The Great Pet Debate. Did Cats or Dogs Come First?


The debate over whether dogs or cats were domesticated first is a longstanding one in archaeology and evolutionary biology. While both dogs and cats have been human companions for thousands of years, the timeline of when each was first domesticated is still unclear. Some of the key questions around this debate include:

  • What is the earliest archaeological evidence of dogs and cats living alongside humans?
  • What do genetic analyses reveal about the evolution of dogs versus cats?
  • What cultural significance did early domesticated dogs and cats hold?
  • Why were these animals domesticated in the first place?
  • Does the available evidence point to one definitively being first?

This content will examine the origins of dogs and cats, evaluating archaeological finds, genetic research, and cultural contexts. The goal is to provide an overview of the evidence around which species humans first domesticated as companion animals.

Origins of Dogs

Dogs are descended from grey wolves that were domesticated by humans thousands of years ago. The earliest archaeological evidence of dog domestication comes from remains found in Europe, the Middle East, and Siberia. These remains have been radiocarbon dated to between 14,000-36,000 years ago. Genetic studies suggest that dogs were likely first domesticated somewhere in East Asia around 15,000 years ago.

The earliest known dogs resembled current dog breeds such as Siberian Huskies and Alaskan Malamutes in their size and appearance. It is believed that certain wolf populations with less fear and aggression towards humans may have formed commensal relationships, scavenging food waste from human camps. Over time, humans began to tame and breed these wolves for desired traits like increased sociability, smaller size, and new coat colors, leading to the evolution of dogs as we know them today. The mutualistic relationship between humans and dogs allowed both species to thrive into new environments and roles such as hunting, herding, and companionship.


an ancient stone carving depicting a person with a dog on a leash

Origins of Cats

Cats were first domesticated in the Near East around 9,500 years ago, based on archaeological evidence found in Cyprus. Ancient Egyptians further domesticated cats around 4,000 years ago, valuing them for controlling pests like mice and snakes. Genetic studies show that all modern domestic cats descend from the African wildcat Felis silvestris lybica. It’s believed cats were attracted to rodents drawn to early agricultural settlements in the Fertile Crescent, leading people to tolerate and eventually adopt wild cats over thousands of years. Ancient Egyptians actively bred cats and spread them via trading networks across Europe and Asia. Over time, cats were prized not just for pest control but as companions. Their small size, self-grooming habits, and ability to control rodents aboard ships led them to spread worldwide as a domesticated species.

According to Purina, “When it comes to the history of cats, it’s quite hard to pin down when they were first domesticated. This is largely due to the fact that cats were tolerated by people and learned to live alongside humans, but were not fully domesticated as quickly as dogs.”

DiscoverWildlife states, “Domestication proper came much later, in Egypt about 4,000 years ago. Cats were initially valued for their vermin-hunting skills.”

Archaeological Evidence

Archaeological findings provide insights into the early domestication of dogs versus cats. Evidence suggests dogs were domesticated earlier than cats.

The earliest dog remains come from Europe and date back over 14,000 years ago. Skeletal remains from Germany show morphological changes associated with domestication. Dogs were likely domesticated from wolves during the late Paleolithic period as hunter-gatherers settled into agricultural societies. Dogs assisted humans with hunting and provided protection, companionship and helped herd livestock.

In contrast, domestic cats emerged more recently. The earliest evidence of tamed cats comes from Cyprus around 9,500 years ago, where a young wild cat was buried with a human. Cats were not fully domesticated until around 4,000 years ago in ancient Egypt, where they were valued for controlling pests and venomous snakes. Genetic studies show modern house cats are descended from wildcats native to the Fertile Crescent region of the Near East. While dogs actively worked alongside humans, cats were attracted to rodents in early agricultural settlements and domesticated themselves.

Overall, archaeological data indicates dogs were domesticated long before cats, with dogs entering into mutually beneficial relationships with humans thousands of years earlier.

Genetic Evidence

Genetic studies provide insights into the timing of dog and cat domestication. One key study analyzed the mitochondrial DNA of modern dogs and wolves, finding that domestic dogs diverged from wolves around 15,000 years ago ( This suggests dogs were likely the first domesticated animal. In contrast, whole genome sequencing of cats indicates domestic cats split from wildcats around 10,000 years ago ( Taken together, the genetic evidence indicates dogs were domesticated first, around 15,000 years ago, while cats followed later around 10,000 years ago.

