Cats and dogs are undisputably the most popular pets in the UK: 24% of UK adults own a cat and 27% of UK adults own a dog. Have you ever wondered, though, how these animals came to be favoured, tamed and trained as pets to live alongside us? Although there is general agreement over the history of the domestication of cats, there remains significant debate over the details of the domestication of our canine friends.
It is widely accepted that dogs are descendants of wolves, and dogs are believed to have been domesticated by humans somewhere between 14,000 and 36,000 years ago. As indicated by this wide-ranging timescale, the exact timing (and the geographic location) of this occurrence is wildly disputed amongst scientists. Numerous studies have been undertaken on the matter, with conflicting results: one study concludes for example that dogs were domesticated 16,300 years ago in China, whilst another affirms that dogs were domesticated in Siberia around 23,000 years ago, before then dispersing eastwards. Further studies cite archaeological evidence indicating that dogs were domesticated at least 14,000 years ago in Europe and Western Asia simultaneously, and others refer to fossil evidence from Israel dating back 12,000 years.
There is however general agreement that dogs were the first species to be domesticated by humans, and scientists also agree that this took place a long time before the domestication of cats – likely because of the strong association of dogs with the longstanding hunter-gatherer culture. Domestic cats are understood to have descended from species of small wildcats which are still found in Europe, Africa and Southern Asia today. It is commonly accepted that cats became domesticated around the time that agriculture began to flourish on a large scale, with a mutually beneficial relationship developing between cats and humans. Cats enjoyed a constant supply of food in farmyard barns and grain stores – in the form of rats, mice and other rodents – and they were encouraged onto the farms as their predatory actions provided essential pest control for farmers.
In the case of both cats and dogs, the transition into human society was gradual, and both species have retained their distinct differences in nature and character despite their integration into domestic life. Like their wildcat ancestors, domestic cats are notoriously independent, even as family pets, while dogs – naturally social animals – are their owners’ constant companions, requiring regular walks and attention, and thus being much more obviously, and openly, dependent on their human masters.