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Cheetahs were Domesticated as House Pets in Ancient Egypt

Ian Harvey

The reverence that the ancient Egyptians had for felines is well established. Not only were they profoundly useful around the house as a means of pest control, keeping down incursions of creatures like snakes and other vermin, but they also had close associations with several different Egyptian gods over the centuries.

While cats weren’t, in and of themselves, considered divine, they were considered to be physical representatives of those feline deities, and to harm or kill one was an attempt to harm a god. As a result, doing so, even by accident, was a capital crime.

A hieroglyph from Deir el-Bahari depicting leashed cheetahs (“panthers”).

A hieroglyph from Deir el-Bahari depicting leashed cheetahs (“panthers”).

According to the Cat Museum in San Francisco, the best known of these gods is probably the Egyptian Bastet, or Bast, who is strongly associated with domestic house cats, but there is also the goddess Sekhmet, a lion-headed goddess who was represented by the intense heat of the midday sun, and was a warrior goddess as well as a goddess of healers.

Before either of the first two goddesses, though, there was Mafdet, who was perhaps the first of the feline goddesses. Mafdet was the goddess of legal justice, and was also said to protect against scorpions and snakes. A stone vase was found in a tomb at Abydos, showing a representation of Mafdet as a large cat, most likely a cheetah.

Mafdet’s head on the bed where the mummy is placed.

Mafdet’s head on the bed where the mummy is placed.

With all those divine felines, it’s no surprise that ancient Egyptians were obsessed with cats and many kept them as pets, even the big ones. Egyptian royalty and other high-society types of the time kept large cats, such as lions or cheetahs from Sudan, as house pets.

Cheetahs would probably have been much better suited to an indoor life than lions, given that an adult cheetah would only get to be about as large as a medium-large dog by today’s standards.

A female cheetah chasing down her prey, a baby Impala, Mara Masai Game Reserve, Kenya, Africa.

A female cheetah chasing down her prey, a baby Impala, Mara Masai Game Reserve, Kenya, Africa.

Cheetahs have a generally friendly nature and weren’t particularly afraid of humans, which no doubt made them easier to trap, and there was an actual trade involved in trapping, taming, and training the large cats.

Cheetahs Alive says that, not only were they sometimes kept as pets, on the owner’s death they would be buried along with them both for companionship and because it was believed that the cat’s speed would take the owner’s soul to the afterlife more quickly.

Egyptian chariot, accompanied by a cheetah and slave.

Egyptian chariot, accompanied by a cheetah and slave.

The Egyptians tamed and trained cheetahs for hunting, as well as keeping them as exotic pets. Notice that I say trained, not domesticated, which would suggest a level of intentional breeding and selection that was noticeably absent for a couple of reasons. One is because of the previously mentioned trade in training adult cats, and another is that cheetahs apparently don’t breed well in captivity.

According to the Glyptodon, it was preferable to catch wild adult cats, rather than cubs, since adults already had fully-formed hunting skills gained in the wild. That meant that they would require less training to hunt effectively with men.

Cheetah

Cheetah

Similar to hawks, the cats were kept blindfolded in the field, until prey had been flushed out, then the cheetahs would be turned loose to run the prey down.

Cheetahs are smaller than the other large cats, usually only weighing between 45 and 60 pounds, but are the fastest land animals in the world, able to reach a top speed of around 70 mph.

The cats tire easily, though, and can only sustain that level of speed for a few minutes at a time.

Cheetah Hunt

Cheetah Hunt

Their speed, combined with their excellent daytime eyesight, made them extremely well suited for the job, and the style of hunting they used wouldn’t have over-taxed the cat’s stamina.

Given the expense and relative difficulty of finding and taming adult cheetahs, however, hunting this way was a sport reserved for the rich and the royal.

The relatively low population of cheetahs, combined with the cost and relative difficulty of finding, catching, and training the cats meant that hunting with them was more of a diversionary practice for enjoyment, rather than practicality.

Read another story from us: Untouched and Unlooted 4,400-yr-old Tomb of Egyptian High Priest Discovered

Even so, it’s clear that the ancient Egyptians held the cheetah in a regard as high as all the other felines, and that they played an integral role in Egyptian life and culture.