The cats that we know today have a long history dating back millions of years. Paleontologists discovered evidence of a cat with a retractable claw, Miacis, who lived about 50 million years ago. Most scientists believe that the descendants of Miacis and other prehistoric cats divided into three separate groups nearly a million years ago; the big cats (lions and tigers), the cheetahs, and the small cats (ocelots, bobcats and lynxes).
Cats come in many shapes and sizes, but the fur coat found on each feline is a big part of how they are classified. They usually fall somewhere in the categories of long-haired, short-haired, or "hairless". Long-haired breeds include Persian, Himalayan, Maine coon, Norwegian Forest Cat and Ragdoll. Short-haired breeds include American Shorthair, American Wirehair, Siamese, Burmese, Korat and Singapore. "Hairless" cats, such as Sphinx, merely appear to be hairless. The breed actually does have a thin layer of hair covering its body.
Cats first started living with people approximately 6,000 years ago. Ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian farmers domesticated the African wildcats, Felis hybica, a natural hunter, to keep grain storage areas rodent free. Egyptians worshipped Bast, or Bastet, the cat goddess of fertility, happiness and the moon. Impressed with the cat's natural beauty, Egyptian artists painted and sculpted them, making them cultural icons.
Although ancient Egyptians are known for their love of cats, they are not the only people who worshipped them. In Thailand, Siamese cats were sacred temple cats. In Japan, thse animals kept Buddhist temples free of mice. In Norwegian mythology, Freya (the goddess of fertility) rode in a chariot pulled by two white cats. Cats made their way to China in 5,000 BCE and to India in 100 BCE.
Throughout history, sailors and other explorers helped spread cats across the world. They realized that keeping them abroad their ships was a good way to rid their living quarters of mice. In time, it was considered lucky to keep cats on board.
When cats came to Europe in 900 BCE, they crossbred with native cat found in the British Isles, Felis silvestris. By the middle Ages, however, cats fell out of favor with most of Europe. The Catholic Church connected them and those who loved them with paganism, devil worship, and witchcraft. Superstitious people believed that cats (especially black cats) had diabolical powers. They were feared because of their nocturnal hunting habits, their ability to see in the dark and their "glowing" eyes.
In 1484, Pope Innocent empowered the Inquisition to burn all cats and cat lovers. As a result of the drastic drop in the cat population, the number of rodents increased. Millions of rats carrying fleas infected with bubonic plague spread the Black Death across Europe. When the persecution of cats ended, they began hunting rats again, and Europeans saw the advantage of having these natural hunters keep their towns' rodent free.
In Victorian times, they were once again warmly welcomed into the home and were seen as loving companions' pets. Victorian cats impressed artists, writers, scientists, and philosophers of the day. Queen Victoria loved cats, and because of this. Their good reputation was reaffirmed; there it remains to this day.