cat, name applied broadly to the carnivorous mammals constituting the family Felidae, and specifically to the domestic cat, Felis catus. The great roaring cats, the lion, tiger, and leopard are anatomically very similar to one another and constitute the genus Panthera, which also includes the jaguar and, in some systems, the snow leopard. The clouded leopards, Neofelis, and the cheetah, Acinonyx, are big cats that, like the jaguar and snow leopard, do not roar. The medium-sized and small cats are classified by most zoologists in different genera, but they were previously all put in the single genus Felis, despite the great variation among them. Among these cats are the puma (or cougar) and the jaguarundi, genus Puma, the lynx (including the bobcat), Lynx, the ocelot, Leopardus, the serval, Leptailurus, and many small species described by the name cat or wildcat, such as the several golden cats and European wildcat, as well as the domestic cat. The small cats are generally ticked, striped, or spotted. The largest member of genus Felis is the jungle cat, F. chaus, of N Africa and Asia, found as far E as Indochina. It lives in a variety of habitats, especially open woodlands and scrub. It is also known as the jungle lynx but is not a true lynx.
Anatomy and Behavior
Of all the carnivores, cats are the most exclusive flesh-eaters and are the most highly adapted for hunting and devouring their prey. All cats have rounded heads, short muzzles, large eyes, sensitive whiskers about the mouth, and erect pointed ears. They have short, wide jaws equipped with long canine teeth and strong molars with sharp cutting edges. Their tongues are coated with sharp recurved projections called papillae that aid in drinking and grooming.
Cats have five toes on the forefeet and four on the hind feet. The fifth toe is set high on the forefoot and does not touch the ground during walking, but it is used in grooming and capturing prey. The ends of the toes bear strong, sharp, curved claws. In all but the cheetah the claws are completely retractile, being withdrawn into protective sheaths when not in use. This mechanism is a distinguishing feature of the cat family, although it occurs in a less developed form in some civets.
All cats, with the exception of the lynx and related species, have long tails which they use for balance. The musculo-skeletal system is extremely flexible, allowing cats to arch and twist their bodies in a variety of ways. Most cats have good vision and are able to see well in very dim light; their color vision is weak. Their sense of hearing is excellent and, at least in the small cats, can detect frequencies of up to 40,000 Hz or higher. The sense of smell is not as highly developed as in the dog; its keenness may vary from one species to another.
Cats are extremely agile; they can run faster than any other mammal for short distances and are remarkable jumpers. They are also good swimmers and members of many species appear to enjoy bathing. All are able to climb trees, but they vary in their behavior from almost exclusively terrestrial (e.g., the lion) to largely arboreal (e.g., the clouded leopards). Most cats stalk their victims with great stealth and silence; even the lion, which lives in open country, usually lies in concealment until it can pounce on its victim. Only the cheetah, the swiftest of all mammals, runs down its prey.
Most are more or less solitary, but cheetahs live in family groups and lions live in groups, called prides, of up to 30 individuals. Cats live in a wide variety of habitats, although they are most numerous in warm climates. Even a single species, such as the tiger, may range from cold northern regions to the tropics. All continents except Australia and Antarctica have native species.
Cats have been domesticated since prehistoric times, perhaps for 10,000 years; there is evidence (from a Neolithic grave on Cyprus) of some sort of association with humans dating back to the 8th cent. BC Cats have been greatly valued as destroyers of vermin, as well as for their ornamental qualities. The ancient Egyptian domestic cat, which spread to Europe in historic times, was used as a retriever in hunting as well as for catching rats and mice. It and the modern domestic cat, F. catus, are descended from Felis silvestris lybica, the Near Eastern subspecies of the wildcat. The domestic cat can and does interbreed with the subspecies of wildcat found in Eurasia and Africa. Cats were venerated in the ancient Egyptian and Norse religions, and they have also been the object of superstitious fear, especially in the Middle Ages, when they were tortured and burned as witches.
