CAT, properly the name of the well-known domesticated feline animal usually termed by naturalists Felis domestica, but in a wider sense employed to denote all the more typical members of the family Felidae. According to the New English Dictionary, although the origin of the word “cat” is unknown, yet the name is found in various languages as far back as they can be traced. In old Western Germanic it occurs, for instance, so early as from A.D. 400 to 450; in old High German it is chazza or catero, and in Middle German kattaro. Both in Gaelic and in old French it is cat, although sometimes taking the form of chater in the latter; the Gaelic designation of the European wild cat being cat fiadhaich. In Welsh and Cornish the name is cath. If Martial’s cattae refer to this animal, the earliest Latin use of the name dates from the 1st century of our era. In the work of Palladius on agriculture, dating from about the year A.D. 350, reference is made to an animal called catus or cattus, as being useful in granaries for catching mice. This usage, coupled with the existence of a distinct term in Gaelic for the wild species, leaves little doubt that the word “cat” properly denotes only the domesticated species. This is confirmed by the employment in Byzantine Greek of the term κάττος or κάττα to designate domesticated cats brought from Egypt. It should be added that the αἴλουρος of the Greeks, frequently translated by the older writers as “cat,” really refers to the marten-cat, which appears to have been partially domesticated by the ancients and employed for mousing.
As regards the origin of the domesticated cats of western Europe, it is well known that the ancient Egyptians were in the habit of domesticating (at least in some degree) the Egyptian race of the African wild cat (Felis ocreata maniculata), and also of embalming its remains, of which vast numbers have been found in tombs at Beni Hasan and elsewhere in Egypt. These Egyptian cats are generally believed by naturalists to have had a large share in the parentage of the European breeds, which have, however, in many cases been crossed to a greater or less extent with the European wild cat (F. catus).
One of the features by which the Egyptian differs from the European wild cat is the longer and less bushy tail; and it has been very generally considered that the same feature is characteristic of European domesticated cats. According, however, to Dr E. Hamilton, “the measurement of a number of tails of the [European] wild cat and of the domestic cat gives a range between 11 in. and 141 in., the longer length being quite as often found in the wild cats as in the domestic. The bushy appearance depends entirely on the length of the fur, and accords with the thick fur of the rest of the body of the wild cat, while in the domestic race the fur both on the body and tail is thinner and softer.”
Possibly those domesticated cats with unusually short and bushy tails may have a larger share of European wild-cat blood; while, conversely, such wild cats as show long tails may have a cross of domesticated blood.
More importance was attached by Dr A. Nehring of Berlin (SB. Ges. Naturfor., Berlin, 1887) to the colour of the soles of the hind-feet as a means of determining the relationship of the domesticated cat of Europe. According to his observations, in the Egyptian wild cat the pads of the toes are wholly black, while the black extends back either continuously or in long stripes as far as the calcaneum or heel-bone. In the European wild cat, on the other hand, the black is limited to a small round spot on the pads, while the colour of the hair as far back as the heel-bone is yellowish or yellowish-grey. Since in all domesticated cats retaining the colouring of the wild species the soles of the hind-feet correspond in this particular with the Egyptian rather than with the European wild cat, the presumption is in favour of their descent from the former rather than from the latter.
Later, Dr Nehring (op. cit. 1889) came to the conclusion that the domesticated cat has a dual parentage, one stock coming from south-eastern Asia and the other from north-eastern Africa; in other words, from a domesticated Chinese cat (itself derived from a wild Chinese species) on the one hand, and from the Egyptian cat on the other. The ordinary domesticated cats of Europe are, however, mainly of African origin, although they have largely crossed, especially in Germany (and probably also in Great Britain), with the wild cat. The same author was likewise of opinion that the domestication or taming of various species of wild cats took place chiefly among nationalities of stationary or non-nomadic habits who occupied themselves with agricultural pursuits, since it would be of vital importance that their stores of grain should be adequately protected from the depredations of rats and mice.
