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Cat Domestication: From Farms to Sofas

Cat Domestication: From Farms to Sofas

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Years before they conquered the Internet, cats colonized our sofas. A new study reveals that tamed cats swept through Eurasia and Africa carried by early farmers, ancient mariners and even Vikings. The researchers analysed DNA from over 200 cat remains and found that farmers in the Near East were probably the first people to successfully tame wild cats 9,000 years ago, before a second wave of cat domestication a few thousand years later in ancient Egypt.


The Domestication of Goats

Goats (Capra hircus) were among the first domesticated animals, adapted from the wild bezoar ibex (Capra aegagrus) in western Asia. Bezoar ibexes are native to the southern slopes of the Zagros and Taurus mountains in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey. Evidence shows that goats spread globally and played an important role in the advancement of Neolithic agricultural technology wherever they went. Today, over 300 breeds of goats exist on our planet, living on every continent except Antarctica. They thrive in an astonishing range of environments, from human settlements and tropical rainforests, to dry, hot deserts and cold, hypoxic, high altitudes. Because of this variety, the domestication history was a bit obscure until the development of DNA research.


Viking Pets and Domesticated Animals

In general, all animals kept by people in Viking Age Scandinavia, including dogs and cats, were working animals (as is the case today in rural areas and on farms). None the less, people kept animals as companions as well as for their utility around the farm.

Domesticated Animals

Cat design on bronze tortiose-shell brooch, Jutland

The Vikings kept cats for their valuable skills as mousers as well as keeping cats for pets. Kittens were sometimes given to new brides as an essential part of setting up a new household. It is especially appropriate that brides should receive cats, since cats were associated with Freyja, the goddess of love. The Vikings believed that Freyja rode a cart drawn by a team of cats. It might seem absurd to imagine a cart drawn by cats, until one realizes that Viking cats were not your standard Felis domesticus -- they were the Skogkatt (Norwegian, meaning literally "Forest Cat"), a wild breed native to the North. In Denmark, these cats are called Huldrekat ( huldre are female forest spirits, literally, "the hidden folk"). The Skogkatt is a large breed, known for their strong bones and muscular forms.

The image of the goddess Freyja in her cat-drawn wagon has been a powerful one since the days of the Vikings. Icelander Snorri Sturluson, in the Gylfaginning section of his Prose Edda tells us:

Fólkvangr heitir,
en þar Freyja ræðr
sessa kostum í sal
halfan val
hon kýss á hverjan dag,
en halfan Óðinn á.

Salr hennar Sessrúmnir, hann er mikill ok fagr. En er hon ferr, þá ekr hon köttum tveim ok sitr í reið. Hon er nákvæmust mönnum til á at heita, ok af hennar nafni er þat tignarnafn, er ríkiskonur eru kallaðar fróvur. Henni líkaði vel mansöngr. Á hana er gott at heita til ásta.

[Freyja is the most famous of the goddesses. She has in heaven a dwelling which is called Fólkvangr, and when she rides to the battle, one half of the slain belong to her, and the other half to Óðinn. As is here said:

Fólkvangr it is called,
And there rules Freyja.
For the seats in the hall
Half of the slain
She chooses each day
The other half is Óðinn's.

Her hall is Sesrúmnir, and it is large and beautiful. When she goes abroad, she drives in a wagon drawn by two cats. She lends a favorable ear to men who call upon her, and it is from her name that the title has come that noble women are called freyjur ("lady"). Love-poetry she likes well, and it is good to call on her in love affairs.]

Interestingly, though Freyja's cats certainly catch the popular imagination, Old Norse literature never recorded the names of the goddess's cats. One author, Diana Paxson in her novel Brisingamen assigned the poetic names Tregul ("tree-gold", or amber) and Bygul ("bee-gold", or honey) to Freyja's cats where they appeared in her story. There is no evidence at all in Norse literature for these names, of course, but they certainly have the flavor of Old Norse literature to them!

Artists from the past and present envision Freyja and her cats.

The ancestors of the Skogkatt probably were Southern European shorthaired cats which came to Norway from other parts of Europe in prehistoric times. Due to the natural selection imposed by the strange and hostile climatic conditions, only individuals with a particularly thick coat and other adaptations to a cold climate survived.


The Norwegian Forest Cat

The earliest literary descriptions suspected to be the Norwegian Forest Cat come from the Norse myths, describing the large, strong cats that drew Freyja's chariot or the cat so heavy that not even Thorr, God of Thunder, could lift it from the floor: Owners of Forest Cats will readily recognize their large-boned, powerful cats in these tales. The first literary description that unmistakably describes the Forest Cat is from the Danish clergyman, Peter Clausson Friis, who lived the greater part of his life in Norway. In 1559 Friis described three types of "lynx": the wolf lynx, the fox lynx, and the cat lynx.

Pans Truls, the original Forest Cat breed standard, shows many lynx-like features. It is easy to see how the Norwegian Lynx ( Lynx lynx ) could be confused with the Forest Cat.

It is believed that the animal which Peter Clausson Friis called the "cat lynx" was in fact the Norwegian Forest Cat, a theory made more likely by the many similarities in general appearance between the Forest Cat and the Norwegian lynx. The most apparent of these is that they are both big, long-legged cats with large ruffs, and tufts at the tips of their ears. Moreover they both like water, and the stories of swimming Forest Cats who catch their own fish in lakes and rivers are innumerable. The Forest Cat evidently utilizes the same methods as the Norwegian lynx when it goes fishing.

Old Norse Terms and Names for Cats

The Old Norse language had several words for cats and a few recorded names. These are taken from:

  • köttr - (masculine noun) "cat". Originally the martin cat or weasel. "It seems that in the Saga time (10th century) that the cat was not yet domesticated, for passages such as Vd. ch. 28, Eg. S. Einh. ch. 10, and the story in the Edda (Thor lifting the giant's cat) apply better to the wild cat or the martin cat and the saying in Isl . ii.l.c. (sees the cat the mouse?) probably refers to the weasel and the field mouse but that early in the 12th century the cat was domesticated even in Icel. is shewn by the story of the chess-players and the kittens leaping after a straw on the floor, told in Mork . 204, 205. " [p. 368 s.v. köttr ]. This name appears in Landnámabók ch. 38 as the byname of Þórdr köttr .

