating never do. And that slow start is why they lasted so long.

This timeline post covers the whole interval during which the Church gradually switched over from condemning witch-burning to authorizing the Inquisition to deal with them. It’s very complex, and I have only touched on a few highlights (or low lights) as it got started.

The witch-trials that you probably have heard about, like those in Sussex and Salem, came later–in the 17th century (next time!).

Cats don’t realize just how good they have it these days.

One assumption I did make in this timeline is that most English-speakers like me already have a general idea of how Western civilization developed. So this is very lightly touched upon, and I added in some cat-related surprises from other cultures that I found.

The timeline ends in 1571 AD only because the last oar-rowed galleys were used in a battle that year. (Wik)

That really has nothing to do with cats, but it’s a significant point in the history of ships–and, as Neil Todd says, “[W]hat are water barriers to most animals become veritable highways to cats.”

This tradition of sailing with cats might be why moggies have such a varied appearance today.

Take the port of Alexandria, for instance. It was a bustling city, and since this was Ancient Egypt, there were a lot of cats around. One cat’s genes wouldn’t make much of a difference there, but smuggle that individual out and it might found a new lineage because cats were so rare elsewhere.

Geneticists can actually track down some of the domestic cat lines that developed this way after Ancient Egypt collapsed. (Kurushima; O)

This also held true after the Romans moved in. Merchants and legionnaires alike selected cats for companions based on some appealing novelty (Todd) and then carried them out of Egypt and eventually all around the world.

So what you adore most about your pet’s look might have begun long ago at some port or Roman road inn when something about a street cat caught the eye of a traveler.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Cat Chronology – 27 BC to 1571 AD

1st Century BC

100 BC: Southern Asia: Buddhist monks break with tradition to the extent of writing down the Pali canon on bark, palm leaves, and other fragile material. These texts will travel with missionaries both north into China and south across the Eastern Asian mainland and some islands. (B) (And the tradition of temple cats to protect the scrolls from rodent damage begins.)

30 BC: Anthony and Cleopatra kill themselves after Alexandria falls to Roman forces. Egypt is now a province and will go on to be the “breadbasket of Rome.”

27 BC: after some political maneuvering, Caesar’s heir Octavian becomes the Emperor Augustus and the Roman Empire begins. (A)

6 to 4 BC: Jesus is born, probably somewhere during this interval. (Wik)

1st Century AD/CE

1 AD: Silk Road trade: Silk seen for the first time in Rome. (C) (It soon becomes a popular exotic treasure among the aristocrats, just like domestic cats both East and West.)

9 AD: Roman Empire: Domestic cats are across the Alps, heading north and west with Roman legions. (O)


As cats became more popular in the empire, legionnaires would put the feline image on their shields or even name their unit after cats. (LAV) Michael Coghlan. CC BY-SA 2.0.

26-37 AD: According to some reckonings, the crucifixion of Jesus happens somewhere in this interval. (Wik)

43 AD: The Roman conquest of Britain. (A)

Mid to late 60s: The Great Fire in Rome. In the social reaction, Christians are persecuted and killed in horrific ways, including burning. (Wik) Cats are not involved–yet.

58-76 AD: China: Emperor Ming-Ti has cats imported from India for the Temple of the White Horse, where the first Chinese sutta translations are stored. (DelRW)

79 AD: Italy: A Pompeiian woman dies, holding a cat, when Vesuvius erupts and buries her town. Their skeletons will be excavated centuries later. Did she die trying to save her pet? (Cats were popular in Pompeii; long-haired cats, perhaps Persians or Angoras, appear in the mosaics of the House of the Faun (see image at top of post).) (LAV)

Silk Road trade: By the third quarter of the 1st century, Roman merchants are in parts of Asia while Chinese traders under the Han Dynasty expand westward into Central Asia. (C)

2nd Century AD/CE

Silk Road trade: The Roman Empire is now a huge market for Eastern goods. (C) The road doesn’t just run east-west, either. In 166 AD, for example, Rome sends an envoy by sea to China, and Roman and Han merchants trade goods in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). (C, LAV)

At some point in the 1st or 2nd century, a little DNA from the steppe wildcat of Central Asia – Felis silvestris ornata – gets into one cat lineage at the Red Sea port of Berinike on the Maritime Silk Road. (O)


“Felis silvestris ornata” is the only spotted member of the wildcat group. Raja Bandi. CC BY-SA 4.0.

