Stray cat sleeping on wall at the Colosseum of Rome.

How Domestic Cats Spread

Cats are world citizens and have come a long way from their roots in North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. While cats do not respect boundaries, and some early house cats probably moved independently, they have mostly traveled where humans have taken them. Even in areas where their wild counterparts have never occurred— such as Australia—domestic cats seem to have effortlessly adopted a new niche.

For more than two millennia, domestic cats remained almost entirely exclusive to Egypt. Here, they became so revered that their export to other countries was, in theory at least, strictly banned.

But, with their strongly independent natures, domesticated or at least semi-domesticated Egyptian cats most likely drifted away into other regions. They are thought to have roamed along the trade routes of the Mediterranean, reaching Greece, the region that is now Iraq, and possibly even Europe.

Out of Egypt

When domestic cats first started their world travels in any significant numbers, which seems to have been around 2,500 years ago, their main exit route from the Fertile Crescent, and Egypt in particular, was via the ships of the Phoenicians.

It is speculated that this nation of seafarers and colonizers, who for centuries dominated maritime trade in the eastern Mediterranean, may in fact have started transporting cats, tame or otherwise, at a much earlier date.

The cats of ancient Egypt were valuable commodities. The Phoenicians acquired them—perhaps through barter or by smuggling them on board, or even as stowaways—and carried them for sale or exchange on their commercial voyages along the sea routes to Spain, Italy, and the Mediterranean islands.

Later, when the Silk Road opened up communications between Asia and Europe, cats went both east and west with merchant adventurers.

The ancient Egyptians themselves may have perhaps presented some of their cats as prestigious gifts to Chinese emperors or to the Romans, who were becoming increasingly powerful in northern Africa. After domestic cats reached Rome, the advance of the Roman Empire carried them even farther throughout Western Europe.

By the end of the Roman Empire, cats were probably widespread in Britain, where they were to enjoy hundreds of years of peaceful coexistence with people until they fell out of favor in the Middle Ages.