Names for Norwegian Forest Cats

While breeders of Norwegian Forest Cats certainly seem to have no trouble selecting names for their cats (see for instance, this list), many people write me searching for the perfect Viking Age name for their pet. Some of the Old Norse terms above work well as modern cat names, of course. Other people have good results looking at Old Norse names for people and selecting a good Viking name for their fur-wearing warriors!

There were several types of dogs used in the Viking Age. The great popularity of dogs as pets, working animals, and as companions is shown by the frequency with which they are found in graves, buried alongside their masters. Frigga, wife of Óðinn and goddess of marriage and fidelity, was believed to travel in a chariot drawn by a pack of dogs, perfect symbols of fidelity and faithfulness.

The basic Norse dog is a spitz-type animal, produced by interbreeding of the native Arctic wolf with southern domestic dogs as early as the Neolithic, based on skeletal remains as much as 5,000 years old. There are many modern breeds of dogs which have without doubt derived from Viking Age spitz-type dogs. Although these breeds may well date to the Viking Age or before, a great many were not recognized as formal "breeds" until the 1800's or afterwards.

Viking Age art depicts many dogs, especially in runestone scenes depicting the arrival of the slain warrior into Valhöll: The warrior is greeted by a Valkyrie, bearing a horn of mead, and behind her waits the warrior's faithful hound. Like many dog-owners, the Vikings apparently could not conceive of an afterlife in which their canine best friends were not present. This probably explains, in part, why many warriors' graves contain the bones of one or more dogs, sent to the afterlife to accompany their master.


Dogs Depicted on Runestones

In Scandinavian belief, the dog is the guardian of the underworld, and it is speculated that one reason for including dogs in Viking Age burials was to provide a guide for the deceased to lead them to the underworld. Prior to the Viking Age, dogs both large and small were found in great numbers in the Vendel graves in Sweden. By the Viking Age, fewer dogs are found in each grave. The Oseberg ship burial contained the remains of four dogs to accompany the women buried there. The Gokstad ship burial contained six dogs buried with their elderly master. Other Viking Age graves in Denmark, Brittany, the Isle of Man and elsewhere containing the remains of dogs show that the custom of sending a person's dogs with them to the afterlife was widespread throughout the Viking World.

Hunting Dogs

Many of the dogs kept by the Vikings were hunting dogs, bred to assist in the chase. Several varieties of Viking Age hunting dogs have survived to the present day.


Norwegian Elkhound

One of the best-known surviving Norse hunting dog is the Norwegian Elkhound ( Norsk Elghund ), used for hunting large game such as moose and bear. The Elkhound (a mis-translation, these are literally "moose-hounds") is derived from the Torvmosehund or Swamp Dog, bred by the ancient Danes. Elkhound skeletons have been recovered from a number of sites, including the oldest dated remains from the Viste Cave at Jaeren, in western Norway in a stratum dating from 4,000 to 5,000 BCE.


Jämthund

The Jämthund or Swedish Elkhound is a Swedish hunting dog of spitz type, bred to hunt moose and sometimes bear. The Jämthund is the national dog of Sweden. Some experts believe the Jämthund originated by selective breeding from ancient aboriginal dogs very similar to the West Siberian Laika. Genetic studies show that the Jämthund is also very similar to the Norwegian Elkhound, although larger.


Karelian Bear Dog

Another spitz-type dog was used for hunting game from at least 1100 CE, especially bear and moose, and modern descendants of this breed are called Karelian Bear Dogs in Finland (also called Bjornhund in Swedish or Karjalankarhukoira in Finnish). An identical breed is known as the Laika in Russia. According to archeological records, dogs very similar to the modern Russo-European Laika and the Karelian Bear Dog existed in northeastern Europe and Scandinavia since Neolithic times. The breed standard for Karelians and Laikas today calls for a black-and-white marked dog, but originally the breed included individuals with coats of wolf gray of various shades, red coats like the standard spitz, and black-and-tan specimens as well.

The Karelian Bear Dog was used mainly for hunting small fur-bearing animals, such as squirrels and marten. Like the Norwegian Elkhound, the Karelian Bear Dog was also used in hunting moose, lynx, wolf and, as its name would suggest, hunting the Eurasian brown bear (a bear species as large and aggressive as the American Grizzly). In hunting bear, at least a pair of Bear Dogs would be used to harry the animal, barking loudly, in order to distract the bear while the human hunter came in for the kill. Karelian Bear Dogs are being used today for bear control at Yosemite and Glacier National Parks and in Alaska in the United States (see also "Bear Scarer" in People Magazine 49:23 (June 15, 1998) p. 146).


Finnish Spitz

Yet another descendant of Viking Age hunting dogs, the Finnish Spitz Dog ( Suomenpystykorva in Finnish or Finsk Spets in Swedish) is also known as the Barking Bird Dog. The Finnish name, Suomenpystykorva means "Finnish Prick-Eared Dog" and this animal is now honored as the national dog of Finland. Used in antiquity to track large game such as polar bears and elk, in more recent times the Finnish Spitz has been used as a "bark pointer" for birds and small game: these dogs can bark at an extremely high rate, some as frequently as 160 barks per minute.


Gamel Donsk Hønsehund

The favorite hunting dog in Viking Age Denmark was the ancestor of the breed now known as the Old Danish Bird Dog or Gammel Dansk Hønsehund . Unlike other Nordic dogs, the Old Danish Bird Dog is not a spitz-type, but rather is more closely related to southern tracking type dogs.


Norwegian Lundehund or Puffin-Hound

The Norwegian Lundehund is the most ancient of the Nordic dog breeds. The name Lundehund means "puffin-dog" after the dog's talent for hunting seabirds. The Lundehund originates from the Lofoten Islands in the fishing village Måstad on Værøy Island. The date of origin for the breed is unknown, however scientific research indicates that the breed has been in existence since before the last Ice Age. The Lundehund survived through the glacial period in the ice-free zones, surviving by eating fish and seabirds. It is thought that the Lundehund is actually a descendant of the primeval dog, Canis forus , rather than the domesticated dog breeds, Canis familiaris .