Cats vary considerably in size; males commonly weigh 9 to 14 lb (4.1–6.4 kg) and females 6 to 10 lb (2.2–4.5 kg). They have coats of varying length and a wide variety of colors: black, white, and many shades of red, yellow, brown, and gray. A cat may be solid-colored or have patches or shadings of a second color. An extremely common pattern, probably derived from wild ancestors, is tabby: a red, brown, or gray background, striped with a lighter shade of the same color. The tortoiseshell pattern is a mixture of red, yellow, and black patches. The calico pattern is similar, but with large patches of white.
Besides the common house cat, with its natural variation, the species F. catus includes recognized breeds with characteristics maintained by breeders and fanciers through selective mating. Breeds are established when particular traits breed true for several generations; the known lineage of an animal is called its pedigree. Cat fanciers' associations set standards, establish pedigrees, and conduct cat shows. There are seven such associations in the United States, one in Canada, and one in Great Britain. The short-haired breeds are in general more slender and active than the long-haired.
The long-haired breeds are the Persian and Himalayan; angora is an old term denoting any long-haired cat. Persians may be black, white, or any of a great variety of colors, including calico, tortoiseshell, tabby, and cameo (cream with red shadings). The Himalayan breed resulted from the crossing of a Siamese with a Persian cat; Himalayans have the stocky bodies and long hair of Persians, with Siamese coloring.
All other breeds are short-haired. Abyssinians have long bodies and ruddy brown coats with ticking (marking on each hair) of darker brown or black. They are thought to be the most unchanged descendants of the ancient Egyptian domestic cat. Siamese are slender cats with almond-shaped blue eyes, and white, cream, or fawn-colored coats with brown or gray areas, called points, on the feet, tail, ears, and face. Show Siamese are divided according to color of their coats and markings into seal-, chocolate-, blue-, lilac-, and red-point types. Burmese are small, muscular, roundheaded cats with medium to dark brown coats. Manx are tailless cats of various colors; their hind legs are longer than their forelegs, so that the rump is elevated. They probably arose by mutation on the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea, although tailless cats also occur in the Orient. The Russian Blue has bright green eyes and an evenly blue-gray coat, distinguished for having two layers of short, thick fur. The Rex is a recent breed resulting from mutation and is the only curly-haired cat. Its short, woolly coat may be any color. Domestic shorthair is also a recognized category in American cat shows; cats of this group differ from the common household cat only in having known parentage for at least two generations.
The Maine coon cat is a non-pedigreed strain of large domestic cats found in Maine and believed to be descended from Persians; coon cats weigh up to 25 lb (11.3 kg). Maltese does not connote a breed but is a name applied indiscriminately to gray cats. In 2006 an American biotechnology firm began selling cats that did not have the glycoprotein that causes an allergic response in humans; the animals had been selectively bred from cats that naturally lacked the allergen.
Cats are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Mammalia, order Carnivora, family Felidae.
See M. Boorer, Wild Cats (1970); C. Necker, The Natural History of Cats (1970); G. N. Henderson and D. J. Coffey, ed., The International Encyclopedia of Cats (1973); R. Caras, ed., Harper's Illustrated Handbook of Cats (1985); D. Turner and P. Bateson, ed., The Domestic Cat (1988).
In ancient Egypt, cats were regarded as sacred animals; the goddess Bastet is shown with a cat's head.
all cats are grey in the dark the night obscures all distinguishing features; saying recorded from the mid 16th century, and used in a variety of contexts.
Cat and Mouse Act an informal name for the 1913 act passed, during the suffragette campaign, to allow for the temporary release of prisoners on hunger strike and their subsequent rearrest.
a cat in gloves catches no mice restraint and caution (or ‘pussyfooting’) achieve nothing. Recorded from the late 16th century; a similar 14th-century French saying runs, ‘a gloved cat will never mouse well.’
a cat may look at a king even someone in a lowly position has a right to observe a person of power and influence. Proverbial expression recorded from the mid 16th century.
cat o' nine tails a rope whip with nine knotted cords, formerly used (especially at sea) to flog offenders.
cat's cradle a child's game in which a loop of string is put around and between the fingers and complex patterns are formed.
