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A brief history of cats – how did cats become domesticated?

In honour of Big Cat Week (Monday 13 - Sunday 19 April), we’re starting by looking at the history of the domestic cat, their ancestry, how this makes them the cats they are today and how to ensure their specific needs are met.


African wildcats

Today’s domestic cat shares a common ancestry with the African Wildcat – a species still found today in the savannah in the Middle East and Africa. It is a solitary, territorial species that mainly hunts small rodents. Their environment has a relatively sparse concentration of rodent prey, so individuals are well-dispersed to avoid competition for the small amounts of available food. They maintain a territory to ensure other cats are kept away from this important resource. Hunting is not hunger driven – they will hunt before they are hungry to ensure sufficient food is caught each day.

As a solitary species, African wildcats don't need to communicate visually with other cats and instead use scent messages left by rubbing, spraying urine and scratching.



Domestic cats

Many of the biological needs and behaviours seen in African wildcats can still be seen in our pet cats today. Like their ancestors, domestic cats have an inherent desire to maintain an independent territory and are generally happy to live without other cats for company. Many cats living together only tolerate the presence of others to gain access to valued resources such as food, water, toileting area and outdoor access, so there need to be ample resources to avoid stress and conflict.

Domestic cats are still highly motivated to hunt and prefer meals to be little and often. They have limited visual social signals and facial expressions so can be difficult to 'read'. Just like the African wildcat, scent communication is still an important way of relaying information to both themselves and other cats.

You can learn more about domestic cat origins by accessing our free Understanding Feline Origins programme and read more about feline behaviour here.

Want to participate in a big cat conservation project? We’re running an international challenge event which involves a three-day big cat volunteer scheme and canoeing the Zambezi River – and the best part is, you can raise funds for the little cats at your local Cats Protection branch or adoption centre at the same time! Download an information pack.

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