The Lundehund was valued for its ability to hunt and catch puffins and other seabirds. Lundehunds have several special anatomical adaptations that make them particularly adept at hunting seabirds. Lundehunds are a zoological rarity by having at least six fully developed toes on each foot. They can close their ear canals at will and are able to bend their head 180 degrees backwards over their shoulders. Their legs that are extremely flexible and can be stretched straight out to the side, for greater ease in swimming or in maneuvering in the narrow crevices in Norwegian sea-side cliffs where their avian prey lives.

The Lundehund was a valuable working animal, for the export of down to Schleswig in Germany was a major commercial enterprise from the Viking Age through the 16th and 17th centuries. In addition, puffins were considerted a delicacy during the Viking Age. Households on Værøy would have anywhere from two dogs to a pack of a dozen, and at one point the Lundehund's value was as great as a good milch cow. One Lundehund could capture up to 30 puffins in one night, bringing them back alive to their master. The popularity of the Lundehund waned after the introduction of nets into the local bird-hunting practices.

Herd Dogs

A variety of dogs were used by the Vikings in tending sheep, goats, and cattle, and several of these breeds are still bred today. The most common type of herd dog was a spitz-type sheep-herding dog, and these were apparently in use throughout Scandinavia from the time of the Maglemose Culture in Denmark (ca. 6,000 BCE).


Norwegian Buhund

The Norwegian Buhund is one of the oldest known Nordic breeds, and the ancestral Viking herd-dog . The Gokstad ship burial includes the bones of six Buhund dogs. The name "Buhund" comes from then Norwegian word bu , which means homestead, farm or house: this term was first used in 1968 in J. Ramus's book, A Sample Of Words From Norderhov. By the last quarter of the 7th century, the Vikings brought Buhunds to Shetland, Iceland and Greenland. It is thought that the Shetland Sheepdog and Iceland Sheepdog are descended from Buhund ancestors.


Icelandic Sheepdog

When the first settlers arrived in Iceland in 874 CE, they brought with them the ancestors of the Iceland Sheepdog ( Ísländshunden in Icelandic), sometimes called Fårehund or " Friar-Hound ". In addition to herding sheep, the Icelandic Sheepdog was also used in working horses.

There are references to the Icelandic Sheepdog in many of the Icelandic Sagas, dating from 900 to 1300, and further references in 1400's and 1500's. The Icelandic Sheepdog also appears in English literature such as William Shakespeare's Henry V ("Pish for thee, Iceland Dog! Thou prick-eared cur of Iceland!" Act II, Scene I). In 1650, Sir Thomas Brown wrote: "To England there are sometimes exported from Iceland. a type of dog resembling a fox. Shepherds in England are eager to acquire them!"


Vallhund

The Vikings also used dogs to herd cattle. One of this type was the Swedish Vallhund , also known as Västgötaspets , which are still bred today. The Vallhund dates back to the 500's in Sweden. The Vallhund looks like its close relative, the Welsh Corgi, and it is unknown whether the Vallhund is the ancestor of the Corgi or vice versa.


Lapp Reindeer Dog

The Lapp Reindeer Dog (in Finnish: Lapinporokoira ) was used by the Sámi to domesticate and herd reindeer. Like the other spitz-type breeds, the Reindeer Dog's origins are lost in antiquity, but almost certainly predate the advent of the Viking Age. The Sámi tell the legend of the Reindeer Dog:

Even modern Reindeer Dogs are often considered to possess the gift of speech - they don't say much, say their owners, but they understand much.


Lapphund

There are both Swedish and Finnish varieties of the spitz-type reindeer-herding dog originally bred by the Sámi. The Swedish variant is the Swedish Lapphund (Swedish) or Suomenpystykorva (Finnish), while the Finnish variety of this dog is the Finnish Lapphund or Lapinkoira (Finnish). Both varieties of Lapphund were developed by the Sámi as reindeer-herding dogs: after WWII breeders in Sweden and Finland independently undertook to preserve the species, resulting in two slightly varying types. Of the two varieties, the Finnish Lapphund has best retained its instinct for herding, and is often used on farms in Finland, while the Swedish Lapphund is more often found as a pet.

Old Norse Names for Dogs

There are very few dogs mentioned in the Old Norse literature, and even fewer are named. A few dog names from Viking literature that I have found include:

    Floki - (etymology unclear, may perhaps be related to Modern Norwegian floke , "outspoken and enterprising"). Hjôrleifr's dog from Hálfs saga og Hálfsrekka .


Domestic Cat History

This is an article about domestic cat history written in simple language that is designed to be used, primarily, by students. It is meant to be an overview. For that reason any part of this page may be reproduced “as is” (faithfully) under a creative commons license provided a link back is provided, please.

Introduction

I have divided up the history of the domestic cat into four sections:

  1. The beginning of the species Felis catus (domestic cat)
  2. The domestication of the wildcat
  3. The creation of the cat breeds
  4. Selected pages on domestic cat history and search.

It is fair to say that an understanding of the early years of the cat as a species of animal is not yet completely understood. The scientists disagree on some of the detail, although they agree the wider picture. Students should be cautious is making statements that are quoted as being fact.

The domestic cat is scientifically classified as follows:

Kingdom:Animalia
Phylum:Chordata
Class:Mammalia
Order:Carnivora
Family:Felidae
Genus:Felis
Species:F. catus


The classification of cats is also work in progress, please note. A more detailed and much longer article on cat history written from a slightly different perspective can be seen here.

The Beginning of the Species Felis catus

Cats are carnivores. In scientific classification the “Order” is called “Carnivora”. All carnivores evolved from an extinct order of mammals called Creodonts . They were the main carnivores 50-60 million years ago. Creodonts were about the height at the shoulder of a domestic cat.

Miacids were primitive carnivores that evolved around 60 million years ago. They were twice the size of creodonts with more slender legs and heads. They are believed to have evolved into the modern carnivorous mammals of the order Carnivora. The miacis was a weasel-like animal:

The miacids split into two lines, one of which was the Viverravidae . The first true cat to arise from Viverravidae was Proailurus . These first cat-like carnivores were half cat and half civet . The word Proailurus means “before the cats” in Greek. They existed about 25-30 million years ago and were the size of a very large domestic cat. They were not digitigrades (walking on their toes). They were flat-footed. The best-known species was P lemanensis found in France.