The foregoing opinion as to the dual parentage of our domesticated cats receives support from observations made many years ago by E. Blyth, which have recently been endorsed and amplified by R. I. Pocock (Proc. Zool. Soc. London, 1907). According to these observations, two distinct types of so-called tabby cats are recognizable. In the one the pattern consists of narrow vertical stripes, and in the other of longitudinal or obliquely longitudinal stripes, which, on the sides of the body, tend to assume a spiral or sub-circular arrangement characteristic of the blotched tabby. This latter type appears to be the true “tabby”; since that word denotes a pattern like that of watered silk. One or other of these types is to be found in cats of almost all breeds, whether Persian, short-haired or Manx; and there appear to be no intermediate stages between them. Cats of the striped type are no doubt descended from the European and North African wild cats; but the origin of cats exhibiting the blotched pattern appears to be unknown. As it was to a cat of the latter kind that Linnaeus gave the name of Felis catus, Pocock urges that this title is not available for the European wild cat, which he would call Felis sylvestris. Without accepting this proposed change in nomenclature, which is liable to lead to confusion without any compensating advantage, it may be suggested that the blotched tabby type represents Dr Nehring’s presumed Chinese element in the cat’s parentage, and that the missing wild stock may be one of the numerous phases of the leopard-cat (F. bengalensis), in some of which an incipient spiral arrangement of the markings may be noticed on the shoulder.
As to the introduction of domesticated cats into Europe, the opinion is very generally held that tame cats from Egypt were imported at a relatively early date into Etruria by Phoenician traders; and there is decisive evidence that these animals were established in Italy long before the Christian era. The progeny of these cats, more or less crossed with the indigenous species, thence gradually spread over Europe, to become mingled at some period, according to Dr Nehring’s hypothesis, with an Asiatic stock. The earliest written record of the introduction of domesticated cats into Great Britain dates from about A.D. 936, when Hywel Dda, prince of South Wales, enacted a law for their protection. “The Romans,” writes Dr Hamilton, “were probably the original introducers of this cat, and as the final evacuation of Britain by that nation took place under the emperor Valentinian about A.D. 436, the period of its introduction may certainly be dated some 500 years previous to the Welsh chronicle and even much earlier.” It is added that the remains of cats from Roman villas at Silchester and Dursley are probably referable to the domesticated breed.
Note—Of the two types of colouration found in modern domestic cats, the striped type obviously corresponds to the original wild cat as seen in various parts of North Europe to-day. The origin of the blotched as a special type is wholly unknown.
(Photos from Plates VIII., IX., and X., P.Z.S., 1907, by permission of the Zoological Society of London.)
Before proceeding to notice some of the different types of domesticated cats, a few lines may be devoted to the wild European species, F. catus. Beyond stating that in colour it conforms very closely to the striped phase of domesticated tabby, it will be unnecessary to describe the species. Its geographical range was formerly very extensive, and included Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, Bohemia, Hungary, Poland, Transylvania, Galicia, the Caucasus as far as the Caspian, southern Russia, Italy, Spain, Greece, Rumania, Bulgaria, Servia, and portions of central and northern Asia. “At the present time,” observes Dr Hamilton, “the wild cat has become almost extinct in many of the above districts. Examples may perhaps occasionally still be found in the uninhabited forests of Hungary and Transylvania, and occasionally in Spain and Greece, as well as in the Caucasus and in some of the Swiss cantons, but the original race has in most countries interbred with the domestic cat wherever the latter has penetrated.” In Great Britain wild cats survive only in some of the Scottish forests, and even there it is difficult to decide whether pure-bred specimens are extant. Remains of the wild cat occur in English caverns; while from those of Ireland (where the wild species has apparently been unknown during the historic period) have been obtained jaws and teeth which it has been suggested are referable to the Egyptian rather than to the European wild cat. Such a determination is, however, extremely hazardous, even if it be admitted that the remains of cats from the rock-fissures of Gibraltar pertain to Felis ocreata.
The favourite haunts of the wild cat are mountain forests where masses or rocks or cliffs are interspersed with trees, the crevices in these rocks or the hollow trunks of trees affording sites for the wild cat’s lair, where its young are produced and reared. In the Spanish plains, however, the young are often produced in nests built in trees, or among tall bamboos in cane-brakes. “To fight like a wild cat” is proverbial, and wild cats are described as some of the most ferocious and untamable of all animals. How far this untamable character lends support to the view of the origin of our domesticated breeds has not yet been determined. Hares, rabbits, field-mice, water-rats, rats, squirrels, moles, game-birds, pigeons, and small birds, form the chief food of the wild cat.