Roman Empire: During the empire’s peak, cats are extremely popular. Roman women are called “kittens,” while children are named after cats. (LAV)

3rd Century AD/CE

China: The Han Dynasty falls. China breaks up and barbarians attack the former empire. (C) (I’m including a little Chinese history here because genetic studies show that groups of Asian cats were isolated at various times, probably because of such dynastic and social upheavals. (L) )

Roman Empire: According to Kors and Peters, quoted by Wikipedia, pagans accuse Christians of, among other things:

…accepting only the dregs of society, the most shameful people, into their assemblies and organizing dreadful, nocturnal, secret meetings (chap. 8). They practice indiscriminate sexual activity, worship the head of an ass, worship the genital organs of their priests, and initiate novices by making them kill infants and cannibalize them (chap. 9). Their rites are held in secret, and they have no temples (chap. 10). Finally they are a subversive sect that threatens the stability of the whole world…

No accusations about cats–yet.

4th Century AD/CE

330 AD: Roman Empire: With thousands of miles of imperial border to defend, and outsiders pushing in, Emperor Constantine decides to move the capital to Byzantium – renamed Constantinople – halfway between the Balkans and the Euphrates River. (A, C)

The Roman world is becoming more and more christianized. Soon Christiantity is declared the official religion. (A, C)

372 AD: Korea: Buddhism and presumably cats reach the Three Kingdoms from China. (B)

5th Century AD/CE

Domestic cats become more common in Europe and Southwest Asia. (O)

410 AD: Roman Empire: Rome sacked. The last Roman legions leave Britain. (A)

A note from the English writer G. K. Chesterton (a dog lover) is appropriate here:

The Roman legions left Britain in the fourth century [sic]. This did not mean that the Roman civilization left it; but it did mean that the civilization lay far more open both to admixture and attack…

There is one fundamental fact which must be understood of the whole of this period….The whole culture of our time has been full of the notion of `A Good Time Coming.’ Now the whole culture of the Dark Ages was full of the notion of `A Good Time Going.’ They looked backwards to old enlightenment and forwards to new prejudices…They hoped–but it may be said that they hoped for yesterday…

We may compare the man of that time, therefore, to one who has left free cities and even free fields behind him, and is forced to advance towards a forest. And the forest is the fittest metaphor, not only because it was really that wild European growth cloven here and there by the Roman roads, but also because there has always been associated with forests another idea which increased as the Roman order decayed. The idea of the forests was the idea of enchantment. There was a notion of things being double or different from themselves, of beasts behaving like men and not merely, as modern wits would say, of men behaving like beasts… (GKC)

After a few centuries, Europeans would start relighting their lamps of knowledge and culture, but this legacy of enchantment would contribute to the harm done to many unfortunately people and domestic cats.

476 AD: Roman Empire: The widely accepted date for the fall of the western Roman Empire. The eastern half – the Byzantine Empire, centered at Constantinople – is going strong. (A) (A lot of trade, and probably a lot of cats, passed through that city for centuries before it fell in wartime and Muslims brought their love of cats into it–a love that is still strong there even now, when the city is known as Istanbul.)

China: Northern and southern China are ruled by different dynasties in the 5th and 6th centuries. (B) (This is an oversimplification of a complex history during that period; again, genetic tests show that various Asian cat groups were kept apart, probably by human events, long enough to develop slightly differently from one another.)

6th Century AD/CE

538 AD: Korea: The King of Baekje sends Buddhist scrolls and other objects (presumably including cats to protect the scrolls) to Japan. For the Japanese, who practice Shintoism, this gift is controversial, but it is supported by an influential clan and eventually accepted. Forty years or so later, Buddhism will become the official religion for centuries. (B)

514 AD: Roman Empire: The Justinian Plague appears in Constantinople. Over the next two centuries it will travel throughout the Mediterranean Basin and kill at least 25 million people. (CDC)

7th Century AD/CE

610 AD: Muhammad has his revelations. (Wik)

The Arab Age of Discovery (7th to 13th century) begins. The Islamic maritime trading network links parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe. (Wik) (There is no word on the presence of cats, but given their popularity in the Islamic world since the days of Muhammad, and the recognized usefulness of ship cats, they probably were aboard these commercial ships, continuing their spread across the known world.)