Proailurus gave way to what are considered to be the first members of the modern cat family, Pseudaelurus . They were prehistoric cats. They inhabited Europe, Asia and North America about 8 to 20 million years ago. They looked like modern cats. They were digitigrades – they walked on their toes. They had flexible spines like modern cats flexible shoulder blades and tails. An example of a species of Pseudaelurus would be Pseudaelurus lorteti which was the size of a modern day lynx.

Pseudaelurus evolved into two main groups one of which one was Schizailurus , which in turn evolved to the Felidae family.

About 12 million years ago, the genus Felis appeared . Felis lunensis (Martelli’s Cat) was a species that is now extinct and which inhabited Europe about 2.4 million years ago (during the Pliocene period) and is believed to be the direct ancestor of today’s wildcat. It is believed that it evolved into today’s European wildcat. However the first modern cats were cheetahs.

By the way, in this context “wildcat” means the small species of wildcat ( Felis silvestris ). The wildcat is the wild ancestor of today’s domestic cat. See a comparison between the wildcat and the domestic cat.

This, incidentally, and on a different subject, was the time when the saber tooth tiger became extinct (about 10,000 years ago).

Domestication of the wildcat

The domestication of the wildcat was a mutual arrangement (to the benefit of people and cat alike). The domestication of the cat occurred long after the wild dog was domesticated. The initial domestication of the wildcat took place in what is referred to as the “Fertile Crescent”. This includes Egypt and Cyprus. Although most evidence of domestication comes from the fertile Nile Delta (see map below).

The Near Eastern wildcat was, at its earliest, domesticated some 9,000 years ago, it is believed, because feline remains were found in a human grave on Cyprus in the Mediterranean. A cat’s tooth from 9,000 BC was found in Jericho, Israel and remains have been found in the Indus valley near Harappa.

Due to recent DNA analysis it is believed that the domestic cat is a domesticated version of the Near Eastern wildcat ( Felis silvestris lybica ).

The Near Eastern wildcat is the African wildcat. Another small wildcat that inhabited the area was the Jungle cat ( Felis chaus ).

The Egyptians of 4,000 BC began to to create settlements and farms, producing grain silos attracting rodents. The cat had a ready supply of prey and the farmers had protection from rodents.

Ships cats were also employed to protect cargo and it is through the transportation of ships cats along trade routes that the domestic cat was distributed far and wide. in fact the discovery in Cyprus mentioned above must have been a decendant of a ships cat as there were no wildcats on Cyprus.

By about 2,000 BC the domestic cat in Egypt was well established. Many years later the Egyptians began to worship the cat.

The domestication of the cat is self propagating because cat litters raised in and around people produce cats that are socialized to people and other animals. In short they are automatically domesticated. Domestication of the cat has changed the cat.

The Creation of the Cat Breeds

Before about the 1860s there were no cat breeds. Cat breeds are a single species of domestic cat, Felis catus . At that time there were probably purebred cats as we would now define them, but there was no one to formally recognize that fact (meaning no cat associations). There is a modern example of this, the Bahraini Dilmun cat which could be formally accepted as a cat breed.

The cat fancy is the community of people anywhere in the world who breed and show domestic cats. It may also include people who are on the fringes of that group.

The cat fancy started in the late 19th century in England and in America at a similar time. The early cat shows in the USA occurred in the 1860s. At 2011, there is no cat fancy in economically important countries such as China and India.

In the UK the second national cat show in England was in 1871 at Crystal Palace. It was a grand affair.

At the outset in the UK the established cat breeds to be bred and shown were the Persian, Siamese, Abyssinian and British Shorthair on my estimation. These are long standing cat breeds. In the USA the Maine Coon was the first purebred cat breed to be shown and bred.

From this start the cat fancy expanded. Breeders sought to create new cat breeds. Existing cat breeds were “refined” through selective breeding. The cat fancy is somewhat divided between traditionalists and breeders who tend to breed to extreme (ultra breeding). The modern Siamese is an example of extreme breeding and the Applehead Siamese is an example of the traditional Siamese. The Persian also traditional and extreme cats.

New breeds can be created through hybridization – domestic cat to domestic cat and more rarely domestic cat to wildcat – or through “discovery”. “Discovery” means a cat that looks different coming to the attention of a cat breeder, perhaps due to a genetic mutation, who then breeds it and registers it with a cat association. Examples are the rex cats such as the Devon Rex and the Sphynx. Another is the Abyssinian. Discovered cats are imported from the place of discovery to the main cat fancy markets such as the USA and Europe.

Over the course of the 20th century the cat fancy expanded considerably both in terms of the number of cat breeds and cat associations. It is possible to argue that there are too many of both!

The peak years for the creation of cat breeds was from the 1950s to the 1980s.

The first cat breed was probably the Egyptian Mau a supposed descendant of the African wildcat. This cat is still a random bred and feral cat in Egypt. It is the only naturally spotted cat it is said.

You can see a full time-line on when the cat breeds were created by clicking on this link. There are over 100 cat breeds in 2011. It is probable that the market is saturated.

The way the defacto cat breeds developed before the cat fancy existed is interesting. Research based on genetics provides insights.

Selected Pages on Domestic Cat History

The early cat breeds provide a good insight into domestic cat history such as the British Shorthair, the Maine Coon, the Siamese, the Abyssinian, the Persian and the American Shorthair.

Domestic cat history – Credit for heading image. top photo courtesy chatsdumonde. Lower photo copyright Helmi Flick (a Snowshoe cat).


What Cat is Best for Rat Catching?

Is the modern cat any good at catching rats and other rodents? Can you adopt a cat for that purpose and expect success? In India, at least one person found success. I don’t know how commonplace it is for people to keep cats for the sole purpose of killing and frightening off rats and mice.

However, domestic cats can still have a utility function. They need not just be decorative, lounging around eating and sleeping. Although that’s what it looks like sometimes. In many areas and countries a cat might be adopted to keep down the rodent population. You know..the old-fashioned, almost ancient idea, which is the reason why the cat was domesticated in the first place. There was a contract, if you like, between cat and human. This was it:

The wild cat ancestor to the domestic cat – the wildcat – is a top predator of rodents and snakes and therefore the first domestic cats were equally adept and successful as a pest-killer. Has any of that ability been retained after 9,500 years of domestication?

