Felines, generally known as cats, are mammals in the family Felidae of the order Carnivora. Cats are the most carnivorous of all meat-eating animals. The predatory instinct in wild cats can be seen in the domestic cats, for even well-fed domestic cats will hunt mice and birds. Members of the cat family occur naturally in all parts of the world, except Australia and Antarctica.
The cat family includes both big cats (lions, tigers, and leopards) and small cats (lynx, servals, and ocelots). Small cats purr but do not roar, whereas big cats roar but do not purr. The reason for this difference is that the tongue muscles of large cats are attached to a pliable cartilage at the base of the tongue, which allows roaring. In contrast, the tongue muscles of small cats are attached to the hyoid bone, which allows purring, but not roaring.
Most cats have 30 teeth, including large canine and carnassial teeth, and few cheek teeth. This arrangement is well suited to crushing bones and tearing, cutting, and gripping prey. Cats' jaws are limited to vertical movements, and their chewing action is aided by sharp projections on the tongue (papillae) that grip and manipulate food.
Evolution and history
Modern cats first appeared about 25 million years ago. One of the earliest members of the family was the saber-toothed tiger, which lived in Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America. This cat had long, upper canine teeth for stabbing its prey. The remains of saber-toothed tigers have been found to be as recent as 13,000 years old.
Cats were first domesticated in ancient Egypt about 5,000 years ago. The Egyptians used cats to protect grain supplies from rodents. They also worshiped cats and mummified large numbers of them along with their owners. Since that time, the domestic cat has spread throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Breeding of cats into specific pedigrees did not begin, however, until the middle of the nineteenth century.
Cats have excellent binocular (involving the use of both eyes) eyesight, which allows them to judge distances. Cats cannot see in complete darkness, but need at least dim light in order to distinguish objects at night. Cats' eyes have a special reflective layer behind the retina. This layer allows light that has not been absorbed on its first pass through the retina to stimulate the retina a second time, providing good vision in poor light. It is this layer that makes cats' eyes appear to glow in the dark when a light flashes on them.
The senses of smell and taste in cats are closely connected, as they are in all mammals. Distinctive to cats is the absence of response to sweets, and cats avoid foods that taste sweet. The taste buds of cats are located along the front and side edges of their tongues. Their vomeronasal organ, also known as Jacobson's organ, is a saclike structure located in the roof of the mouth. This organ is believed to be involved in sensing chemical messages associated with sexual activity. When a male cat smells a female's urine, he may wrinkle his nose and curl back his upper lip in a gesture known as flehmening. He also will raise his head and bare his teeth.
Cats have the ability to hear high-frequency sounds that humans are unable to hear. This ability is particularly helpful when cats are stalking prey such as mice, since the cats can detect the high-frequency sounds emitted by these rodents. The external ears of cats are flexible and can turn as much as 180 degrees to locate sounds precisely.
A cat's whiskers have a sensory function, helping it avoid objects in its path in the dimmest light. If a cat passes an object that touches its whiskers, it will blink, thus protecting its eyes from possible injury. Besides the long cheek whiskers, cats have thicker whiskers above their eyes. Cats use their nose to determine the temperature, as well as the smell, of food. The hairless paw pads of cats are an important source of tactile (touch) information gained from investigating objects with their paws.
In the wild, most forest-living members of the cat family tend to be solitary hunters. Some species of cats live in pairs, while others, such as lions, live in family groups. Cats engage in daily grooming, which not only keeps their fur in good condition, but also helps them regulate their body temperature and keeps their coat waterproof.
Cats need a great deal of sleep, which is consistent with the large amounts of energy they expend during their hunting periods. They sleep onand-off almost two-thirds of the day. Because of a slight fall in their body temperatures when they sleep, they look for warm, sunny spots for dozing.
Words to Know
Digitigrade posture: A manner of walking on the toes, as cats and dogs do, as opposed to walking on the ball of the feet, as humans do.
Flehmening: A gesture of cats that involves curling the lips upwards, baring the teeth, wrinkling the nose, and raising the head.
Righting reflex: The ability of a cat to land on all fours after a fall.
Vomeronasal organ: A pouchlike structure on the roof of a cat's mouth whose purpose is probably related to sexual behavior in cats.
Cats are excellent climbers, great jumpers, and have remarkable balance. Except for the cheetah, cats have retractable claws that are curved, sharp, and sheathed. The claws are particularly useful to cats when climbing trees. The bones of their feet (like those of dogs) are arranged in a digitigrade posture, meaning that only their toes make contact with the ground, which increases their speed of running. Cats have the remarkable ability—called the righting reflex—to right themselves during a fall. The righting reflex causes first a cat's head, then the rest of its body, to turn toward the ground as it falls. Thus, the cat lands on all four feet.
