The domestic cat, Felis Catus, is the most popular pet in the world and because of the species’ close association with humans, they are found in almost every part of the world. It was originally thought that the ancient Egyptians were the first to domesticate cats, around 3,600 years ago. Many paintings dating from this period depict cats in domestic settings. There is now however evidence to show that domestication in fact started as far back as 9,500 years ago; after a grave containing a man and what is assumed to be his pet kitten was found on Cyprus. It is now thought that a few self-domesticating African Wildcats began the process from which our modern felines have evolved.
In Ancient Egypt cats were deemed to be sacred, with some of the Egyptian pantheon of gods often taking on the cat form. The Romans also kept domestic cats, and the spread of felines throughout Europe and the world would likely have been largely due to their beneficial presence on ships, where they earnt their keep as rodent catchers, and good luck charms.
Many ancient religions either revered or feared cats, and their status often seemed to be more exalted than that of dogs or other animals. The Norse legends depict the goddess of love and beauty, Freyja, as having a chariot drawn by cats, and some Islamic writers state that Mohammed was a cat lover and had a favourite pet, Muezza. The Japanese have Maneki Neko, a feline symbol of good fortune. Conversely, cats have often been persecuted for their so-called supernatural powers and for being witches’ familiars. In medieval times cats were exterminated in large numbers because of these superstitious beliefs, although later the lack of cats is thought to have contributed to large numbers rats and other rodents being free to spread plagues like the Black Death (Bubonic Plague) across Europe.
Good and bad luck is still often linked to cats in many cultures. The old belief in cats having multiple lives is still prevalent in many areas, although of course this has probably more to do with their stealth and speed in getting themselves out of sticky situations than anything supernatural!
Cats are indeed remarkable creatures with some amazing physical characteristics, which are part of what makes them so endlessly fascinating to humans. They are small, carnivorous mammals, who are extremely adaptable with a rapid breeding rate and strong predatory instincts. They have strong flexible bodies, quick reflexes, sharp retractable claws and teeth that have evolved specifically for killing small prey. Cats are largely nocturnal animals and have extremely good eyesight. They can see in only 1/6th of the light required for humans to see, which is almost total darkness. This is due to them having a Tapetum Lucidum, a layer of tissue that lies directly behind the retina, reflecting light back through the retina and therefore increasing the cat’s vision. Domestic cats also have slit pupils; which are needed when focusing on bright light, big cats don’t have this, as their pupils are naturally large relative to their eye size because they are nocturnal hunters. They do, however, have poor colour vision seeing only in blue and green.
In addition to excellent eyesight, cats have sensitive hearing and can detect a broad range of frequencies , hearing sounds tat a much higher pitch than dogs. Their ability to hear ultrasounds is useful when hunting, as many of their small prey use it, but cats don’t use ultrasound in communication with each other. Their hearing is also extremely sensitive to very quiet sounds, one of the best of any mammal, and they can swivel their ears by 180 degrees to home in on and amplify noise.
Cars possess an acute sense of smell due in part to their well developed olfactory bulb and a large surface of olfactory mucosa, only slightly smaller than in dogs. They are also sensitive to pheromones, which results in urine spraying and marking with scent glands. This also explains their keen response to plants containing nepetalactone such as Catnip.
Cats’ whiskers, or vibrissae, are indeed very useful as the old saying would suggest; moveable and conveying information on the width of gaps and location of objects in the dark, both by touch and by sensing air currents. They also trigger protective blink reflexes to protect the eyes from damage.
Numbers of feral cats are thought to be very high, and they can be problematic in some areas for a variety of reasons, both to wildlife and humans, but despite this, it is easy to see why domestic cats are more popular than ever and estimates now put the world population of cats at around 1 billion.
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