Farm Cats

I am sure that there are many farms where barn cats (or farm cats) are retained as “pets” but also on a utility basis, to keep the pest population down. However, barn cats are a little more wild, or a lot more wild, than the standard domestic cat. Their hunting skills are more finely tuned and in good working order.

One aspect of keeping barn cats for pet control is that they are more effective if they are fed by the farmer. This keeps them within the area of the barn and on the farm, in which case they are in the right place to kill rats. Being well fed does not stop them hunting rats. If you keep barn cats hungry they wander far and wide. Their hunting takes them away from the barn.

Conclusion: barn cats are still good rat catchers.

No 10 Downing Street

We all know that the prime minister’s office at No 10 adopted a cat from Battersea Dogs and Cats Home to keep rodents at bay. The concept was not so much to hunt rodents but to keep them away by the presence of a domestic cat. See cats in the workplace.

Conclusion: the home loving domestic cat is still a useful repellant against rodents

Champion Mousers

You might know that in the UK one champion mouser – a Lancashire, male, tabby cat – killed 22,000 mice while being employed in a factory over a lifespan of 23 years. He appears to have lived off them, killing three per day.

The “world champion” (really just a guess) ratter is, apparently, another tabby cat living in London who caught 12,480 rats in 6 years.

Both examples probably relate to times gone by, about 50 years ago and more. Even 50 years ago the relationship between cat and person was quite different.

What Cat is Best for Rat Catching?

There is nothing on the internet to help us. This is no surprise because, in truth, you won’t know which cat is the best for rat catching because it comes down to the individual personality of the cat. Some cats will be excellent and some relatively uninterested.

Both champions mentioned above were tabby cats. That does not mean that tabby cats are good rat catchers. It just means that there are more tabby cats than any other sort of cat.

If I was adopting a cat for the sole purpose of keeping rodent populations down I’d use these guidelines:

  1. Adopt a rescue cat from the local shelter.
  2. Choose a cat that was semi-feral or stray and brought in. Most often these cats are deemed unsuitable and euthanised but I would have thought they would have more finely honed hunting skills. However, you’ll have to do a bit of domestication.
  3. Chose a red tabby cat. I feel that these cats are a little more alpha type and also well behaved. This assessment is anecdotal and completely unscientific.
  4. Ask the shelter people for their advice. They should know the character of their cats or have an idea about their individual personalities. This is important because, as mentioned, it comes down to individual cats. You can’t brand one type of cat better than another.
  5. Don’t bother about adopting a purebred, pedigree cat (but see the comment below about the Bombay cat – nice comment). They will be no better and possibly worse. However, the Maine Coon evolved as a barn cat in the USA. Perhaps rat catching is still in her blood?

Hi, I'm a 72-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare. If you want to read more click here.

Comments

What Cat is Best for Rat Catching? — 18 Comments

I think I have a rat or few in my basement is it safe to let my orange tabby down there? She seems to go after anything that moves

In my opinion yes it’ll be okay. It will keep the rats away as well or should do.

I was the owner of several cats at one time. The cats were raised with hamsters so they were used to rodents in the house. One of my cats would crawl into the cage where they were kept and just lie there while the hamsters walked all over her. Unfortunately when I did get a mouse in the house the cats totally ignored it. I guess they figured it was just another member of the hamster family.

Hi Karen, yep, when cats are socialised with an animal who’d normally be prey, they are no longer prey but friends. You can totally reprogram animals. The same must apply to humans. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

My Norwegian forest cat killed about 2 dozen rats last year. Some of the rats were huge. He has 7 toes on each front paw, so maybe that helps.

I like your comment a lot. I suspect that the seven toes does help. I hope that he has seven claws on those seven toes. Your cat reminds me of the Maine Coon ships’ cats. The first long-haired cats to be brought to America were from Europe and these cats became Maine Coons. Sailors preferred cats with more than the usual number of toes (polydactylism) because they thought it made them better on ship and better in respect of catching rats. Thanks for commenting.

I beg to differ about the no purebred part. My Bombay, who my boyfriend and I rescued 2 yrs ago is an EXCELLENT ratter. He caught his first rat first winter he was here, took all of 2 seconds. He even went to a quiet spot of the house & ate it. Bombay cats at such great hunters because of the American Shorthair in them. (Bombays are essentially Black American Shorthairs & Sable Burmese). The American Shorthair were brought along the Mayflower as ratters. So, yes, purebred cats CAN be superb hunters, they just have to have a cat, (usually their mom), to show/teach them how.

Great comment. I liked it. Thanks for differing in your opinion. I like the idea of a purebred, pedigree cat catching rats and taking on the same role that the first domestic cats had 9,500 years ago. Nice connection with the past and our original relationship with the domestic cat.

Cats are actually one of the poorest methods of rodent control of all. Not only are they a highly destructive invasive species that transmits many deadly zoonotic diseases to both humans and all other animals, but there are hundreds (if not thousands) of native species on every continent that are much better suited for the purpose. On top of that, most cats run from rats.

What happens is that cats destroy all the native rodent predators, or displace them, and then the cats destroy only the rodents that they can find (key point). Guess what? Rodents don’t reproduce in places where cats can get to them. They reproduce in burrows and places too small for ANY cat to get to them. So what you end up with is a happy predator/prey balance of nothing but cats and rodents infesting your lands and homes.

The rodents reproduce in burrows and holes where they are happy to reproduce forever to entertain your cats the rest of their lives, and make your own lives miserable, on into infinity. On top of that, when cats infect rodents with the cat’s Toxoplasma gondii parasite, this hijacks the minds of rodents to make the rodents attracted to where cats urinate. Cats actually attract rodents to where cats are. Further increasing the cat/rodent density of this happy predator/prey balance. It has been documented many many times. The more cats you have, the more rodents you get. I suggest you Google for those studies.

No cat population anywhere has EVER been able to eradicate rodents. But native predators can — easily. Many reptiles and the more voracious smaller mammals can destroy rodents at their very source. Even the tiny little 1.75-inch Masked Shrew (not a rodent) in N. America, a David and Goliath story, can wipe out rodents. They are the only mammal in N. America with a poisonous bite, specifically designed to prey on rodents in places where rodents hide from your cats.

