Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

History Revisited - mixed beginnings for a household favourite

POPULAR PET: Cats weren't always well accepted in homes. Some rulers ordered them killed because of fear of vermin, others because of fear of witchcraft.

It is not clear when cats were first domesticated. The earliest date we appear to have is from a grave in Cyprus dated to around 7.500 BCE. Since the cat in question was not native to Cyprus and was buried with great care near a human burial, the assumption is that it may have been imported as a pet.

Unlike dogs who were useful in hunting and herding and were therefore domesticated first, the domestic cat emerged in the Fertile Crescent with the development of farming. Farming required food storage, creating a vermin problem. The domestic cat was the outcome.

Unlike dogs, the cat lives solitary in the wild. As a result, it has been able to take what it wants from humans (food, shelter, play) and to pay its dues in return (pest control) without losing contact with its original identity.

By the time of the Pharaos, the cat had acquired a very special place in Egyptian mythology as a sacred animal. To kill a cat was an offence punishable by death.

From Egypt, the cat colonised the expanding Roman Empire. Cats become common and valuable assets to those who harvested crops and had problems with rats and disease. They were introduced to Britain around 100 AD. The King of Wales, Hywel Dda, declared them protected by Law as sacred and valuable animals. Killing a cat could again be punishable by death.

The cat’s special mythological place did not always work to the animal’s advantage. During the Middle Ages in Europe, cats became associated with superstition and witch craft. They were considered animals of sin and were thought to be associated with Satan.

In 1348 when the Black Death (The Plague) broke out, cats were suspected as causing the disease or were in some ways associated with the devil’s work. Some rulers ordered the killing of all cats, in so doing encouraging the spread of disease.

Cats made a European comeback because of their anti-vermin usefulness as well as their attractions as pets. They were frequently carried on ships, in so doing encouraging their spread. 

The first cat probably arrived in Australia around 1804 as a ship cat. Cats breed rapidly. By 1820, Sydney had a significant feral cat problem. I have wondered how quickly and how far cats spread beyond Sydney in advance of European settlement. We know livestock spread, so a cat spread is possible.

As with dogs, cat ownership grew rapidly over the nineteenth century, associated in part with the growing middle class now able to afford pets.

Growth in pet ownership was not limited just to dogs and cats. Birds, for example, became extremely popular. The first pet food to go on the market was, in fact, bird food, with the first dog food marketed in England around 1860.

And the most important technological advance so far as cats as house pets is concerned? Arguably, kitty litter! This first became available from 1947. 
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 29 July 2015. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015.

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