Cats: Felidae

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CATS: Felidae



Cats range in color from pale gray to brown, many with rosettes, spots, and stripes that help them blend in with their natural surroundings. The head is rounded, with a short snout. Ears are rounded or pointed. Sensitive whiskers are useful for night movements and for inflicting the fatal bite on a prey's body. Tiny, rough projections on the tongue are used to scrape meat off bones. Feet are padded for quiet stalking of prey. Claws in most species are retractable, or can be pulled back into a sheath of skin, to keep the nails sharp for climbing trees and clasping prey. The cat's ability to land on its feet from a fall is due to a flexible spine that can turn the body around.


Cats naturally occur in most areas of the world, except Australia, the polar regions, and some oceanic islands.


Cats inhabit all types of habitats with the exception of tundra and polar ice. Most species occupy more than one type of habitat.


Large cats prey on ungulates (hoofed animals) such as deer, zebras, and wildebeests, but also eat other meat. Small cats eat rabbits, hares, rodents, snakes, frogs, fish, and birds. Many consume carrion (dead and decaying flesh).


Most cats are solitary, except when mating and raising young. Only lions form social groups. Cats defend territories but avoid physical confrontations through different means of communication. They scrape tree trunks and scent-mark with urine and feces. They use sounds, including roars, meows, purrs, hisses, and growls. They also use body language. Most hunt at night, but may show increased activity at dawn and dusk. Many are excellent climbers, and some are good swimmers. Males and females have several mating partners, producing an average of two to four kittens per litter. The young stay with their mother for up to eighteen months, longer for big cats.


The African wild cat is considered the ancestor of domestic cats. Experts believe ancient Egyptians tamed the cat to catch rodents. Cats are prized for their fur and as trophies. Some are popular exhibit animals in zoos. Large cats prey on humans and livestock.


Contrary to popular opinion, lions who hunt together do not necessarily team up to catch a prey animal. If members of the pride see that a lone member might be able to overcome the prey, they simply watch and wait to share the food. Only when the members realize that a large prey cannot be caught unassisted would they risk injury and jump in to help.


The United States classifies the Florida panther and the eastern puma as Endangered. The World Conservation Union (IUCN) lists the Iberian lynx as Critically Endangered, facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild; four species as Endangered, facing a very high risk of extinction; twelve species as Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction; and eight species as Near Threatened, not currently threatened, but could become so.


Physical characteristics: Lions have a short orange-brown coat tinged with gold. Males have manes, used for gender recognition at distances and protection during fights. A dark clump of fur covers the tail tip. Enormous shoulders and muscular legs are used to tackle large prey. Powerful jaws grasp prey and cut through tough skin. Lions measure 62 to 100 inches (160 to 250 centimeters), and another 24 to 40 inches (60 to 100 centimeters) for the tail. They weigh 270 to 570 pounds (120 to 260 kilograms).

Geographic range: Lions occur in countries south of the Saharan Desert, including Angola, Botswana, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania. The Asiatic lion lives in western India.

Habitat: Lions prefer a mixture of thick bush, scrub, and grass that afford cover for stalking and ambushing prey. They also live in open woodlands and deserts.

Diet: Lions prey on buffalo, zebra, and wildebeest. They also eat rodents, lizards, birds, and grass. An adult male eats as much as 110 pounds (50 kilograms) per feeding, but may fast (go without food) for several days.

Behavior and reproduction: Lions live in groups called prides, consisting of two to eighteen related females, their cubs, and one to seven unrelated males. Every two or three years, adult male groups called coalitions try to take over prides to mate with the females. If the newcomers win, they attempt to kill the resident cubs in order to produce their own. Mothers band together to defend their young.

Mothers who lose their young become receptive to mating, pairing off with several partners, and giving birth to one to six cubs. Mothers share nursing and cub rearing. Between ages two to four, young males are driven from the pride by dominant males or the new coalition. Females stay with the pride for life, doing most of the hunting at night. Males advertise territorial boundaries through urine markings and group roars.