China: During the T’ang Dynasty (7th to early 10th centuries) cats–many of them long-hairs brought by Persian traders–first appear as pets. They may be working animals, too. Tomb paintings from these times show small cats sitting behind hunters on horseback, just as the accompanying hunting dogs and cheetahs do! (DelRW, British Library)

692 AD: Europe: The last of three Catholic Church councils, each of which establishes merely ecclesiastical penances for devil-worship. (Wik)

Vikings: Cats at the Baltic port of Ralswiek. (O) (More on Vikings and their connection with cats in the 9th century)

8th Century AD/CE

Europe: Ship cats are now mandatory in Medieval Europe. (O)

Towards the end of this century, the first artificial canal connecting two rivers is begun (history’s verdict is still out on whether it worked). (Wik) (Canals are very cat relevant. A study tracking fur colors (Todd) showed that some are linked with the Seine and Rhône river valleys. These were connected by a complex canal system that goes back at least as far back as the 17th century. Solid colors and the blotched tabby pattern (swirls and “bull’s-eyes”) seem to have spread along this inland river short-cut between the Atlantic/North Sea and the Mediterranean. Indeed, blotched tabby seems to have started in Britain and then spread along the Seine-Rhône valleys. Cats with orange on them apparently didn’t get much of a foothold along the river route, perhaps because of the presence of so many other cats. Vikings might have had something to do with orange-colored cats being less common down here, too.)

The beautiful artwork of the Lindisfarne Gospels (710) and the Book of Kells (800) includes cats. (LAV)

785 AD: The Council of Padeborn outlaws condemning people as witches. Burning a witch is a capital crime. (Wik)

China: The T’ang Dynasty declines, and with it, the Silk Road. (C)

The Islamic Empire is at its peak, this century, stretching from Spain in the west to India’s Indus River in the east. (Wik) (And cats are very welcome here.)

9th Century AD/CE

868 A.D.: China: The Buddhist Diamond Sutta, the oldest known printed book, is published at Dunhuang. (C)

During this century, Lu Yu dedicates a poem to the cats protecting his library and tea collection. (DelRW)

Balkans: A domestic cat lineage develops here. (O)

Vikings: Vikings appear in the East Slavic confederation called Rus. Their origins are controversial, but they may have actually been an assortment of people that lived between roughly 750 and 1066 AD. (VAL) In Eastern Europe, these nomadic warrior-traders were known as Varangians, and they had an 1800-mile-long (3000 km) river route from the Baltic Sea near modern Stockholm to Constantinople. (IEU) (Relevant because the orange cat mutation developed in Asia Minor, as did the dominant white-fur mutation. These apparently appealed to Vikings, because cats with orange or orange/white fur are more common in lands the Vikings went into, including northern and western Scotland, the Faroe Islands, and perhaps as far as Iceland. (Todd) Too, we must get the domestic cat up into Scandinavia somehow – it’s possible that some Viking pets/cargo probably went feral and became forest cats. )


The Norwegian Forest Cat comes in other colors, too. Swallowtail Garden Seeds. Public domain.

Europe: In France, Louis the Pious moves against sorcerers and necromancers, and in 829 AD, the Council of Paris asks that secular courts try people accused of such crimes, since the Church’s concern is more about heresy. (Wik)

In southern Germany, an Irish monk who was driven out of his homeland by Viking raids writes a poem to his cat:

Pangur, white Pangur, How happy we are
Alone together, scholar and cat
Each has his own work to do daily;
For you it is hunting, for me study.
Your shining eye watches the wall;
My feeble eye is fixed on a book.
You rejoice, when your claws entrap a mouse;
I rejoice when my mind fathoms a problem.
Pleased with his own art, neither hinders the other;
Thus we live ever without tedium and envy.