Remainder removed as it was arrogant and rude…..(Admin)

Why then was the cat domesticated in the first place?

I can tell this person is one of those wannabe debaters who makes it up as he/she goes. I have a cat which brings home full size rats, mice, moles, voles, and even squirrels and rabbits.

You mentioned that “there are hundreds (if not thousands) of native species on every continent that are much better suited for the purpose”.
Could you please name 10 of these and are they family friendly or legal to own?

Hi Eileen, thanks for commenting.

I don’t think I want any of those native rat killers in my house, and I don’t think they want to be there, either. I am looking for a cat to kill rats in my house.

Tabby cats often have excellent camouflage especially in the nature. It’s unbelievable how you can’t see them in the long grass and plants nearby even. As I understand Larry was doing a bad job at number 10 so the Chancellors cat Freya from number 11 took over the job on a time share basis although that remains unofficial. Freya and Larry don’t get on, I think she’s a typical dominant bossy ladycat and Larry is a relaxed slightly lazy mancat.

My mum got us an outdoor cat (its warm down there all year round pretty much) to deal with a rat problem down in the south of france. I was too young to remember the beginning but I remember the cat when I grew up a bit. He was black and white and his name was Basil. For years we tried to plead with the old ladies next door to not over feed him or not feed him at all. They kept doing it and he got very overweight. One day he was hit by a car either crossing the road on his way or way back from the old ladies house. I never knew Basil but I though that it was very sad and felt as though the ladies next door had basically killed him. If he wasn’t so overweight I doubt he would have been hit even. Anyway, they shouldn’t have fed him whatever they were feeding him. We had a paradise for him to live with nice food and everything. I think he didn’t perhaps get enough human attention if anything but he did keep to himself as I remember. Regardless that he became big and not much of a hunter his presence kept the rats away. I wish I could have spent more time with Basil but I was just a little kid then and Basil anyway stayed away from all of us for the most part.

It is nice to have a real life example. A bit sad though. I may be that a decent number of people living in the country keep cats as a rodent repellant as a secondary purpose. It is just an added bonus. I agree that the camouflage of tabby cats helps to make them better rat catchers.


Communication

Cats communicate by marking trees, fence posts, or furniture with their claws or their waste. These scent posts are meant to inform others of a cat's home range. House cats employ a vocal repertoire that extends from a purr to a screech.

Domestic cats remain largely carnivorous, and have evolved a simple gut appropriate for raw meat. They also retain the rough tongue that can help them clean every last morsel from an animal bone (and groom themselves). Their diets vary with the whims of humans, however, and can be supplemented by the cat's own hunting successes.


Dogs and Cats Are Blurring the Lines Between Pets and People

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Cats and dogs occupy a unique place in the animal kingdom's vast menagerie. Unlike other domesticated animals, like chickens or pigs or lab rats, they're not treated as identity-less means to a human end and unlike wild creatures, they're not counted as populations or viewed as units of biodiversity.

Instead, dogs and cats are individuals. They're our friends. Some of us even consider them family. They've come out of the wild and into our living rooms, an extraordinary evolutionary and sociological journey that now raises profound questions about what it means to be a person.

"Part of our growth and evolution as a society is our changing relationship to the beings around us," said David Grimm, author of the newly published Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs. "The changing status of cats and dogs forces us to confront some very complicated questions of how inclusive we want to be."

Does our respect for companion creatures herald a new way of relating to non-humans, rejecting centuries of misbegotten thinking about animals as unfeeling biological machines? Or do we keep on the blinders, acknowledging what science says about our pets' minds while ignoring the implications for other species? And if we do consider some animals to be persons, what are the legal and political consequences?


Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and DogsWIRED talked to Grimm about the history of cats and dogs and the future we're making with them.

WIRED: When did the evolutionary paths of dogs and cats intersect with humans?

David Grimm: For dogs, there's still a lot of mystery about the when, where and how. Estimates range from about 15,000 years ago to 30,000 years ago, depending on what archaeological evidence you believe. Some people believe that humans basically grabbed some wolf puppies, and over time actively domesticated them. Others — and this is the more popular theory — think it was a more passive process: wolves hung around our campsites, and over thousands of years those who were tamest got closer to us.

Passive domestication is more firmly established with cats. Archaeological evidence points to a human and a cat being buried together about 9,500 years ago in Cypress. It's also not known exactly how this happened, but scientists are converging on the idea that cats came in to catch rodents around our crops, and realized that if they got along well with people, we might throw them some table scraps. The theme is that cats domesticated themselves.

WIRED: The relationship wasn't always so salutary, though. Things got pretty dark during the Middle Ages and Enlightenment, didn't they?

Grimm: Once cats and dogs become domesticated, then for the next few thousand years they're on a roller-coaster ride. They have high status in antiquity among the Egyptians, cats are deified, and Romans buried their dogs in human cemeteries and talked about them like children.

But in the Middle Ages, society enters a dark period. When the plague starts going around, cats and dogs become scapegoats. Dogs are viewed as filthy animals. For cats, the incident that sticks out is when Pope Gregory IX linked them to Satan. That's the first instance of cats declared to be evil creatures. There followed centuries of cats being thrown into bonfires and stoned to death. They were nearly exterminated in Europe.

Then, a few hundred years ago, the famed French philosopher René Descartes says animals are just machines. There's evidence that he cut unanesthetized, living dogs open and fiddled around with their hearts he had no problem with that. He saw them as collections of gears. If a dog cried, heɽ say, 'There's something wrong with the gears.' Which really helped dogs become a model animal in scientific research until the late 20th century.

WIRED: You write that Pope Gregory wasn't simply an animal-hater. He also canonized St. Francis of Assisi, renowned for caring for animals. What was it about cats that inspired such loathing?

Grimm: It's not clear why he picked cats. Some people have theorized that cats are mysterious, and have these glowing, shiny eyes, so they were seen as having witchcraft. Cats are also not very submissive. They're not like dogs or farm animals. Church dogma is that man shall have control of all animals — and cats do their own thing.

WIRED: Where did that independent streak come from?

Grimm: That's a really interesting question, and it may relate to the history of their domestication. After dogs entered human society, we started actively manipulating them, selecting them to be better hunters and guardians and companions. Whereas with cats, there maybe came a point where they were okay to have around killing mice in our fields, they were doing what we wanted them to do, and we were content to leave them be. So dog domestication happened for tens of thousands of years, but cat domestication just stopped.

