Approximately 31.9 million households in the United States have a pet cat! In fact, one in four American homes have at least one. Cats are very smart and lovable animals that have been important companions to humans for thousands of years. Over the millennia, many cat breeds have come and gone and the cats we see today may not be the same types that our great-great-grandparents saw years ago. This article will investigate the interesting history of domestic cats, their relationships with humans, and three particularly interesting extinct cat breeds!
What Are Cats?
Domestic cats are small, four-legged mammals, covered with fur. There is great variation within the species regarding many traits, however. Domestic cats all belong to the same species, Felis catus, yet they come in many different shapes and sizes. For example, the smallest living cat breed, the Singapura, weighs approximately 6 pounds. The heaviest cat breed is the Maine coon. It weighs up to 20 pounds! In addition to size, there is also great variation in fur color, fur length and texture, face and head dimensions, and other factors affecting their appearance.
History and evolution
The domestic cat, Felis catus, has a close evolutionary history to large wild cats such as tigers (Panthera tigris), lions (Panthera leo) and leopards (Panthera pardus). The generas Panthera and Felis both belong to the same family called Felidae. Every animal in this family is a species of cat and shared a common ancestor about six or seven million years ago. The generally accepted theory is that Felis catus diverged from other feline genera due to selective breeding.
The first cat to be tamed is thought to have been an African wildcat. Its fossils, which are between 7500 and 7200 years old, were recovered in Cyprus. The first truly domestic cat came about in 1200 BCE in Greece. The breeding of different cat varieties, or distinct breeds, was not prominent until the late 19th century.
Where Do Cats Appear in Human Culture?
Cats have not always been seen as pets. Throughout human history, cats have played many roles, including as cultural symbols, zoomorphic gods, the subjects of monuments and art, and characters in mythologies. Many different human cultures have given special spiritual significance to cats or held high respect for them.
One well known example of cats in human culture is the Great Sphinx of Giza. This is a massive sphinx landmark that was built in Ancient Egypt around 2558 BCE. It is the oldest monumental structure in Egypt! The Great Sphinx is a limestone monument of a mythological half lion, half human creature. Archaeologists and historians believe the Great Sphinx was a tribute to pharaoh Khafre. The worship of gods in their animal form is called zoomorphism. Zoomorphism was popular during the Late Period of Ancient Egyptian civilization. Amongst the many gods and sacred animals was Bastet, the cat goddess.
Another time cats make an appearance in human history is in Norse mythology. It speaks of Freyja, the goddess of love, beauty, and fertility. According to the myths, Freyja travels in a carriage drawn by cats. Cats are also revered by Muslim people. Although they are not worshipped, they are highly respected and considered the best, cleanest pet. The prophet Muhammad also declared it illegal to kill cats and was once saved by a cat from a snake. Cats are also mentioned in Jewish texts and spoken of in Italian folklore.
With this history in mind, let’s meet three extinct cat breeds!
Mexican Hairless Cat (Aztec Cat)
The first extinct cat breed we will investigate is the Mexican hairless cat, also known as the Aztec cat. Unlike most cat breeds, the Mexican hairless cat did not have a fluffy fur coat. Instead, it had bare skin with only minimal light fur on its back and tail. The cat did, however, have whiskers and eyebrows. This made it poorly adapted for the cold, but well suited to its native warm weather. It was also noted to be about ¾ the size of a typical domestic cat.
The demise of the Mexican hairless cat is an interesting story. A local Native American from the Pueblo tribe gave a New Mexican couple a pair of these cats, a male and a female. They were supposedly the last two living cats of the breed. The owner of these cats named them Nellie and Dick, describing them as very intelligent and affectionate. Unfortunately, Nellie and Dick did not have offspring and the Mexican hairless cat breed died with them in 1908.
The next extinct cat breed we will meet is the Chantilly-Tiffany cat. This cat has North American origins and was officially recognized in 1967. The Chantilly-Tiffany was not very well known for several decades, but it did receive more attention as the breed grew in numbers. This was because they were beautiful cats with lush, semi-long, brown coats. They also had striking yellow eyes that became a more solid golden color as they aged.
The Chantilly-Tiffany cat was a part of many breeding programs that were ultimately unsuccessful. At first, the breed was thought to be extinct in 1960 but it was rediscovered. The first new litter following their rediscovery was six kittens born in 1969 in New York. For some time, the breed was thought to be the same as Burmese cats and was not given much attention. In the 1980s, however, a joint effort between Canadians and Americans brought the Chantilly-Tiffany more attention and sought to have it recognized as a distinct breed. Unfortunately, the Chantilly-Tiffany cat breed later went extinct following a 2012 incident. A fire destroyed the breeding facility that housed many of the Chantilly-Tiffany cats. The last breeding male, named Frosty, was sent to Norway but for unknown reasons, he would not mate.
Sumxu (Droop-Eared Cat)
The final extinct cat breed we will learn about is the Sumxu, or droop-eared cat. Today, experts aren’t sure if this animal was a mythical creation or a once living cat. Sumxu is now considered an extinct breed, but suspicions still remain. It was first described in 1656 in south China. Since then, anecdotal accounts, informal descriptions, and artistic interpretations have clouded our understanding of its history.
The droop-eared cat earned its name due to its supposedly droopy ears. One author in 1655 described the cat as having “pendulous” ears much longer than that of other cat breeds. It also was said to have yellow or black fur and resemble a marten. Some cat-enthusiasts suggest that the Sumxu was proof of a cat and marten hybrid, however this has no scientific basis.
The Sumxu, or at least what people claimed to be Sumxu cats, were very rare and as a result, extremely valuable. They were very valuable in China and were sold at high prices. They were valued not only because of their rarity, but also for their unique appearance, and their abilities as ratcatchers.
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