Cats follow a well-defined hunting sequence that begins with the sighting or smelling of prey. The hunting skills that cats display are in some aspects instinctual and in others learned. Cats begin learning how to hunt through the play they engage in when they are young. Mother cats are involved in teaching hunting skills to their young, first by bringing back dead prey, later by bringing back immobilized (injured) prey, allowing young cats to kill the prey themselves. Still later, the mother cat will take the young cat on a stalking and killing mission so that it learns how to successfully hunt. Cats that do not have the opportunity to learn to hunt from their mothers do not become good hunters.
Cats are territorial, marking their territory by spraying the boundaries with urine. Cats also scratch and rub against fixed objects to mark their territory. Within a male territorial boundary, there may be several female territories. During mating, the male seeks out or is lured to nearby females that are ready to breed. Females may vocalize loudly when they are ready to mate, thus attracting males. Frequent scenting and rubbing against trees also help the male cat know the female is ready to mate. In cats, frequent sexual contact is important to insure successful ovulation (production of egg cells), which is brought on during sexual intercourse.
The gestation (pregnancy) period in cats depends upon their body size. Domestic cats have a gestation period of about 60 days, and an average litter size of about four kittens. In the wild, gestation ranges from slightly less than 60 days for the smaller species of cats to about 115 days for large cats, such as lions. The number in the litter varies from one to seven; the body size of the cat does not seem to be the factor that determines litter size. It may have more to do with the availability of food and the survival rate in the area the cat inhabits. With the exception of lions, the care and training of the young are left to the mother. Nursing continues until the cubs or kittens are gradually weaned and learn to eat meat.
Species of big cats
There are eight species of big cats, including the lion, tiger, leopard, cheetah, jaguar, snow leopard, clouded leopard, and cougar. The onza is a possible undescribed species or subspecies from Mexico that resembles the cougar and has been seen only rarely. Sightings of the onza go back to the time of the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1521. The first specimen of this cat was collected only in 1986 by a Mexican rancher, who shot what he thought was a puma (mountain lion).
The lion. Lions were once distributed over much of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Today, lions are found only in sub-Saharan Africa and in the Gir Forest, a wildlife sanctuary in India. Lions prefer open grasslands to forest, but also are found in the Kalahari Desert. Adult male lions weigh between 300 and 500 pounds (135 and 225 kilograms), while the female weighs about 300 pounds (135 kilograms). Lions are a light tawny color with black markings on the abdomen, legs, ears, and mane. Lions live up to 15 years, reaching sexual maturity in their third year. Male lions have been observed to kill cubs that they have not fathered.
Lions are the most social of the cats, living in family groups called prides, consisting of four to twelve related adult females, their young, and one to six adult males. The size of the pride usually reflects the amount of available food. Where prey is abundant, lion prides tend to be larger, making them better able to protect their kills from hyenas and other scavengers. Most lion kills are made by the females. Males defend the pride's territory, which may range from 8 square miles (20 square kilometers) to more than 150 square miles (400 square kilometers).
The tiger. The tiger is the largest member of the cat family, with males weighing from 400 to 600 pounds (180 to 275 kilograms) and females from 300 to 350 pounds (135 to 160 kilograms). Tigers range from a pale yellow to a reddish-orange color (depending on habitat), with characteristic vertical stripes. Tigers live in habitats with a dense vegetation cover, commonly forests and swamps in India, Southeast Asia, China, and Indonesia. A century ago, tigers inhabited areas as far north as Siberia, all of India and Southeast Asia, and regions along the eastern part of China. Today, all eight subspecies of tigers are endangered.
The tiger lives a solitary life and systematically protects its territory by marking its boundaries with urine, feces, glandular secretions, and scrape marks on trees. Tigers are solitary nocturnal (night-time) hunters, approaching their prey stealthily in a semicrouching position. When close enough, the tiger makes a sudden rush for the prey, attacking from the side or the rear. The prey is seized by the shoulder or neck with the tiger's front paws and jaws, while keeping its hind feet on the ground. The tiger applies a throat bite that usually suffocates its victim, which it carries into cover and consumes.
The leopard. Male leopards weigh about 200 pounds (90 kilograms), with females weighing about half that amount. Leopards are found in sub-Saharan Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. Some small populations of leopards are still found in Arabia and North Africa. Leopards have a distinctive coloring, black spots over a pale brown coat. Their habitats include rain forests, dry savanna grasslands, and cold mountainous areas.
Leopards feed on a variety of small prey, usually hunting at night by ambush. Leopards use trees as resting places and frequently drag their catches up into trees to eat them. The number of leopards is declining worldwide due to hunting and habitat destruction from human population pressures.
