Domesticated Pets: A History
Is your cat curled up on your lap purring right now, pawing at the keyboard and trying to get your attention? She spent the day snoozing in the sun, meowing animatedly at you, and clawing at bits of string. On a typical day, it might be hard to see the connection between your cat and majestic wildcats stalking their large prey through the wild.
If you're a dog person, you might have a similar question: how did the smiling, floppy-tongued animal tracking dirt into your house originate from the reserved, cautious grey wolves of the world?
The domestication of animals which would eventually become our beloved pets is a long and interesting history. Read on to learn more about how dogs and cats became domesticated and how some of your pet's current curious behaviours can be traced right back to the source.
Humans and Wolves
The most recent Ice Age happened around 20,000 years ago. Far from the green hills, rolling mountains, and tropical forests of today's Europe and Asia, the continent was instead a sub-arctic tundra populated by large mammals like bison. Their two main predators? Humans and wolves.
These two species enjoyed their spot on the top of the food chain by employing fairly similar hunting tactics: both humans and wolves hunted in family groups led by a dominant male and female pair. Both groups' primary objective was to protect the young members of the family at all costs. The similarities between our two groups have given rise to several theories on how exactly certain wolves morph into the modern dog.
There are a few theories about how wolves came to be domesticated. A popular (though potentially inaccurate) theory is that humans domesticated wolves by stealing cubs and training them to help humans by hunting and defending their settlements.
However, this theory doesn't mesh with human behaviour at the time. During the Ice Age, humans killed off most of the large mammals, as we eradicated sabre-toothed tigers and giant hyenas. We were very resistant to animal competitors for our prey, so it doesn't make sense that earlier humans would eradicate almost all large mammals while domesticating one small group.
Another theory makes a little bit more sense: wolves domesticated themselves. According to biologist Raymond Coppinger, human settlements that started during the end of the last Ice Age would have produced a lot of garbage – living in one place for a long period of time while making forays to hunt and gather, you accrue quite a bit of extra waste.
This garbage, such as animal remains, seeds, and other food left over from humans, would have been appealing to wolves. Those who approached the camp for food and didn't instantly run away or attack when humans appeared would have been rewarded with feasting on the scraps. Instead of survival of the fittest, think of it as survival of the friendliest.
As they became more tame and domesticated, formerly wild wolves could symbiotically survive on the food produced by humans, leading them to attach themselves to human settlements – eventually becoming our familiar household pets.
Domestication happened and dogs have been humans' best friends for at least the last 12,000 years. As certain wolves became more domestic, they started to look much different from their (potentially more aggressive) ancestors and relatives. Most importantly, these developing dogs learned to interpret human gestures and understand, generally, how humans needed them to behave. They helped humans hunt and defended them from animal and human threats alike.
Current Wolfish Behaviour in Dogs
Looking for some signs of this ancient, wolfish history in your own dog? Like their ancestors, today's dogs continue to defend their territories, often marking them with urine to alert other animals to the fact that this particular dog lives in this particular territory.
Annoyed about your dog's digging habit? Wolves sometimes store recent kills away for future use by burying them. Weirded out by how your dog behaves around other dogs? Because wolves are social creatures, body movement, position, and expression are crucial wolf communicators, and they continue to mark dog interactions today.
Humans and Wildcats
According to the Smithsonian, all domestic cats are descended from a wildcat that lived in the Middle East, where cats were first domesticated around 10,000 years ago. What was happening in the Near East that long ago?
Agricultural societies were just beginning to take root in the Fertile Crescent, and cats didn't have any use for humans until we began to settle down and farm. This perhaps explains why dogs were domesticated earlier, when our societies were focused on hunting. As soon as we grew and stored food, mice crept in – and with them, their wildcat predators.
Like dogs, then, cats largely domesticated themselves, though their story is tied up in farming societies rather than hunting societies.
Cats in Human History
Perhaps one of the most memorable figures of the domesticated cat is the role they played in ancient Egypt. In fact, there is a cat cemetery in Egypt with over 300,000 mummified cats. Bastet, an important Egyptian goddess, had a cat's head.
We're all familiar with the story of Romulus and Remus and the ancient Roman connection to wolves. But Romans also had a special relationship with cats: they weren't worshipped or deified, but they were the Roman symbol of freedom and liberty.
Cats didn't fare as well in Europe during the Medieval Ages: humans started associating them with witches and the devil, which led in turn to cat witch hunts. Ironically, this coincided with the spread of the plague – perhaps because there were fewer housecats around to catch the rats spreading the plague to humans.
Current Wildcat Behaviour in Cats
Your cat goes wild for that piece of yarn for a reason: cats in the wild are natural hunters who take their time to stalk, pounce, and kill prey. Your cat's rough tongue is actually a natural way to both keep themselves clean and clean meat from their prey's bones (maybe don't think about that the next time your cat affectionately licks your finger).
That frustrating clawing habit also arises out of the way wildcats mark their territory – scratches let animals know another cat occupies this space.
Your Domesticated Pet and You
Cats and dogs have been useful to humans not just as fellow hunters, but as companions and even friends. When you toss your dog a ball or dangle a shoelace in front of your cat, take a moment to appreciate their unique history: your pets evolved from ancestors who domesticated themselves to enjoy the benefits of your company as well.
For more information about caring for your pets, be sure to check out our other blog posts or feel free to contact our veterinary team at Brimley-Lawrence Animal Clinic should you have any questions.