domestic cats belong to the class Mammalia (mammals), the order Carnivora
(meat-eaters), the family Felidae (cats), the genus Felis (lesser cats),
and the species cattus (domestic cats): that's our cat, Felis cattus.
There are three genera of the family Felidae: Panthera, the large or
greater cats; Acinonyx, the cheetahs; and Felis, the small or lesser cats.
A fourth genus, Smilodon, the saber-toothed tigers, just missed by only
12,000 years: almost no time at all, geologically speaking.
Since there is
of necessity a lot of discussion about cat sizes using the terms "large"
and "small," we shall use the terms "greater" and "lesser" in reference to
the genera. The terms "greater cats" and "lesser cats" refer to size only
in general: the larger lesser cats are larger than the smaller greater
cats. The most obvious difference between the two genera is that greater
cats can roar and the lesser cats cannot. The ability to roar is
determined by the structure of the throat: most significantly, the small
bones (the hyoid bones) that support the larynx. In the greater cats,
these bones have been partially replaced by cartilage, allowing
extraordinary flexibility of the throat and enabling the cat to roar. In
the lesser cats, these bones are rigid and roaring is impossible. Contrast
the deep-throated, deafening roar of a lion to the snarling cough of a
The genera are divided into species. Generally speaking, two dissimilar animals belonging to the same genus are considered as belonging to different species if they do not interbreed and produce viable offspring: they either physically cannot interbreed, such as a puma and a
housecat (boggles the mind, not to mention the housecat!); would not
interbreed naturally, such as a jaguar and a leopard, which just don't
have the right smells and signals to inspire mating; or their offspring
would be sterile, such as a lion and a tiger, whose offspring is a "liger"
if the father is a lion or a "tigon" if he is a tiger, but is always
sterile. Conversely, if two such animals do interbreed and produce viable
offspring, they naturally and quickly become the same species even if they
weren't to start with -- interbreeding will do that sort of thing --
though they may maintain enough differences to be classed as separate
There are some notable exceptions to this rule, particularly
where man has interfered. The species Geoffroy's cat, for example, can
physically mate with the domestic cat and produce viable offspring, but
would not normally do so in the wild, as the smells and signals are wrong
and the mating instinct would not be triggered. Man has successfully
circumvented this, however, and produced viable offspring in a attempt to
produce cats with wildcat patterns. Such hybrid off spring are usually
treated as a subspecies of one species or the other, based upon dominant
characteristics: so far, only new subspecies of Geoffroy's cat have been
produced, not new domestic cats. This is not the case with other hybrids,
most notably the Bengal is a domestic cat-leopard cat hybrid. Differing
species come about through isolation. If some members of a species become
separated from the main body of their species by distance or natural
obstruction, they will eventually evolve into a different species, losing
the ability to interbreed.
All members of the genus felis, subgenus felis,
have a somewhat complex relationship to each other. The parent species in
this group is Felis sylvestris, the European wildcat, who first evolved
some 600,000 years or so ago in central Europe (where he can still be
found). During the Second Ice Age, he extended his domain into Africa and
Asia. As the ice receded the seas rose and the climates changed, the
immigrant species became isolated from each other by water, deserts, and
mountains. Over time, the isolated subspecies evolved into the Sand Cat,
the African Wildcat, the Forest Cat, the Black-Footed Cat, and the Chinese
Desert Cat: other species also evolved, but failed to survive. Species are
themselves further divided into subspecies (if wild) or breeds (if
domesticated): the two classifications are analogous to each other. We
should remember that Panthera leo azandica (the Congo Lion) has exactly
the same relationship to Panthera leo that Siamese Cat has to Felis cattus.
Don't be fooled by the Latin: if a zoologist set up a "zoo" of domestic
cats, he'd find a Latin or Greek word for "Siamese," tack it on the end of
"Felis cattus," and call it a subspecies. It would still be a breed. All
felids, regardless of genus or species, have certain basic things in
In appearance, they all look like cats. While this may be arguable
in the case of the Jaguarundi and, to a lesser degree, the Flat-Headed
Cat, it is definitely not true of some other families: all members of the
canid (dog) family, for example, do not look like dogs (not even all dogs
look like dogs!). Besides a similarity of appearance, all cats have
retractable claws: even the cheetah, the most primitive of all modern
cats, has partially-retractable claws. The most cat-unique common
characteristic, however, is purring: all cats, and nothing but cats, purr.
For some time it was believed that the greater cats didn't purr: some
texts still say this even today. This is patently not true, all cats purr:
lions purr, tigers purr, cheetahs purr, leopards purr, jaguars purr, pumas
purr, bobcats purr, domestic cats purr; all cats purr, without exception.
This alone proves common ancestry: probably Pseudailurus, 28 million years
ago, or Dinictis, 40 million years ago, depending upon whether saber-toothed tigers purred, something our own Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon
ancestors failed to note.
