A Brief History Of Ship’s Cats

Cats were a vital part of every navy for hundreds of years

Grant Piper


HMAS Encounter’s ship cat (Public domain)

Cats have been a vital companion to humans on the high seas since ancient times. Unlike other animals, cats were specifically chosen to accompany people to voyages at sea. Starting at the very dawn of human seafaring, cats have made the journey into the unknown despite generally despising water.

So why did cats achieve such a mythical status for ship captains since time immemorial?

There are several reasons that cats were transported around the world on boats. Many sailors thought cats were good luck. Ancient civilizations often deified cats and held them in high regard. Perhaps most importantly of all cats also helped keep the rat population down while at sea. All of these things started a tradition of having cats along for the ride while sailing and the tradition continues all the way until the present day.

Ancient Cats

Cats were generally domesticated starting around 8,000 BCE. From the time they were domesticated they began to draw very high levels of interest from people. But it wasn’t until the ancient Egyptian and Phoenician trading expeditions that cats began to make their way around the world.

The Egyptians held cats in extremely high regard. During some periods of Egyptian history cats were considered to be magical, mystical and even demigods. This adoration for the cat caused Egyptian merchants to start taking them along aboard their ships.

As the Egyptians and Phoenicians began sailing around the Mediterranean they brought their cats with them, faithful companions among the waves.

Cats continued to make the journey because it quickly became apparent that they were excellent rat catchers. And rats are a very, very bad thing to have on a ship.

Rats Eat Everything

A rat infestation aboard a ship on a long journey would rapidly evolve from a nuisance to a crisis. Rats ate everything. They chewed holes in water barrels, ate the crew’s food, gnawed through ropes, pooped on the railings, spread disease, damaged merchant goods and made life generally miserable.



Grant Piper

Professional writer. Amateur historian. Husband, father, Christian.