Wild cats range in weight from an average of 2.7 to 4 kg in females to an average of 4 to 5 kg in males, although the weight of individual cats varies a lot throughout the year. Domestic cats are similar in size, though can become much heavier as a result of over-feeding. Body length is usually 500 to 750 mm and tail length ranges between 210 and 350 mm.
Wildcats are generally grey-brown with bushy tails and a well-defined pattern of black stripes over their entire body. Their fur is short and soft. Their coloration is similar to that of a tabby domestic cat and makes them difficult to see in their forested habitats.
Domestic cats have been selected by humans to display a wide array of body shapes and colors, from hairless forms to long-haired Persians and tail-less Manx cats to very large Maine coon cats. Colors range from black through white, with mixtures of reds, yellows, and browns also occurring.
Wildcats have five toes on each of their forepaws, but only four toes on each back paw. Cats have claws that can be drawn back into sheaths when not in use, thus keeping them quite sharp. Cat teeth are highly specialized for eating meat. The canine teeth are excellent for stabbing and holding prey as the upper ones point almost straight down and the lower ones are curved. Molars are specialized for cutting. Since wildcats lack any teeth for crushing, they eat their food by slicing it.
If you've ever been licked by a house cat, you may have noticed that the tongue feels rough. That's because the tongue is covered with tiny, curved projections. These are called papillae. These papillae are used for grooming and licking meat off bones.
Although cats have whiskers, they lack eyelashes. They have a full inner eyelid which protects the eye from damage and drying. This inner eyelid is called a nictitating membrane.
Domestic cats are thought to be descended from African wild cats and are found virtually worldwide in association with humans. Wild cats are found throughout continental Europe, southwestern Asia, and the savannah regions of Africa.
African, Asiatic, and European wild cats are generally found in forested and scrubby landscapes, although they can be found in a wide variety of habitats. They are absent from extremely dry regions, such as desert and steppe, and from tropical rainforests and areas where snow depth in the winter is more than 20 cm deep for more than 100 days. They are found in areas where humans live, but usually rural areas where the main form of agriculture is grazing livestock.
Domestic cats occur in many habitat types because of their association with humans. They do best in areas where winters are not severely cold.
When a female wild cat goes into estrous, local males congregate near the female and compete for access to her. Males screech, yowl, display, and fight. Multiple males may father different kittens in a single female's litter.
Breeding in wild cats occurs at different times of the year, depending on local climate.
Domestic cats may breed much more frequently, as often as 3 times a year. They can do this because they are not typically limited by nutrition or climate like wild cats are. Average litter size in domestic cats is 4 to 6. The gestation period (pregnancy) averages 65 days. Domestic kittens are weaned at about 8 weeks old and become independent at about 6 months old. Females become ready to mate as early as 6 months old.
All baby kittens are born with eyes closed and unable to walk. They are nursed and cared for by their mother for 6 to 12 weeks. They remain with their mother after that, learning hunting and survival skills from 4 to 10 months. At the end of 10 months, wild cats are driven from their mother's range and must become independent.
European wildcats live up to 15 years in the wild, though most die before the end of their first year. Domestic cats in a house (not roaming free) also live 15 to 20 years. A few domestic cats have been recorded living up to 30 years.
Both wild cats and domestic cats are usually active at night or at dusk and dawn. They can be active during the day, especially in areas with little human disturbance. Wild cats often travel widely at night in search prey. One European wild cat was recorded traveling 10km (6 miles) in one night!
You may have heard someone say that cats are aloof. This is not surprising, since wild cats primarily live alone (they are solitary). Domestic cats are more social and can occur in small family groups.
Domestic cats that live "in the wild" are also usually solitary. They may form small colonies in areas where food sources are clustered, such as garbage dumps. In this kind of cat groups, female cats typically stay in their area of birth while males leave their area of birth and attempt to establish a home range elsewhere. In areas with concentrations of free-ranging domestic cats a sort of hierarchy is formed. Newcomers must go through a series of fights before their position is established.
Male wild cats have home ranges that overlap with the ranges of several females. A male African wild cat was recorded with a home range of 4.3 square kilometers.
The home ranges of domestic cats varies widely with the concentration of resources and the density of restrained versus feral cats. (IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996a)
Cats have scent glands on their foreheads, around their mouths, and near the bases of their tails. A cat rubs these glands against objects to mark them with its scent. Male wild cat mark territories by spraying strong urine on objects throughout their home ranges.
Cats communicate with visual cues, such as raising the hair on their backs, moving their tails, and facial expressions. They also have a variety of sounds that communicate different intents. These include aggressive hisses and yowls, affectionate purring, and a 'be quiet' squeak used to silence kittens.