10th Century AD/CE

Domestic cats now widespread in Europe and Asia. (S)

Around 900 AD Europe: Official Christian doctrine, per the Canon Episcopi, is that witchcraft isn’t real; to say that it exists is a false teaching. However, secular laws, like the “dooms” of King Athelstan, proscribe “witch-crafts.” (Wik) (At first, belief in witches was folklore, not Christianity.)

China: The Sung Dynasty reunites China. (C)

999 AD: Japan: Emperor Ichijō is given a cat to celebrate his thirteenth year of rule. (Wik-Es)

11th Century AD/CE

1000-1033 AD: Europe: Unexpectedly, from the popular Christian viewpoint, the world does not end. In these anxious times, Jews and people suspected of heresy suffer.

1099 AD: The Knights Hospitaller receive papal backing. (Wik) (There were other medieval orders, including the Knights Templar, but I chose to include the Hospitallers because they were based on Malta for a while and many histories of the Chartreux and other “blue” (actually gray-appearing) fancy-cats say that “Crusaders” brought these cats out of the Holy Land. Perhaps blue domestic cats also traveled northward out of the Middle East, including the ancestors of today’s Russian Blue forest-cat fancy breed.)

12th Century AD/CE


Cat meme alert!

cat and butterfly

Barbara A. Lane at Pixabay. Public domain.

The … word 貓 māo cat is a homonym of 耄 mào “eighty-ninety years old”, so such paintings were a perfect gift for a birthday. Especially if they also represented a 蝶 dié butterfly, because then the names of the two figures, pronounced loud, also had the meaning 耄耋 màodié “very long old age”. (DelRW)

Around 1100 AD, long-haired cats are popular with aristocratic ladies. Cat paintings are also popular in the Sung Dynasty. (DelRW)

During this century, the Sung Dynasty breaks up into northern and southern domains. (C) (The Sung-era cat paintings shown at the above link to the Taiwan National Museum collection may be from the Southern dynasty.)

13th Century AD/CE

China: The Mongol ruler Kublai Khan conquers China and establishes the Yuan dynasty and the “Pax Mongolica.” The Silk Road flourishes and a third westward trade network, called the Northern or Steppe Route, is established. (C) (I can’t find any information on how this might be directly relevant to domestic-cat history, but it was a significant event and affected trade that probably included domestic cats for sale to aristocrats and perhaps monks.)

1211 AD: Europe:

…Gervase of Tilbury attested from personal experience to the existence of women ‘prowling about at night in the form of cats’ who, when wounded, ‘bear on their bodies in the numerical place the wounds inflicted upon the cat, and if a limb has been lopped off the animal, they have lost a corresponding member’ (Summers, 1934, p. 194).” (S)

1258 AD: Pope Alexander IV: Witchcraft is not to be investigated by the church. (Wik)

From the 13th to 17th centuries, the Hanseatic League monopolizes sea trade on the Baltic and to some extent the North Sea. (Wik) (Ship cats!)

1260 AD: Egypt: Sultan Baibars begins his rule. He will establish a cat garden in a Cairo mosque where the kitties can get daily food and water between the hours of noon and sunset. It’s still in operation today!

Africa: From the 13th to late 17th centuries, the Somali Ajuran and other Islamic sultanates and republics on the Horn of Africa dominate Indian Ocean maritime trade, with thriving commercial connections to Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, East Africa, India, and most of Asia, including possibly China. (Wik) (I wonder if the feline “Arabian Sea” race mentioned in Kurushima’s study [below in source list] are descendants of cats that jumped ship in these ports. We’ll probably never know.)


The Horn of Africa, home of the Ajuran and other Somali rulers, is a good location for trade. Skilla1st. CC BY-SA 3.0.

14th Century AD/CE

Europe: The Black Death (plague) pandemic starts in China, spreads along trade routes to Constantinople and then to Europe, where it kills an estimated 60% of the population. (CDC) (Many think that the killing of cats worsened the plague by removing controls from the rat population that supposedly carried plague-bearing fleas, but, as Walter Andrews points out, this doesn’t take into account the fact that cats have fleas, too, and they spend much more time around people than rodents do. And a 2018 study suggests that humans, not rats, may have been the carriers!)