WIRED: Is it possible to say which traits are intrinsic — shared with their wild relatives, rooted deep in evolutionary history — and which resulted from human-guided breeding and domestication?

Grimm: A lot of the dog cognition research is really fascinating. Dogs are attuned to our gestures: they follow human finger-pointing, which seems like a simple task, but chimpanzees and wolves can't do it. A dog doing that is, in a sense, reading our mind. He knows we're trying to show him something important. The same experiment was also done with cats, and they follow finger-pointing, too. This suggests that these two pets, by living with us for so long, have become attuned to our mindset in a way that no other animals have.

In the last 15 years, there's been an explosion of studies. It's not just about pointing. Dogs also have jealousy, morality, a sense of right and wrong. They enforce concepts of justice. When one dog plays too aggressively, that dog can be ostracized. They have complex ideas of morality and ethics.

The unfortunate thing with cats, though, is that they're probably capable of many things, but their mind remains a black box because they're so hard to study. Dogs don't mind being in a laboratory, whereas cats really don't like it. I think that cats get a bad rap for not being as smart or capable as dogs, but the real truth is we just don't know. My gut feeling is that they're just as capable. Their minds are just harder to probe.

WIRED: Cats might be hard to study in a lab, but they're certainly easy to observe in our everyday lives. What about our observations?

Grimm: The study of animal minds really begins with Darwin and one of his young collaborators, George Romanes. Their early studies were very empirical. He would say, 'I saw a cat always bring home one kind of bird,' and that was proof to him that cats were capable of distinguishing between species. Or, 'I put a dog in a field, and the dog found his way home, so he must have a sense of navigation!'

In the first half of the 20th century, there was a lot of backlash against that. People said, you can't just make observations. You have to test in the laboratory. Then came behaviorism, and the idea that it's impossible to know what animals are thinking because we can't get into their heads. That's really changed with the recent research.

WIRED: What are the social implications of these scientific insights?

Grimm: In some ways, the science is just catching up with our hearts. We've known for centuries that animals are capable of love and a variety of emotions. Darwin had this famous line: "The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind." What he meant was that if we find a certain emotion in chimpanzees, and dogs are not that distantly related, they probably have it, too.

Now that we're discovering all this in dogs, is it true that mice can experience it? What about fruit flies? This has some people concerned. Cats and dogs are not used so much in research, but many other animals are. Many scientists worry about a slippery slope: If we ascribe something to cats and dogs, what's to stop people doing so with lab rats? And then you have farmers: If people view cats and dogs like this today, does that mean they'll eventually start seeing horses and chickens like that, too?

That fascinated me while writing Citizen Canine: the idea that there are unforetold consequences of turning dogs and cats into family members. It all seems positive: 'I love my dog, and my dog should have certain rights.' What happens when that starts bleeding over into other animals? Should a cow be a person? And if my cat is legally a person, does that mean I can't neuter her against her will?

WIRED: Do you think we'll develop new social and legal customs for dealing with animals?

Grimm: That's the big question. Right now in the United States, cats and dogs are considered property. In a court of law, your cat or dog is no different than a toaster or a couch. A lot of people recoil from that, but some also worry that turning cats and dogs into legal people is a bridge too far.

The question is whether there's some happy medium where we can acknowledge that these animals are not toasters, but not grant them as something as extreme as full human rights. Maybe we create a new class of nonnhuman rights. David Favre at Michigan State University has proposed an intermediate category of "living property": dogs and cats could have some rights, even some responsibilities, but legally be like children. Weɽ have a responsibility to not mistreat them, to provide a basic level of medical care, but not constitutional or inalienable rights.

WIRED: So far we've talked about animals in our immediate domain. What about extending these ideas to animals on the landscape?


Man’s First Friend

In a study released Friday, a team of archaeologists presented new evidence that horses were domesticated in 3500 B.C.—about a thousand years earlier than previous estimates. What was the first domesticated animal?

The dog. No one can pinpoint exactly when humans first started keeping dogs as pets, but estimates range from roughly 13,000 to 30,000 years ago. Archaeologists can tell domesticated canines apart from wolves through skeletal differences: Dogs had smaller teeth, for example, and a reduced “Sagittal crest”—the bone ridge that runs down the forehead and connects to the jaw. The earliest dog bones, discovered in Belgium in 2008, are from 31,700 years ago. But ancient dog skeletons have also been unearthed in western Russia, near its border with Ukraine, and elsewhere across Europe, Asia, and Australia, suggesting that canine domestication was a widespread phenomenon.

Scientists have also used DNA evidence to estimate the origin of domesticated dogs. The so-called “molecular clock” theory posits that if you know the speed at which DNA mutates, you can develop a chronology for doggie evolution. Say you know when wolves and coyotes separated and became different species, and you know what their genomes currently look like. You can then determine how long it took for those genetic changes to occur. Based on this methodology, dogs as a species are estimated to be 15,000 to 20,000 years old. But critics argue that gene substitution is not a constant process—it speeds up, then slows down—making the estimates rough at best.

How did dogs get domesticated in the first place? The first ones were basically just tame wolves. Some researchers believe wolves were first attracted by the garbage produced by early human settlements. Those canines brave enough to approach humans, yet not so aggressive as to attack, got fed. Eventually, they no longer needed the strong jaws and sharp teeth of their feral counterparts. Their noses got smaller, too. (Dogs characteristics can change a lot in only a few generations.) After this initial process of “self-domestication,” humans started breeding dogs to help with hunting, herding, standing guard, and carrying stuff. Humans also deliberately bred dogs to be more adorable.


Domestic Cats Vs. African Wildcats: What Do They Have In Common?

While recent DNA research 1, 2 has identified five wild cat species as the closest group of ancestors to domestic cats, it's believed that the African Wildcat is the wild ancestor that was first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent 9,000 years ago.

So if our cats share a lineage with the African Wildcat, what else do they have in common? That's precisely what our team of experts was hoping to answer when they journeyed to South Africa to study this species firsthand.

Here are some of their observations.

1/Coat & Markings

The African Wildcat is sandy brown to yellow grey in color, with black stripes on the tail, orange colored ears and underbelly, white rings around the eyes, and black rings around the tail and bottom of the legs.