cat's paw a person who is used by another, typically to carry out an unpleasant or dangerous task, and originally with allusion to the fable of a monkey which asked a cat to extract its roasted chestnuts from the fire.
the cat, the rat, and Lovell our dog, rule all England under the hog hostile rhyme describing the rule of Richard III, whose personal emblem was a White Boar, and his three favourites, William Catesby (‘the cat’), Richard Ratcliffe (‘the rat’), and Lord Lovell, whose crest was a dog; the rhyme is recorded from the early 16th century in Robert Fabyan's Chronicles, and is attributed to the English landowner and conspirator against Richard, William Collingbourne (d. 1484).
the cat would eat fish but would not wet her feet commenting on a situation in which desire for something is checked by unwillingness to risk discomfort in acquiring it. Recorded from the early 13th century; a similar saying is recorded in medieval Latin.
let the cat out of the bag reveal a secret, especially carelessly or by mistake. Recorded from the mid 18th century.
put the cat among the pigeons stir up trouble; the expression is recorded from the early 18th century, and the idea of the destructive potential of a cat inside a pigeon-loft is explained as standing for a man getting among women.
when the cat's away the mice will play many will take advantage of a situation in which rules are not enforced or authority is lacking. Saying recorded from the early 17th century; similar sayings are found earlier, as in the 14th-century French proverb, ‘where there is no cat, the rat is king.’
See also bell the cat, care killed the cat, curiosity killed the cat, fat cat, have no room to swing a cat.
cat1 / kat/ • n. 1. a small domesticated carnivorous mammal (Felis catus), with soft fur, a short snout, and retractile claws. The cat family (Felidae) also includes the ocelot, serval, margay, lynx, and the big cats. ∎ a wild animal of the cat family. See also big cat. ∎ used in names of catlike animals of other families, e.g., ring-tailed cat. ∎ hist. short for cat-o'-nine-tails. ∎ short for catfish. ∎ short for cathead. ∎ short for catboat. 2. inf. (particularly among jazz enthusiasts) a person, esp. a man. • v. (catted , catting ) [tr.] Naut. raise (an anchor) from the surface of the water to the cathead. cat2 • n. short for catalytic converter. cat3 • n. short for catamaran.
The cat is not mentioned in the Bible although cats were domesticated in ancient Egypt, as is evidenced by the fact that vast numbers of mummified cats have been found in tombs at Beni Hasan and elsewhere. In rabbinic literature there are few references to the cat, which was apparently not bred to any great extent, other animals being preferred for catching mice and snakes. It was permitted to breed cats in Ereẓ Israel together with other animals that rid the house of pests (bk 80a–b). Wild cats abounded and they preyed on fowl (tj Pe'ah 3:8, 17d). In Babylonia the cat was highly regarded as a means of ridding the home of poisonous snakes, and it was even stated that entering a house after dark in which there is no cat was dangerous, for fear of being bitten by a snake (Pes. 112b). The cat was praised for its extreme cleanliness, and it was said: "If the Torah had not been given, we could have learnt modesty from the cat" (Er. 100b). A mosaic, uncovered at Nirim in the Negev, on which there is the figure of a cat, testifies to its having been bred in Ereẓ Israel in Byzantine times. Some moralists of the Ghetto period recommended that cats or other domestic pet be kept in the home in order to accustom children to fulfill the mitzvah of feeding animals before partaking of food themselves. The Italian loan-bankers of the Renaissance period were often bound by their contract to keep cats in order to control the mice and other pests which might do damage to the pledges in their care.
Lewysohn, Zool, 74–76; Tristram, Nat Hist, 66f.; F.S. Bodenheimer, Ha-Ḥai be-Arẓot ha-Mikra, 2 (1956), 372–5.
CAT / ˈkat/ • abbr. ∎ clear air turbulence. ∎ computer-assisted (or -aided) testing. ∎ Med. computerized axial tomography: [as adj.] a CAT scan.
1. Strong movable penthouse to protect besiegers, also called cat-house.
1. Lofty work used in fortifications and sieges.
3. Double tripod with six legs.