Lions and people: Many African cultures believe the lion's body parts have magical and healing powers. Lions may be killed as threats to humans and livestock.

Conservation status: The lion is listed as Vulnerable and the Asiatic lion as Critically Endangered due to habitat and prey base (the animals lions hunt for food) loss, as well as killings by humans. ∎


Physical characteristics: The largest of cats, tigers range in color from pale yellow to reddish ochre (brownish yellow). Each tiger has a black stripe pattern that is uniquely its own. In the wild, tigers blend in with the natural background, especially against tall grasses, which break up their body shape. Males have a ruff of hair around the face. Ears are black with a white circle in the middle. The body length is 75 to 150 inches (190 to 310 centimeters). The tail measures 28 to 40 inches (70 to 100 centimeters). Tigers weigh 140 to 670 pounds (65 to 306 kilograms).

Geographic range: Tigers are found in Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar, Sumatra, and Russia.

Habitat: Tigers inhabit coniferous and deciduous forests that provide prey and cover. They also inhabit jungle grasslands and mangrove swamps. They need water for drinking and swimming.

Diet: Tigers prey on deer, wild pigs, wild cattle, and occasionally young elephants and rhinoceroses, birds, reptiles, and fish. An adult eats up to 90 pounds (40 kilograms) per feeding. It hides surplus kill to eat later.

Behavior and reproduction: Tigers are solitary, hunting at night. Good swimmers, they will pursue an animal into the water. They roar to advertise ownership of a territory. They further communicate through scratches on trees and scent marks with urine, feces, and anal and cheek secretions.

A male and female pair off briefly, producing an average of two to three cubs. The mother rears the young for about two years. Young females stay close to their mother's home range, but young males may travel far to secure their own territories. When a male takes over another's territory, he kills the cubs because a tigress will not mate while caring for her young.

Tigers and people: Tigers represent either good or bad spirits in some religions. They are illegally hunted for their fur. Body parts are used by some Asian cultures for medicine. They are killed for attacking humans and livestock.

Conservation status: The tiger is listed as Endangered due to habitat loss, illegal hunting for fur and traditional medicine, and declining prey. ∎


Physical characteristics: The puma, also known as cougar, panther, or mountain lion, has coloration ranging from silvery gray to reddish brown. Having the longest hind legs of all cats, the puma can jump 18 feet (5.5 meters) up a tree. Pumas measure 41 to 77 inches (105 to 196 centimeters), with another 26 to 31 inches

(67 to 78 centimeters) for the tail. They weigh about 75 to 264 pounds (34 to 120 kilograms).

Geographic range: Pumas are found in the United States, Canada, Mexico, South America (including Argentina, Bolivia, and Venezuela), and Central America (including Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Panama).

Habitat: Pumas prefer forested areas with cover for hunting and resting. They are adaptable, also occupying mountain areas, swampland, and grassland. They thrive in the desert, getting moisture from the flesh of prey.

Diet: Pumas feed on deer and other large ungulates, large rodents, rabbits, raccoons, and even bats, grasshoppers, and occasionally domestic livestock. A puma eats 20 to 30 pounds (9.1 to 13.6 kilograms) of meat per feeding, burying extra kill and returning later to feed.

Behavior and reproduction: Pumas are solitary animals, mostly hunting at night. They mark territorial boundaries with urine, feces, and scrapes on tree trunks. Scent marks are also used for mating signals. Pumas cannot roar but communicate through squeaks, purrs, growls, and hisses. Both sexes have several partners, mating throughout the year. Females give birth every other year to one to six kittens, making the young leave her territory after about two years.

Pumas and people: Human expansion into puma habitat has resulted in close encounters with the animals. Pumas in the suburbs and cities are likely to be killed.