Cats have a well developed sense of smell and hearing. The ears of a cat can rotate rapidly to identify the source of a particular sound. They are able to respond to frequencies up to 25,000 vibrations per second. Because of this ability, cats can hear even ultrasonic noises made by small rodents. This sometimes allows them to locate and capture prey without seeing it.
Their sight is good but probably not better than that of humans. The range of colors seen by cats is smaller than the human range. The eyes of cats are located on the front of the head. This allows them to have excellent depth perception and is a useful tool in hunting. However, it also means that cats cannot see directly under their noses. They do have the ability to see even tiny movements, helping them to locate prey. Their eyes are adapted for vision in dim light. This allows them to hunt just after dusk or before dawn.
Cats also sense a lot through their whiskers (vibrissae). Whiskers are special hairs that are used as highly sensitive touch organs. A cat uses its whiskers to determine if their bodies can fit through small openings. They also use their whiskers to detect the movement of prey.
The diet of wild or domestic cats is mainly made up of small rodents, such as mice and rats. Other common prey are moles, shrews, rabbits, and birds. However, these cats will prey on almost any small animal, such as lizards, snakes, and large insects. They are capable of subduing prey that is almost as large as they are. They tend to stay away from prey that have spines, shells, or offensive odors. Occasionally, cats eat grass in order to clear their stomach of indigestible food, like bones, fur, and feathers.
Wild cats are fierce when threatened and can protect themselves from animals larger than themselves. They are also secretive and agile. (IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996b; IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996c; IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996a; Nowak, 1997)
In urban and agricultural areas worldwide, domestic cats are kept to help control rodent populations. European wildcats play an important role in controlling populations of rodents and other small mammals. It is this characteristic that probably led to their domestication.
Domestic cats carry a number of diseases that may be transmitted to humans, including rabies, cat-scratch fever, and several parasitic infections. Domestic cats are also responsible for population declines and extinctions of many species of birds and mammals, particularly those restricted to islands. Efforts to control populations of domestic cats that have been introduced to islands cost many thousands of dollars to those governments, and cost us all valuable parts of global biodiversity.
Wild cats generally have little or no negative impact on humans. (Nowak, 1997)
Domestic cats are highly valued as pets and as working animals throughout the world. They help to control rodent populations and have been used as animal subjects in behavioral and physiological research.
Wild cats are important members of natural ecosystems. They are instrumental in controlling populations of small mammals throughout their range. (IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996b; IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996c; IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996a; Nowak, 1997)
Domestic cats are not threatened. In fact, population control mechanisms are needed in most areas.
African and Asiatic wild cats remain fairly common throughout their range. As habitat destruction continues, they may run out of suitable habitats.
European wildcats are critically endangered in their native range. They were largely exterminated from western and central Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries because they were considered a danger to game and domestic animals. They continue to be threatened by habitat loss, but populations are making a recovery in many parts of their former range. Other threats to European wildcats include population isolation, deaths from being hit by automobiles, and vulnerability to diseases transmitted by domestic cats. They are currently protected throughout Europe and several re-introduction efforts are underway.
The main threat to all wild cat populations, especially those of European wildcats, is continuing hybridization (inter-breeding) with domestic forms. Hybridization results in decreased genetic purity of the wild forms. Some researchers believe that genetically pure European wild cats are already extinct as a result of extensive hybridization.
It is estimated that there are more than 30 breeds of domestic cat.
African wild cats were present in towns in the middle east at least 7,000 years ago. They were domesticated in Egypt about 4,000 years ago and began to be introduced outside of that area about 2,000 years ago. Domestic cats were probably attracted to the high rodent populations near human settlements and were welcomed as a way of controlling rodent populations. However, true domestication may have had a religious basis. An Egyptian cult centered in the ancient city of Bubastis worshiped cats. Followers of the goddess Bast created sanctuaries with bronze statues of cats. They even mummified hundreds of thousands of cats!
Tanya Dewey (author), Animal Diversity Web.
IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996. "African wildcat, Felis silvestris, lybica group" (On-line). IUCN Cat Specialist Group; Species Accounts. Accessed March 12, 2004 at http://lynx.uio.no/catfolk/sp-accts.htm.
IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996. "Asiatic wildcat, Felis silvestris, ornata group" (On-line). IUCN Cat Specialist Group; Species Accounts. Accessed March 12, 2004 at http://lynx.uio.no/catfolk/sp-accts.htm.
IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996. "European wildcat, Felis silvestris, silvestris group" (On-line). IUCN Cat Specialist Group; Species Accounts. Accessed March 12, 2004 at http://lynx.uio.no/catfolk/sp-accts.htm.
Nowak, R. 1997. Walker's Mammals of the World. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. Accessed March 12, 2004 at http://www.press.jhu.edu/books/walkers_mammals_of_the_world/carnivora/carnivora.felidae.felis.html.