1324 AD: The date of what some consider the first witch trial, of Alice Kyteler in Ireland. (Wik)

1326 AD: Pope John XXII okays the inquisition and prosecution of witchcraft as a heresy (but see 1484 AD “Witch-Bull” below). (Wik)

Thailand: Theravadan Buddhism has been in the region since King Asoka sent missionaries through southern Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Malaya in the 3rd century BC, but it reaches the capital Ayudhaya (and presumably cats are introduced there, if they haven’t already arrived) from Ceylon/Sri Lanka in the 1300s. (B) At some point between now and when the city falls to the Burmese in the 1700s, artists make a Samut Khoi with poems and paintings of local cat types that are considered either “lucky” or “unlucky”. These are some of the earliest images of several modern natural cat fancy breeds.

Cat meme alert!

One of the “lucky cats” is the Suphalak, a natural breed similar to the western Burmese fancy-cat. And Johnny the Suphalak is apparently a popular Thai meme.

He even has a movie; here’s the trailer – I have no idea what they’re saying, but the cats come in toward the end:

15th Century AD/CE

1402 AD: The Spanish Empire begins with an invasion of the Canary Islands. ( W )

1415 AD: The Portuguese empire begins with the capture of Ceuta, a key port in northwest Africa. ( W )

1453 AD: Roman Empire: The eastern Roman Empire ends with the fall of Constantinople. (C) Some sparks from this “old enlightenment” (in Chesterton’s words) fall as far away as Europe, where they help kindle the Renaissance.

Silk Road trade: The rulers of China stop allowing foreigners in. Europe’s aristocrats must now get their silk from Lyon, in France. (C)

1428 AD: Europe: Witch trials in the Western Alps. The persecution spreads in parts of France and Switzherland. (Wik)

1478 AD: The Spanish Inquisition begins. (Wik)

1484 AD: Pope Innocent VIII issues the “Witch-Bull,” recognizing the existence of witches and giving the Inquisition full authority to deal with them. (Wik)

The European Age of Discovery starts, running from the 15th through the 17th centures. First the Portuguese and then the Spanish set off on long-distance voyages. (Wik) (All according to the ship cats’ plan for world domination!)

1492 AD: Columbus reaches the New World. (Wik)

1497 AD: Cabot explores part of eastern North America. (Wik)

1498 AD: Vasco de Gama reaches India. (Wik)

16th Century AD/CE

1501 AD: Persia: The Safavids revive Persia/Iran as an economic power in between East and West. The southern Silk Road becomes active again, but the Persians also enjoy direct maritime trade with Europe, especially England and the Netherlands, where business is brisk in silk and textiles as well as Persian carpets. (Wik) (No mention of cats as cargo, but they were probably included.)

1514 AD: New World: Diego de Almagro arrives in Panama. Just before he embarks on his conquest of Chile in 1535, he will give “one Montenegro, who presented him with the first Spanish cat that ever came to the Indias,” 600 pieces of eight. (Ovalle, emphasis added) (Some say this was a purchase, but in context it looks like a gift. Almagro apparently really liked the cat!)

It is very difficult to track down the domestic cat’s history in Latin America. (P) One genetic study suggests that cats arrived at different times, from different backgrounds. (R) Lozano notes that dogs and cats were not native to the New World and they went feral after arriving here.

1521 AD: Europe: Longhaired cats are documented in Europe.

Persian cat

Magnus Brath. CC BY 2.0.

1533 AD: The French writer Montaigne is born. In his 1595 book of essays, he will write of an experience that all cat lovers have shared:

When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me. We entertain each other with reciprocal monkey tricks. If I have my time to begin or to refuse, so has she hers.