Conservation status: The United States classifies the Florida panther and the eastern puma as Endangered due to habitat loss to forest clearance, prey reduction, and human expansion. The IUCN lists the puma as Near Threatened. ∎


Physical characteristics: Snow leopards are light gray with black-brown rosettes and spots and sides tinged with yellow. This leopard measures 39 to 51 inches (99 to 130 centimeters). The furry tail, nearly as long as the body, acts as a warm wrap during sleep or rest and provides balance during leaps. An enlarged nasal cavity warms cold air entering the body. Long hind legs are adapted for jumping up to 45 feet (14 meters), while wide, furred paws are designed for walking on snow. Snow leopards weigh 77 to 120 pounds (35 to 55 kilograms).

Geographic range: Snow leopards occur in Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

Habitat: Snow leopards live in high mountain regions, preferring steep, broken areas near cliffs and ridges. They also inhabit arid or semi-arid shrubland.

Diet: Snow leopards feed mainly on blue sheep and ibex, a wild goat. They also eat small animals, including marmots, hares, and game birds. They may take livestock, including young yaks, sheep, goats, and horses. They occasionally eat plants.

Behavior and reproduction: Snow leopards are generally active at dawn and dusk. They are solitary but communicate by scent marking with urine, feces, and scratches on the ground and tree trunks. They cannot roar but make sounds, including screams, hisses, and mews. Leopards pair off only to mate, averaging two to three cubs. The cubs stay with their mother for about two years.

Snow leopards and people: Snow leopards' bones and body parts have replaced tiger parts in traditional Asian medicine. Illegal hunting for fur continues in some Asian countries. Snow leopards are also killed for preying on domestic livestock.

Conservation status: The IUCN lists the snow leopard as Endangered due to several factors: loss of prey, killing by herders, poaching, and habitat loss and fragmentation due to human activities, especially the raising of livestock. ∎


Physical characteristics: Bobcats have a light gray to reddish brown coat covered with black spots and bars. The tip of the "bobbed," or short, tail is black on the upper side. The face is framed in bushy hair. Black ears with a white center have long hairs inside that are very sensitive to sound. A shoulder height of 18 to 23 inches (46 to 58 centimeters), thick fur, and large ears give the appearance of a larger size. Bobcats measure 24 to 42 inches (62 to 106 centimeters) in length, and the tail is another 5 to 8 inches (13 to 20 centimeters). It weighs 13 to 37 pounds (6 to 17 kilograms).

Geographic range: Bobcats are found in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

Habitat: Bobcats inhabit coniferous forests, mixed coniferous and deciduous forests, swamps, and desert scrub. They prefer thick

understory (short vegetation under taller trees) for the cover provided by the dappled shade of tall trees.

Diet: Bobcats mainly eat rabbits and hares. They also feed on rodents, large birds, snakes, fruits, and carrion. They prey on deer, which are taken when resting.

Behavior and reproduction: Bobcats are active at all hours, but most active at dawn and dusk. They are good climbers and may rest in trees. They are also excellent swimmers. Bobcats scent mark territorial boundaries with urine and feces. They are solitary, except when mating and raising young. Males have several partners. An average litter consists of two to three kittens, which stay with their mother for nine to ten months. Young females stay close to their mothers' home ranges, while young males may travel far to establish their own territories.

Bobcats and people: In the 1960s and 1970s, bobcat furs were in high demand due to restrictions in the trade of other cat furs. Demand for the furs continues, and research regarding the harvest of bobcat fur continues as well.

Conservation status: The bobcat is not a threatened species. ∎



Aaseng, Nathan. The Cougar. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, Inc., 2001.

Alderton, David. Wild Cats of the World. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1993.

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Newman, Cathy. "Nature's Masterwork: Cats." National Geographic (June 1997): 54–76.

Packer, Craig, and Anne E. Pusey. "Divided We Fall: Cooperation among Lions." Scientific American (May 1997): 52–59.

Web sites:

"All About Tigers." The Tiger Information Center. (accessed on June 23, 2004).

"Cheetahs in a Hot Spot." Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) Nature. (accessed on June 23, 2004).

"Great Cats." Smithsonian National Zoological Park. (accessed on June 23, 2004).

"Species Accounts." IUCN Species Survival Commission: Cat Specialist Group. (accessed on June 23, 2004).