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Definition: cat from Philip's Encyclopedia

Carnivorous, often solitary and nocturnal mammal of the family Felidae, ranging in size from the Indian tiger (3m, 10ft) to the domestic cat (40cm, 14in). It has specialized teeth and claws for hunting, a keen sense of smell, acute hearing, sensitive vision, and balances well with its long tail. Cats all have fully retractile claws, except for the cheetah which needs greater purchase on the ground to run at high speeds. One of the first animals to be domesticated, cats appear frequently in myth and religion. Order Carnivora. See also carnivore


Summary Article: Cat from The Encyclopedia of Applied Animal Behaviour & Welfare

A carnivorous mammal of the taxonomic family Felidae, which is characterized by its sharp teeth and claws and also includes the big cats (e.g. lions) that can roar and the smaller wildcats (e.g. ocelots) that cannot. Most cats are relatively solitary, coming together only for breeding, the exception being lions, which live and hunt in a socially cooperative way. Domestic cats will live in loose social groups, which in the feral situation typically consists of female siblings or relatives, which may cooperatively rear young and show some affiliative behaviour.

The domestic cat - which is variously known as Felis silvestris domesticus, F. domesticus or F. catus, is a domesticated variant of the small wild cat (F. silvestris) - is believed to have diverged from its nearest wild relative (F.s. lybica) over 100,000 YBP, although the earliest evidence of close human association dates to only 9500 YBP, to a shared cat-human grave in Cyprus. This date is quite closely associated with the development of agriculture by man, and the domestic cat almost certainly arose as a result of a commensalism with humans who stored grain which thus provided concentrations of rodent prey for the cat. Recent work suggests that the domestic cat appears to show some behavioural changes typical of domestic companion animals, such as increased attachment and attention to human cues, though these features are not as strong as they are in the domestic dog, and no studies have compared domestic cats to their wild relatives. There are five distinct subspecies of the wild progenitor, which appear to have started to diverge about 230,000 YBP: F.s. lybica (Near Eastern wild cat), F.s. ornata (Central Asian wild cat), F.s. cafra (Southern African wild cat), F.s. silvestris (European wild cat) and F.s. bieti (Chinese wild cat).

Domestic cats are now one of the most popular companion animal mammals and are found in homes throughout the world, with over 76 million estimated to be living in the USA and 47 million in Europe (Pet Food Manufacturers Association). In industrialized countries they are increasingly kept indoors, sometimes because of local restrictions aimed at protecting indigenous wildlife (e.g. parts of Australia).

Domestic cats are well known for their predatory behaviour and, while they can kill large numbers of small mammals and birds, their impact on the ecology of areas where they are indigenous or their potential prey covers large geographical regions is more debatable. However, they undoubtedly have had an effect on smaller island wildlife populations where they are not indigenous (see: Exotic species invasion) and where local species have no similar natural predator, e.g. the almost flightless ka’kapo (New Zealand owl parrot) and, most famously, the Stephen’s Island wren, whose entire population was wiped out as a result of the introduction of a single cat by the island’s lighthouse keeper.

Although domestic cats are carnivores and are unable to synthesize taurine, dictating the need for a meat diet or one supplemented with this amino acid, they also eat invertebrates and some plant matter as a matter of routine. The maintenance of both large and small cats in captivity has given rise to welfare concerns. Large and small wild cats, despite their natural tendency to spend up to three-quarters of the day sleeping or resting (being crepuscular in their activity patterns), appear to be particularly prone to showing locomotor stereotypies when kept in restricted, barren or frustrating environments. This is not a common problem of domestic cats, although they will show stereotypic oral behaviours (pica: including fabric eating and self-grooming behaviours resulting in substantial hair loss; see Fig. C.3).

However, confinement within the home may give rise to other problems. It has been suggested that cats without access to the outside are at increased risk of a number of physical diseases, including interstitial cystitis (bladder inflammation), resorptive lesions of the teeth, obesity and hyperthyroidism. The relationship between these problems and stress is variable, with a physiological mechanism explicable in the case of cystitis; however, recent work suggests that the increased risk of hyperthyroidism may not relate to stress but rather to exposure to fire retardants used in some home furnishings.

None the less, keeping domestic cats indoors undoubtedly reduces the impact of their predation and the risk of injury or death in road traffic accidents, which are a major cause of mortality in this species. Homes can be enriched by exploiting the available three-dimensional space to make it more usable, since cats often prefer high-perch resting places (see Fig. C.4). Such environmental enrichment, together with appropriate provision and distribution of other key resources (feeding and drinking areas and latrines, together with safe passages to each) may also allow multiple cats to live together in a single home relatively peacefully, even if they do not form a social bond. The personality of domestic cats is an area that has attracted research and it appears that distinct types relating to their sociableness are consistently revealed. This has implications for the selection of cats to live together within multi-cat households, which are becoming more popular.

Dependence on solitary predatory behaviour, together with origins in an arid environment, are major influences on the nature of cats. Cats are generally quite heat tolerant, but may be subject to chilling when wet. They have largely binocular stereoscopic vision which allows them to judge distances well, and their hearing extends up to the ultrasonic frequency range (64 kHz), which helps with both the detection of auditory signals emitted by rodents and the localization of sound. Olfactory communication is perhaps the predominant medium between cats, with facial rubbing and urine spraying resulting in the deposition of chemical signals. Contrary to popular reports, the function of non-sexual urine spraying remains unclear, with many hypotheses being inconsistent either logically (e.g. a signal that helps indicate recent hunting activity success is unlikely to be a stable strategy) or from the available data (e.g their use as territorial marks). Cats may also use faeces in communication (middening) as well as scratching, both of which convey information visually and chemically. Taste appears less well developed, with cats lacking the ability to detect sweetness.

Cats are seasonally polyoestrous in their reproductive behaviour, being quite vocal and often urine spraying when in season. These characteristics, together with induced ovulation and superfecundity (use of several males to father a litter), help to maximize local genetic input during breeding. Typical litter sizes are between three and five kittens and may be reared collectively by feral cats in female colonies, usually of related individuals. The feeding of feral cats can result in very high local population densities, with an increased risk of disease and potentially public health problems as a result. The tendency to keep cats indoors and a failure to appreciate their nature are major reasons for the surrender of cats to animal shelters (see also: Abandoned animals), other common reasons relating to changes in living condition and allergic responses among family members, although some breeds (e.g. Devon rex) appear to be generally less allergenic.

Fig. C.3. Domestic cat showing bilateral hair loss, which can arise as a result of stress-induced stereotypic hair pulling (image courtesy of S. Pipan).

Cat breeding has resulted in relatively little breed diversification on the original body form, compared with dogs, although specific mutations are now being preserved by some to create new breeding lines with distinct musculoskeletal or dermatological features (e.g. taillessness, dwarfism, hairlessness, folded ears, etc.). Some national associations refuse to recognize such animals as breeds, due to their associated health problems.

see also: Companion animal; Pet

Further reading
  • Beaver, B.V. (2003) Feline Behavior: a Guide for Veterinarians, 2nd edn. Elsevier Science, St Louis, Missouri.
  • Miller, J. (1996) The domestic cat: a perspective on the nature and diversity of cats. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 208, 498-502.
  • Rochlitz, I. (ed.) (2005) The Welfare of Cats. Springer, Dordrecht, The Netherlands.
  • Turner, D.C. and Bateson, P. (2000) The Domestic Cat: the Biology of its Behaviour, 2nd edn. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
  • Taylor, Katy D.
    Mills, Daniel S.
    © CAB International 2010

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