1534 AD: The explorer Cartier claims part of eastern North America for France. (Wik)

Witch hunts become more common in Europe.(Wik)

1542 AD: England’s Parliament passes the first Witchcraft Act, making it a capital crime. (Wik)

1543 AD: The Far East: The Portuguese make contact with Japan. During the 16th century, China’s Ming Dynasty will also do business with Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch traders. (Wik)

1547 AD: Russia: Ivan IV (a/k/a the “Terrible” or the “Formidable”) is crowned Tsar. He will go on to transform his Muscovy powerbase into the transcontinental state we see as Russia today. (Wik) (Ivan the Terrible was certainly no friend of cats–understatement of all time!–but that has changed now. A 2017 study found that Russians own more cats than anyone else in the world!)

And cats are sometimes hailed as heroes there. This one saved a human newborn.

1562 AD: Europe: On August 3rd, a freak snowstorm hits the city of Wiesensteig, Germany. The end result: 67 women executed for witchcraft. From this point, European witch hunts start kicking into high gear. ( W )

1571 AD: The Age of Sail begins.

Featured image: Roman mosaic of a cat from Pompeii’s House of the Faun.


A = Ancient History Encyclopedia. Multiple posts, multiple authors. Last accessed in the fall of 2017.

B = Buddha Dharma Education Association/BuddhaNet.Net. Buddhist World, multiple articles, multiple authors. Last accessed February 3, 2018.

British Library. 2004. The Catalogue: Dunhuang: Official and Religious Life, in The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War and Faith, eds Whitfield, S., and Sims-Williams, U., p. 236.

C = Silk Road Seattle. n.d. University of Washington, Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities. Last accessed October 9, 2017.

CDC = Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2015. History of the Plague. Last accessed February 17, 2018.

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DelRW = Poemas del Río Wang. 2010. Chinese cats. Last accessed November 25, 2017.

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Kurushima, J. D.; Lipinski, M. J.; Gandolfi, B.; Froenicke, J. C.; Grahn, J. C.; Grahn, R. A.; and Lyons, L. A. 2012. Variation of cats under domestication: genetic assignment of domestic cats to breeds and worldwide random-bred populations. Animal Genetics. 44:311-324.

L = Lipinski, M. J.; Froenicke, L.; Baysac, K. C.; Billings, N. C.; and others. 2008. The ascent of cat breeds: genetic evaluation of breeds and worldwide random bred populations. Genomics. 91(1):12-21.

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Lozano, P. 1878. Historia de la conquista del Paraquay, Rio de la Plata y Tucuman, Volume 1. Casa Editora “Imprenta Popular.” Argentina.

(MET) = The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History online. Multiple articles, multiple authors.

McIntosh, J. R. 2008. The Ancient Indus Valley: New Perspectives. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO. Retrieved from Google Books preview on February 5, 2018.

O = Ottoni, C.; Van Neer, W.; De Cupere, B.; Daligault, J.; and others. 2017. The palaeogenetics of cat dispersal in the ancient world. Nature Ecology & Evolution. 1:0139.

Ovalle, A. 1646. The Kingdom of Chile, in A Collection of Voyages and Travels: Some Now First Printed from Original Manuscripts, Awnsham and John Churchill, 1704, pp 111-113. Retrived from on February 20, 2018.

P = Peñuela, M.and Cárdenas, H. 2015. Marcadores genéticos del pelaje en gatos domésticos de Capurganá-Colombia. Momentos de Ciencia, 9(1).

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Cats Leave Ancient Egypt

Have you ever wondered where cats come from? No, not biology – everybody knows that. The history of cats.

You probably already know at least two things about it:

  1. Cats were worshipped as gods in Ancient Egypt.
  2. Romans carried cats out of Egypt. Perhaps you have also heard that traders and monks took them eastward, too, into Asia.

This is all true. Most people leave it at that, but I don’t understand why.

Those military roads and trade routes were the Internet of their time, and cats probably spread across it for reasons related to why they’re so popular online today. That must have been a fascinating process, and it’s certainly a mystery today (and a hot research topic).

How did cats spread out of Egypt?

I have found a few interesting bits of evidence from back then that may point toward some answers to that question.

The easiest way for me to describe these is with a timeline. It’s not the be-all and end-all comprehensive literature review–just some stuff I’ve picked up while researching the books.

I’ve had fun “herding” these cats. Hope you will, too!

Featured image: CleverGrrl, CC BY-SA 2.0.