There are also a whole slew of internal
similarities, as would be expected. Besides the biological similarities
among cats, which one would expect, there is one other distinguishing
characteristics. Wherever it has adapted, in whatever ecological niche in
whatever part of the world, the cat reigns supreme among carnivores in its
size class. It is the penultimate hunter, with a finely-honed stalking and
killing ability that other carnivores can only dream about. The typical
member of family Felidae scores in 30 percent of its hunts: no other
carnivore, including man, comes close. It is also a merciful hunter,
killing quickly and cleanly by severing the spinal column of its prey and
minimizing the pain and suffering.
Some zoologists break the three genera
down further into subgenera based upon subtle or newly-discovered
differences. As an example, the subgenus Leopardus, the South American
lesser cats, have 36 chromosomes instead of the usual 38, (probably
through a fusion of two chromosomal pairs). This is a major distinction,
even though it is invisible to the eye and depended upon modern technology
for its discovery, and is usually considered a legitimate subgenus. The
subgenus Lynx, on the other hand, is based upon the lynx and its relatives
having short tails and tufted ears, a more obvious but also more trifling
distinction. The subgenus of a wild species is given in brackets in the
species list, and would replace the genus in nomenclature: "Felis [Puma]
concolor" may be "Puma concolor" instead of "Felis concolor," but never "Felis
puma concolor." The relationships between subgenera can be clearly seen in
the family chart.
All species of cats have differing subspecies (breeds),
not just the domestic cat. There are, for example, nine subspecies of
lions: Panthera leo azandica: Congo Lion Panthera leo bleyenberghi:
Bleyenbergh's Lion Panthera leo hollisteri: Hollister's Lion Panthera leo
massaicus: Massai Lion Panthera leo persica: Persian Lion Panthera leo
roosevelti: Roosevelt's Lion Panthera leo senegalensis: Senegal Lion
Panthera leo somaliensis: Somalian Lion Panthera leo verneyi: Verney's
Lion The difference in lion subspecies reflects variations in size, color,
territory, etc., with the names coming from the discoverer, classifier or
The number of recognized subspecies of a wild cat species will
be given, but individual subspecies will not be named. One small footnote:
don't let the "scientific" name of the various cats fool you. Zoologists
are as silly as the rest of us when it comes to naming things, but they
hide their silliness behind a Latin or Greek facade. As an example, the
scientific name for the common stripped skunk, mephitis mephitis,
translates to "smelliest of the smelly." In our own case, the Latin word "felis,"
generic for "cat," is derived from the older Latin word "felix," meaning
"happy," probably because cats are not shy about letting the world know
when they are happy, which is most of the time: they purr (purring also
makes the cat owner feel happy).
This means that "felis cattus" could be
translated as "happy cat" or "purring cat," and the family "Felidae" means
"one of those who are happy." Deep stuff here! In order to be fair, and to
give the zoologists their due, the Romans did call just any old cat "cattus,"
and one of their cats "felix cattus." (No, "felix cattus" does not mean
"Felix the Cat," though we can see where Otto Messmer may have gotten the
name.) The Species of Cat All in all, there are 38 recognized species of
cats: six greater cats, panthera; one cheetah, acinonyx; and 31 lesser
cats, felis, including the domestic cat.
All of them except the domestic
cat (and even some of those) have one thing in common: they are wild carnivores and will often bite and scratch when encountered (bigger ones may
also eat!). Count your fingers after petting! A description of each of the
38 species is given. Considerable thought went into the order in which the
species should be listed. Most lists give the greater cats, then the
cheetah, then the lesser cats, with the order within each genus being
either the alphabetical order of their English or Latin names or the
territory in which they were first discovered. None of this seemed to make
sense here, so we decided to list them by weight and size, largest to
smallest. Alter nate English names are given after the primary name, and
subgenera are given in brackets.
The weights and lengths shown are for
average male specimens of the various subspecies of each species: females
tend to be slightly smaller. Please remember that new subspecies, or even
new species (see the Iriomote cat), may be discovered at any time. When
taking the domestic cat as a species we intentionally chose to use the
typical feral cat a a model -- one that has returned to the wild state.
Because of random interbreeding among feral domestic breeds, the dominance
of certain genes, and the non-survival characteristic of certain traits,
there has come to be established a definite and distinctive species: the
medium sized brown or red mackerel tabby shorthair.
When discussing the
subspecies (breeds) of the domestic cat taken as a species, it is
important to remember that several new breeds are created each year,
several breeds are discontinued each year, and there is no agreement among
"experts" as to what defines a new breed, making the exact number of
breeds impossible to compute. As an example of this disagreement, a blue
(gray) British Shorthair is usually classed as a separate breed, the
British Blue, but a black British Shorthair is not. Overall, there is a
definite upward trend in the number of cat flavors.