Cultural Evidence

Archaeological finds provide examples of some of the earliest cultural depictions of domesticated dogs and cats. Dogs appear in ancient rock art drawings dating back over 10,000 years in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. For example, images depicting dogs on leashes have been found in Saudi Arabia dating to approximately 9,000 BC (UCL, 2021). Dogs are also depicted assisting humans in hunts in Egyptian hieroglyphics from around 4,000 BC.

In contrast, depictions of cats are rare until ancient Egyptian art starting around 3,500 BC. Cats are shown assisting with rodent control and as companions to humans. The first domestic cat breed, the Egyptian Mau, also originated in ancient Egypt. This suggests cats were not domesticated as pets until after dogs had already been established companions for humans for thousands of years (NBCI, 2017).

ancient egyptian hieroglyphics showing cats assisting humans

Why Were They Domesticated?

There are several leading theories on why humans domesticated dogs and cats. According to researchers, dogs were likely the first to be domesticated, and the prevailing theory is that wolves started hanging around human camps to scavenge on leftovers from human hunts. Over time, humans found value in keeping the wolves around to act as guards and hunting partners. The wolves grew accustomed to living alongside humans and were selectively bred by humans, leading to the domestication of dogs.

As for cats, one main theory is that when humans began settling down and farming, they attracted rodents looking to feed on their stored grain. Cats are excellent hunters of rodents, so early farmers would have attracted wild cats to their settlements for their hunting services. Humans then domesticated these wild cats over generations of selective breeding to turn them into today’s house cats.

Which Came First?

Based on current archaeological, genetic, and cultural evidence, it appears dogs were likely domesticated before cats. Dogs were first domesticated between 15,000 and 40,000 years ago, while the earliest evidence of cat domestication dates back approximately 9,500 years ago. A few key findings support the earlier domestication of dogs:

Sheep and goats were first domesticated roughly 11,000 years ago, while cats became pets around 7000 B.C. with the advent of agriculture. Since dogs assisted humans with herding and hunting prior to the domestication of other animals like sheep and goats, they logically predate the domestic cat.

Genetic studies show dogs diverged from wolves approximately 15,000 years ago, while domestic cats diverged from wildcats about 10,000 years ago. This indicates dogs were domesticated first.

The earliest dog burials date back 14,000 years, suggesting an emotional attachment between humans and dogs before evidence of cat domestication. In contrast, cats were likely first valued for their rodent hunting abilities to protect grain stores with the rise of agriculture.

While the debate continues, archeological and genetic timelines strongly point to dogs predating cats as the first domesticated pet. However, research is ongoing to unravel the full timeline and nature of early human-animal relationships.

Ongoing Research

Note that this is still an area of active research and discoveries continue to shape our understanding. New evidence has come to light in recent years that provides additional clues into the domestication timeline for cats and dogs.

For example, recent research from the University of California found the earliest skeletal evidence of a domestic dog dating back 14,000 years ago (Source). This pushes back the timing of dog domestication further than previously thought. Additionally, genetic analysis suggests cat domestication may have first began in the Near East around 10,000 years ago when agriculture developed (Source).

fossil remains of a very early domesticated dog

While the exact timeline is still debated, evidence clearly points to dogs being domesticated before cats. However, research continues today using the latest archaeological, genetic, and behavioral science techniques to unravel the mysteries around early human relationships with these beloved pets.


In reviewing the origins of cats and dogs, it’s clear there is still much we don’t fully understand. The archaeological record shows dogs emerged earlier based on the remains and artifacts unearthed so far. But cats were not far behind as shown by ancient Egyptian art and writings. Genetic analyses reveal interesting evolutionary branches for each species, giving clues into how they became domesticated over time.

There are still many open questions around why and how exactly humans formed bonds with dogs and cats, and when the timeline definitively started for each. Ongoing research across history, genetics, archaeology, and more will continue revealing insights into the origins of our beloved furry friends. It’s an exciting time to learn more about how two apex predators, cats and dogs, became integral parts of human families and communities across the globe.

a person petting a cat

While the jury is still out on conclusively proving which species was domesticated first, what’s clear is humans have had deeply intertwined relationships with both cats and dogs for thousands of years. And these special bonds endure and thrive to this day.

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