Apart from the above-mentioned division of the striped members of both groups into two types according to the pattern of their markings, the domesticated cats of western Europe are divided into a short-haired and a long-haired group. Of these, the former is the one which bears the closest relationship to the wild cats of Africa and of Europe, the latter being an importation from the East. The striped (as distinct from the blotched) short-haired tabby is probably the one most nearly allied to the wild ancestors, the stripes being, however, to a great extent due to the European wild cat. In one direction the tabby shows a tendency to melanism which culminates in complete blackness, while in the other direction there is an equally marked tendency to albinism; grey cats, which may be regarded as tabbies whose stripes have disappeared, forming the connecting link between the tabby and the white cat. A mixture of the melanistic with the albinistic type will of course give rise to parti-coloured cats. A third colour-phase, the “erythristic” or red, is represented by the sandy cat, the female of which takes the form of the “tortoise-shell,” characterized, curiously enough, by the colour being a blend of black, white, and sandy. The so-called orange tabby is one phase of the erythristic type.
As to long-haired cats, there appear originally to have been two closely-allied strains, the Angora and the Persian, of which the former has been altogether replaced in western Europe by the latter. That these long-haired cats have an ancestry, to some extent at any rate distinct from the ordinary short-haired breeds, is practically certain, and it has been suggested that they are derived from the “manul” cat, or Pallas’s cat (Felis manul), of the deserts of central Asia, which is a long-haired and bushy-tailed species with comparatively slight striping. The fact that in tabby Persians the body-markings are never so strong as in the short-haired breeds is in some degree confirmatory of this, as suggesting descent from a nearly whole-coloured type. At the present day, however, Persians exhibit nearly all the colour and pattern types of the short-haired breeds, the “orange Persian” representing the erythristic phase.
Turning to the tailless or so-called Manx cats, in which the tail should be represented merely by a tuft of hair without any remnant of bone, it seems that the strain is to be met with in many parts of Russia, and there is a very general opinion that it originally came from Japan or some other far eastern country. Throughout Japan, China, Siam, and the Malay countries, normal long-tailed cats are indeed seldom seen. Instead of these are cats with more or less abbreviated tails, showing in greater or less degree a decided kink or bend near the tip. In other cases the tail is of the short curling type of that of a bulldog; sometimes it starts quite straight, but divides in a fork-like manner near the tip; and in yet other instances it is altogether wanting, as in the typical Manx cats. These kink-tailed or tailless cats are moreover smaller in size than the ordinary short-tailed breeds, with rather longer hair, whose texture approaches that of rabbit-fur, and a cry said to be like that of the jungle-cat (F. chaus) of India and Africa, and more dog-like habits. Unless the jungle-cat, which is a nearly whole-coloured species, can claim the position, the ancestry of these Manx-Malay cats is still unknown. Kink-tailed cats, it should be added, are also known from Madagascar.
Among the domesticated cats of India a spotted type of colouring, with a more or less decided tendency for the spots to coalesce into stripes, is very noticeable; and it is probable that these cats are derived from the spotted Indian desert-cat (F. ornata), with a certain amount of crossing from other species. The so-called F. torquata of India is probably based on cats of this type which have reverted to the wild state. Other Indian cats with a tawny or fulvous type of colouring are probably the more or less modified descendants of the jungle-cat. From the same stock may be derived the Abyssinian breed, in which the ears are relatively large and occasionally tipped with long hairs (thus recalling the tufted ears of the jungle-cat). The colour is typically reddish-brown, each individual hair being “ticked” like that of a wild rabbit, whence the popular name of “bunny cat.” Another African breed is the Mombasa cat, in which the hair is reported to be unusually short and stiff.
