late 15c. (Caxton), "monkey," a sense now obsolete, from Dutch meerkat "monkey" (related to Old High German mericazza), apparently from meer "lake" (see mere (n.1)) + kat (see cat (n.)). But compare Hindi markat, Sanskrit markata "ape," which might serve as a source of a Teutonic folk-etymology, though the word was in Germanic before any known direct contact with India. The word was applied to the small South African mammals by 1801, probably via Dutch settlers, who seem to have applied the word to a variety of burrowing animals, perhaps via folk-etymology of a native word.
The little meerkats were surely created for the express purpose of being made into pet animals. Certainly no prettier or funnier little live toys could possibly be imagined. Nearly every homestead in the Karroo has its tame meerkat, or more likely two or three, all as much petted and indulged, and requiring as much looking after, as spoilt and mischievous children. [Annie Martin, "Home Life on an Ostrich Farm," 1890]