A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What was the ancestor of the house cat?

March 1, 2001

Dear Straight Dope:

As I am being terrorized by a cat on catnip, I am forced to ponder the question, "What was the ancestor to the house cat?" Specifically, what did we domesticate to make the beast and what does it look like? Almost everyone knows that dogs are domesticated wolves (and in fact share the same genes). So where did these ferocious monsters comes from (and can I send mine back there?)

That's an easy one. The house cat was bred about 7,000 years ago from the African wild cat, Felis sylvestris lybica.  (In older classification schemes, this was considered a separate species; see www.primenet.com/~brendel/awild.html.) Accordingly, the name considered proper for the house cat these days is Felis sylvestris catus, rather than Felis catus. (Felis, sylvestris--a little light bulb is going off in your head, right?) There are virtually no differences between house cats and wild cats, unless you're talking about all the odd human-designed breeds of house cats. Wild cats look and act like gray tabbies (see http://www.virtualzoo.org), so if that's what your cat is, you have a pretty good idea of what the ancestral house cat was like.

As for the catnip, incidentally, it's a type of mint, Nepeta cataria.  It produces a strong insect-repellent chemical that purely by coincidence is similar to cat pheromones.

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