By far the most remarkable of all the Old World domesticated breeds is, however, the royal Siamese cat, which almost certainly has an origin quite distinct from that of the ordinary European breeds; this being rendered evident not only by the peculiar type of colouring, but likewise by the cry, which is quite unmistakable. Siamese cats may have the tail either straight or kinked, but whether the latter feature belongs of right to the breed, or has been acquired by crossing with the ordinary black and tabby kink-tailed cats of the country, is not known. In the royal Siamese breed the head is rather long and pointed, the body also elongated with relatively slender limbs, the coat glossy and close, the eyes blue, and the general colour some shade of cream or pink, with the face, ears, feet, under-parts, and tail chocolate or seal-brown. There is however a wholly chocolate-coloured strain in which the eyes are yellow. The most remarkable feature about the breed is that the young are white. “The kittens,” observes a lady writer, “are born absolutely white, and in about a week a faint pencilling comes round the ears, and gradually all the points come. At four or five months they are lovely, as generally they retain their baby whiteness, which contrasts well with their almost black ears, deep-brown markings, and blue eyes.” In constitution these cats are extremely delicate. The blue eyes and the white coat of the kitten indicate that the Siamese breed is a semi-albino, which when adult tends towards melanism, such a combination of characters being apparently unknown in any other animal. If the frequent presence of a kink in the tail be an inherent feature, the breed is evidently related to the other kink-tailed Malay cats which, as already stated, have a cry differing from that of European cats. Should this be so, then if the ordinary Malay cats are the descendants of the jungle-cat, we shall have to assign the same ancestry to the Siamese breed.
Although definite information on this point is required, it seems probable that the southern part of North America and South America possessed certain native domesticated breeds of cats previous to the European conquest of the country; and if this be so, it will be obvious that these breeds must be derived from indigenous wild species. One of these breeds is the Paraguay cat, which when adult weighs only about three pounds, and is not more than a quarter the size of an ordinary cat. The body is elongated, and the hair, especially on the tail, short, shiny and close. This small size and elongated form suggest origin from the jaguarondi (F. jaguarondi ), a chestnut-coloured wild species; but information appears to be lacking with regard to the colouring of the domesticated breed. Another South American breed is said to be free from the hideous “caterwauling” of the ordinary cat. In old days New Mexico was the home of a breed of hairless cats, said to have been kept by the ancient Aztecs, but now well-nigh if not completely extinct. Although entirely naked in summer, these cats developed in winter a slight growth of hair on the back and the ridge of the tail.
Literature.—St George Mivart, The Cat (London, 1881); R. Lydekker, “Cats,” in Allen’s Naturalists’ Library (1888); F. Hamilton, The Wild Cat of Europe (London. 1896); Frances Simpson, The Book of the Cat (London, 1903). (R. L.*)
- The word “cat” is applied to various objects, in all cases an application of the name of the animal. In medieval siegecraft the “cat” (Med. Lat. chattus or gattus, chatta or gatta, in Fr. chat or chatchasteil) was a movable pent-house used to protect besiegers when approaching a wall or gateway, for the purpose of sapping, mining or direct attack, or to cover a ram or other battering-engine. The word is also sometimes applied to a heavy timber fitted with iron spikes or projections to be thrown down upon besiegers, and to the large work known as a, “cavalier.” “Cat” or “cat-head,” in nautical usage, is the projecting beam on the bows of a ship used to clear the anchor from the sides of the vessel when weighed. The stock of the anchor rests on the cat-head when hung outside the ship. The name is also used of a type of a vessel, now obsolete, and formerly used in the coal and timber trade on the north-east coast of England; it had a deep waist and narrow stem; it is still applied to a small rig of sailing boats, with a single mast stepped far forward, with a fore and aft sail. Among other objects also known by the name of “cat” is the small piece of wood pointed at either end used in the game of tip-cat, and the instrument of punishment, generally known as the “cat o’ nine tails.” This consists of a handle of wood or rope, about 18 in. long, with nine knotted cords of thongs. The multiplication of thongs for purposes of flogging is found in the old Roman flagellum, a scourge, which had sometimes three thongs with bone or, bronze knots fastened to them. The “cat” was the regular instrument with which floggings were performed in the British army and navy. Since the abolition of flogging in the services, the use of the cat is now restricted to certain classes of offenders in military prisons (Army Act 1881, § 133). In the English criminal law, where corporal punishment is ordered by the court for certain criminal offences, the “cat” is used only where the prisoner is over sixteen years of age. It may not be used except when actually ordered in the sentence, and must be of a pattern approved by a secretary of state. Further floggings are inflicted with the “cat” upon convicted prisoners for breaches of discipline in prison. They must be ordered by the visitors of the prison and confirmed by the home secretary.