These dark markings help them blend into their surroundings in both deserts and savannahs in order to conceal themselves from predators and prey. Their coloration can be lighter or darker, depending on their home environment.

The domestic cat breeds with the closest comparison in both color and pattern are the Abyssinian and Mackerel Tabby.

2/Stature & Body Weight

The African Wildcat ranges in head-body length from 18 – 30 inches and typically weigh 6 – 14 pounds. Both measurements are slightly larger than the average domestic cat and are comparable with the larger breeds of shorthair domestic cats like Abyssinians and Bengals. Most likely attributed to their activity level in the wild, African Wildcats are noticeably lean and muscular and almost always in ideal body condition.

3/Legs

African Wildcats have legs that are long in proportion to the rest of their body. They are an advantage while running, leaping, pouncing and seeking refuge up in trees.

While most domestic cats have shorter legs, they do exhibit similar behaviors like chasing after bugs, pouncing on a toy, or climbing up to a perch on a tall piece of furniture.

This is why it's important to work with your cat to help improve her agility as it also helps stimulate her mind, body and natural instincts.

4/Paws

Retractable claws stay tucked under the skin of the paws when the Wildcat is on the move, but get extended to help with climbing, hunting or fending off predators. They'll scratch on trees to keep their claws fit. Domestic cats instinctively seek out similar situations, which is why it's important to provide them with a sturdy scratching post and a horizontal scratching surface as an alternative to furniture, rugs or curtains.

5/Eyes

The African Wildcats' retinas contain a layer of cells that reflect light back into the eye, making them ideally suited for hunting at night. Pupils constrict down to thin slits in broad daylight, and dilate very wide at night. This helps them make the most of available light. Dilated pupils can also be a sign of excitement.

The domestic cat is equipped with equally amazing eyes that allow them to play and roam around the house, even when the lights are off.

6/Whiskers

Fanned or flattened, pointed out or down - domestic cats are quite similar to African Wildcats in the way they vary the position of their whiskers to communicate.

Since the whiskers extend the width of the head, they're also used to measure openings to ensure there's enough space for the cat to fit through. Whether it's your cat exploring your home or a wildcat out hunting, this is especially handy while navigating their surroundings when they're on the prowl at night.

7/Teeth & Side Chewing

African Wildcats are carnivorous and typically hunt for rodents, birds, reptiles, frogs and insects. They're able to open their mouths extraordinarily wide. Canine teeth are used for piercing, tearing and grasping, while modified molars work like scissors to sheer meat into pieces small enough to swallow.

When using their molars, both wildcats and domestic cats use a technique called side chewing. It's easy to spot - the cat will turn her head as she shears the food with the best teeth for the job.

8/Ears

Orange in color and distinctively shaped, African Wildcats have what are referred to as rufus ears. They're highly sensitive, and they're able to rotate to sense the directionality of movements of both predators and prey.

While your cat's shape and coloring may differ, she'll use her ears to communicate just like her ancestor. Ears pointed straight up can indicate a relaxed state. Pointed forward - friendly or attentive. She'll signal fear with ears that are flattened and pointed out slightly to the side.

9/Tail

An African Wildcat's tail is longer than the domestic cat's to help balance while climbing and chasing prey. But like their wild relative, the positioning of your cat's tail can be used to communicate her mood, much like her eyes, ears and whiskers. Friendly, submissive, defensive, and agitated - watching for certain details can help you key into your cat's demeanor.

1 Carlos A. Driscoll a,b, David W. Macdonald a, and Stephen J. O'Brien b,1

From wild animals to domestic pets, an evolutionary view of domestication

2 J. Wastlhuber, History of Domestic Cats & Cat Breeds, (3).


7. A Very Long Maine਌oon

Stewie, whose full name was Mymains Stewart Gilligan held the record for being the world’s longest domestic cat, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Born in 2005, he lived until February 4, 2013, when he died of cancer. He measured 48.5 inches and also held the record for the world’s longest cat tail.

Robin Hendrickson from Nevada was his human. Stewie was a certified therapy animal who frequently visited hospitals and local senior centers near his home.

The reality is that Stewie did not accomplish any incredible feats. He did not save anyone from a burning building or saved a boy from the clutches of an aggressive dog as in the case of Tara “The Hero Cat.” He was merely famous for how big he was. Despite his largely uninspired existence, Stewie represents an American breed of cats that deserve mention: the Maine Coons.

Native to the state of Maine, where it is the official state cat, they are the largest domestic cat breed known. Their distinctive physical appearance, long hair, and outstanding hunting skills make them an interesting feline variety to have as roommates.

Their sociable and friendly disposition has earned them the nickname of “gentle giants.” They are easily recognized by their furry chest, strong body structure, an uneven layered coat, and a long bushy tail. Considered to be intelligent, friendly, and playful they are often cited as having 𠇍og-like” characteristics and personalities.

Next time you are looking for a reliable sofa companion, consider a Maine Coon. You will not be disappointed.

"Towser "The Mouser" (1963�) of Glenturret Distillery in Crieff, Scotland, holds the Guinness World Record for the most mice caught (28,899)"

Wikipedia Source: Tubabohol - November 19, 2015


Who Knows Where and When?

Different animals were domesticated in different parts of the world at different times by different cultures and different economies and climates. The following table describes the latest information on when scholars believe different animals were turned from wild beasts to be hunted or avoided, into animals we could live with and rely on. The table summarizes the current understandings of the earliest likely domestication date for each of the animal species and a very rounded figure for when that might have happened. Live links on the table lead to in-depth personal histories of our collaborations with specific animals.

Archaeologist Melinda Zeder has hypothesized three broad pathways in which animal domestication might have occurred.

  • commensal pathway: wild animals were attracted to human settlements by the presence of food refuse (dogs, cats, guinea pigs)
  • prey pathway, or game management: in which actively hunted animals were first managed (cattle, goats, sheep, camelids, reindeer, and swine)
  • directed pathway: a deliberate effort by humans to capture, domesticate and use the animals (horses, donkeys, camels, reindeer).

Thanks to Ronald Hicks at Ball State University for suggestions. Similar information on the domestication dates and places of plants is found on the Table of Plant Domestication.


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