The cheetah. Cheetahs are the fastest animals on land, reaching speeds of up to 70 miles per hour (110 kilometers per hour). Over short distances, a cheetah can outrun any other animal. Cheetahs resemble leopards in that they have a black-spotted pattern over a tawny coat, but are distinguished by large black "tear" stripes under their eyes, a long, lithe body, and a relatively small head. Cheetahs are the only members of the cat family that do not have retractable claws. Cheetahs are solitary hunters, feeding on gazelles and impalas. They hunt mainly in the morning and early afternoon, when other large cats are usually sleeping, thereby enabling them to share hunting areas with other carnivores. Cheetahs are found in north and east Africa and along the eastern regions of southern Africa, as well as in selected areas of the Middle East and southern Asia. There is
a considerable trade in cheetah skins, and hunting, together with the loss of habitat, threatens their survival in the wild.
Other big cats. Among other large cats are the jaguar, the snow leopard, and the clouded leopard. These three cats inhabit a forest wilderness, and all are solitary and nocturnal. Jaguars are found in Central and South America, while the snow leopard is found in Central Asia, and the clouded leopard in Southeast Asia. The average weight of the jaguar is about 125 pounds (55 kilograms). The snow leopard is found in the Himalayas at elevations from 9,000 feet (2,750 meters) to nearly 20,000 feet (6,000 meters). The clouded leopard and the snow leopard have a rigid hyoid bone in their throats which prevents them from roaring. The black panther is a black form of the jaguar. Its spots are visible within its black coat. The cougar, also known as the puma or mountain lion, is about the size of a leopard and ranges from western Canada to Argentina. The cougar is found in mountains, plains, deserts, and forests, and preys on deer and other medium-sized herbivores (plant eaters).
The small wild cats
The small wild cats, such as the lynx and the bobcat, are considered to be the ancestors of the domestic cat. They are native to most areas of
the world, except Australia and Antarctica. Other features small wild cats share with domestic cats include the inability to roar, retractable claws, and a hairless strip along the front of their noses. Small wild cats include the European wild cat; the African wild cat; the sand cat, of the Sahara; the African tiger cat, of tropical forests; the golden cat; and Pallas' cat, of central Asia.
Asian medium-sized cats include the African serval and the caracal or desert lynx of the Sahara. Medium-sized cats of the Americas include the ocelot of South and Central America and the jaguarundi.
The wildcat or bobcat of North America is colored to blend in with the rocky, densely vegetated background of its habitat. Bobcats rely more on hearing than on sight to catch their prey, and the tufts on their ears are thought to improve their hearing. The lynx lives in cold climates and has long legs, to make trekking through deep snow easier, and foot pads covered with fur, to protect them while walking in snow. The Canada lynx differs from the common lynx in that it is larger, has longer hair, and does not have a spotted coat.
The other 26 species of small wild cats live mainly in forests and feed on small prey, such as rodents, hares, lizards, small deer, fish, snakes, squirrels, insects, and birds. Most species have a spotted or striped coat and usually have a rounded head. Small wild cats are either solitary or form groups, depending on the abundance of the food supply. Some species, such as the ocelot, are hunted for their spotted skin and are in danger of becoming extinct.
The breeding of domestic cats involves basic principles of heredity, with consideration of dominant and recessive (suppressed) traits. It was in England that cat breeding first became serious enough that so-called "purebred" cats were displayed at cat shows. In England a system of authenticating a cat's genetic lineage was also begun by issuing a pedigree certificate. Special associations were established to regulate the cat pedigrees and to sponsor the cat shows.
Cat breeds can be categorized as either long-haired breeds or short-haired breeds. Within each group, head and ear shape and size, body formation, hair color and length, eye color and shape, and special markings like stripes and color variations on the feet, tail, face, and neck distinguish the breeds from one another.
More than 100 different breeds of cats are recognized around the world, subdivided into five broad groups. One group includes Persian longhairs; another, the rest of the long-haired cats; a third, the British short-haired cats; a fourth, the American short-haired cats; and a fifth, the Oriental short-haired cats.
The Persian cat, highly prized among cat fanciers, has a round body, face, eyes, and head with a short nose and legs. Its fur is long and woolly, and its tail is fluffy and bushy. Persians vary from black to white, cream, blue, red, blue-cream, cameo, tortoiseshell, smoke, silver, tabby, calico, pewter, chocolate, and lilac. Other popular long-haired cats include the Balinese, the ragdoll, the Turkish angora, and the Maine coon cat. Among the short-haired cats, the Manx, British shorthair, American short-hair, Abyssinian, Burmese, and Siamese are popular. One breed is hairless: the sphynx, bred from a mutant kitten in 1966, does not even have whiskers.
The domestic cat is rivaled only by the dog as a household pet, and in recent years has outnumbered the dog as an urban pet. Cats are more self-sufficient than dogs in that they self-groom, need little if any training to use the litter box, and don't have to be walked. Cats are generally quiet and aloof, but will display affection to their owners. They have the reputation of being fussy eaters, but will usually adapt quickly to a particular brand of cat food.