All cats belong to a family called the felids and were thought to have evolved 12 million years ago. Domestic cats originated from African wild cats, which they are still closely related to. The first domestic cats were thought to have lived 8,000 years ago in Cyprus. Early settlers must have introduced the cats to the island, as there were no wild cats present.
Cats are depicted in Egyptian paintings and sculptures from 3,000 BC. They were used to control pests in grain stores and came to be worshipped by people. Anyone who killed a cat was severely punished and cats became so respected that when they died they were often mummified and entombed with their owners.
From Egypt, cats were taken to Italy after the Romans invaded in 30 BC. It is thought that the Romans also introduced cats into Britain. Cats suffered a great deal in Medieval Britain. The people believed that they were associated with witches and the devil, and they were often tortured and burned. Cats in the Far East faced a happier life - they were seen as a sign of good luck and many of today's breeds originated from here. In Islam, cats are a symbol of purity.
Average lifespan is between 9 and 15 years, though they can sometimes live for over 20 years.
Distribution and Habitat in the wild
Wild cats can be found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. They occupy a range of habitats, including forest, jungle, grassland and mountainous regions.
Behaviour in the wild
Wildcats (Felis silvestris), closest relatives to the domestic cat, are highly adaptable predators and although their main diet consists of rodents, they also feed on rabbits, hares, birds, amphibians, insects and reptiles. As they rely on small prey items, wildcats need to hunt regularly throughout the day to get enough food.
Wildcats are solitary and both males and females maintain territories. Males overlap ranges with females, but females will not overlap ranges with other females. Wildcats mate in February and March and after a gestation period of 63-65 days, females give birth to 2-6 young. The young stay with their mothers until they are 6 months old, but may stay with their siblings for a while longer.
Wildcats are nocturnal or crepuscular (active during twilight hours - dawn and dusk). Wildcats cannot roar, but they do use a variety of other sounds to communicate including growling, mewing, purring, hissing and spitting.
Want to know more about wild cats? We cover every species in our Wildfacts.