The Cat Family

Wild cats are native to all continents except Australia and Antarctica. They are found in all types of climates—from polar regions to tropical rain forests.

The leopardThe leopard is a large wild cat.

There are about 40 existing species of cats. The largest, the tiger, may reach about 9 feet (2.74 m) in length, excluding the tail. Other notable wild cats include the caracal, European wildcat, margay, serval, and saber-toothed tiger (an extinct species). Panther is a general name for any of several wild cats, especially the cougar and leopard. Wildcat is also a general name applied to several species. Mountain lion and puma are other names for the cougar.

General Characteristics

All cats, from lion to housecat, are adapted for hunting. The head is large and broad, with powerful jaws and sharp, slashing teeth. Long whiskers on the sides of the face are believed to aid the cat in feeling its way through narrow places. The eye has a vertical pupil that closes to a narrow slit in bright sunlight and opens wide in dim light, maintaining the keen vision so necessary to a hunter. A cat is largely colorblind. Its senses of smell and hearing are very well developed.

The cat has a lithe body, with a loose skin. There are five toes on the front feet and four on the hind. The feet are padded for silent motion. Except for the cheetah, which has feet that look much like a dog's, all cats have claws that can be drawn backward and upward into protective sheaths. Some cats are good swimmers, but most avoid water.

The traditional belief in the “nine lives” of the cat can be traced to the animal's cleverness in getting out of trouble, and to its vigor and strong hold on life. Cats can live for several days without food, and recover from injuries that would kill most other animals.

What Is Under All That Fur?

Under their fur, cats have long, powerful bodies. The skeleton of a cat is similar in structure to other meat-eating mammals. Cats, however, have short, strong jaws and sharp teeth that are especially well suited for hunting. Their tail is an extension of their backbone. A cat uses its tail to keep its balance.

Most cats have five toes on each front paw. The innermost toe is like a thumb that is helpful for catching prey. Each toe ends in a sharp, hooklike claw. The claws are usually retracted (held back) under the skin. But, when the claws are needed, they can be quickly extended. Several spongy pads of thick skin cover the bottoms of a cat’s feet. These pads cushion the paws and allow a cat to move quietly.

A Siamese cat is like most other cats, but its body is often longer and more slender, and it has a thinner tail. A Siamese usually has a wedge-shaped head with large, pointed ears.

How Keen Are a Cat’s Senses?

Cats have excellent hearing. They can hear frequencies much higher than humans. More than a dozen muscles control ear movement, allowing cats to rotate their ears (either together or independently) to listen for danger or prey.

Cats do not see things in sharp focus, but their eyes are much more sensitive to movement than humans’ eyes are. Cats appear to be colorblind or indifferent to colors. Their eyes have a mirrorlike structure, the tapetum lucidum (ta PEE tum LOO sih dum), which reflects light and helps a cat to see well in dim light. This structure also produces eyeshine, the glow a person sees when light strikes the eyes of a cat at night.

Cats have a good sense of smell. It is much better than a human’s, though not as good as a dog’s. Cats use their sense of smell to detect enemies and to find food, mates, and their own territory, which they mark with their scent.

How Do Cats Communicate?

Cats use sound and body language as means of communication. They meow, hiss, growl, scream, yowl, and make many other noises depending on the situation. Some experts estimate that cats can make more than 60 different sounds.

Cats may purr to communicate their emotions to people. Purring is often a sign that a cat is content, but it also can indicate an overflow of any emotion. A cat may even purr when it’s furious or in pain.

Cats communicate their moods and intentions with body language. When a cat is scared, angry, or excited, its fur will stand up straight, making the cat look larger and more menacing. Its tail will fluff up like a bottle brush. In contrast, a relaxed cat with a nonfluffed tail held high is confident and happy.