Cats are the second most common companion animals in the United States, and as of 2022, 29% of households own cats. Dogs still rule those numbers as roughly 44.5% of households own dogs, but cats are right behind them in popularity.
But have you ever wondered when the first cat was brought to America? It’s common knowledge that the great explorer, Christopher Columbus, landed in America in 1492, and with that, cats came to the land along with him. Let’s dive deeper into the history of the first cats in America.
Did Christopher Columbus Bring the First Cat to America?
When Christopher Columbus and his crew boarded their ships—the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria—in Europe on August 3, 1492, he and his crew had no idea that another large continent, known as the “New World of the Americas,” existed until they sailed upon the land. It’s believed that cats were onboard the ship to keep rodents and vermin down, and these cats set paws on land with the crew, which introduced cats to America.
Did Any Cats Exist on American Land Before Christopher Columbus?
Cats did exist on American land before Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue; however, these cats were not the domesticated cats we know and love today. These were Saber-toothed cats that belonged to the Felidae family—all 67 species of them—that lived some 800,000 years ago. These big cats became extinct 8,000 to 10,000 years ago.
The Benefits of Cats on Ships
During the 15th and 16th centuries, humans realized just how beneficial cats were to them. They were welcome cargo aboard ships because they killed rodents and kept the vermin and disease down. Having a creature that killed rats and mice was a significant advantage because these cats also protected the sailors’ food supply from being raided by rodents, and this also prevented rodents from chewing through ropes on the ship.
Christopher Columbus wasn’t the only explorer to bring cats over to America; it’s believed cats came to America by way of the Mayflower in 1620. Not only were cats beneficial to have on ships for killing rodents and preventing the spread of disease, but sailors also considered them good luck. Some sailors wouldn’t even set sail unless a cat was on board. In fact, this mutual benefit between cats and humans allowed cats to domesticate themselves by showing their worthiness.
What Do Archeological Records Show About Ancient Cats?
It’s a fact that cats do not need humans to survive, which is mostly how cats domesticated themselves by proving how valuable they were to humans. However, a little mystery shrouds the subject of when cats were first domesticated, and scientists have been trying to put the pieces together for ages. Archeological records did not help much because domesticated cats have similar skulls and skeletons from their wildcat ancestors. However, clues surfaced in 1983 when a jawbone was discovered on the island of Cyprus, dating back 8,000 years. It is unlikely that humans would have brought cats to the island, which suggests cats were domesticated sometime before 8,000 years ago.
In 2004, another discovery was made where a cat was purposely buried with a human in an older site on the island of Cyprus, indicating these ancient cats were domesticated and pushed the domestication era back another 1,500 years.
When Did Cats Become Domesticated House Pets?
Cats continued showing their worth aboard Naval ships, and by the end of World War I, cats were becoming accepted as house pets. Cats even were employees of the United States Postal Service as late as the 19th and 20th centuries. Postmasters needed a way to get rid of mice in the postal buildings, and what better solution than to have cats take care of the problem naturally?
So, when did cats become popular house pets? Even though cats came to America in 1492, and then more again in the 1600s, they did not become popular house pets until the 20th century. Keeping cats indoors was not feasible until Ed Lowe, an American businessman, invented kitty litter in 1947. Before the invention, people were using newspapers or pans filled with dirt, which was not ideal, to say the least. In the 60s, the Tidy Cat brand of kitty litter hit the market, making easy-to-use kitty litter and offering cheap litter boxes. The convenience resulted in more cats living indoors as opposed to outdoor cats that would come and go as they pleased.
Cats likely first came to American land when Christopher Columbus discovered the two large continents. And even though most cats are indoor cats nowadays, they still show their worth by killing rodents.
Have you ever had your cat leave you a present on the doorstep? We’re sure you have, as they still have these instincts that descend from their wildcat ancestors.
Featured Image Credit: Thanakorn Kosalakorn, Shutterstock