The Little Big Cat

Someone has said that the domestic cat gives us an opportunity to safely caress the tiger. How true!

Except for size, cats are all built pretty much alike.  They act alike, too.  (Turner and Antón)

Paleontologists are still working out exactly how that beautiful shape evolved (Werdelin and others), but it’s ideal for stalking and ambushing prey.

The cheetah is the only specialized pursuit predator in this family (Andersson and Werdelin), but all cats are good at short sprints. In general, feline leg length is a compromise between short legs for power and long legs for speed. (Kitchener and others)

The fact that cats are meat specialists has shaped their mouth and skull. (Holliday and Steppan)

They have lost most teeth that aren’t used for processing flesh. Adult house cats only have 30 teeth, while dogs, who can grind food as well as slice it, have 42.

Cats have shorter faces than other carnivores because meat is 70% or more of their diet. (Holliday and Steppan)  Since they use their fangs to kill prey, this shortened distance to the jaw joint protects the teeth and increases the overall bite force. (Kitchener and others)

Unlike other domestic animals, house cats haven’t changed much. (Hart and others; Van Neer and others)

They are more colorful and a little more nimble than their closest wild relative, the wildcat (Montague and others), but the biggest difference is that a house cat raises its tail in a friendly greeting, something no wild cat has ever been seen doing. (Bateson and Turner)

Image:  By JusBen at


Andersson, K., and Werdelin, L. 2003. The evolution of cursorial carnivores in the Tertiary: implications of elbow joint morphology. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B (supplement). 270:S163-S165.

Bateson, P., and Turner, D. 2014. Postscript: questions and some answers, in The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour, eds, Turner, D., and Bateson, P., 232-240. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hart, B. L.; Hart, L. A.; and Lyons, L.  2014.  Breed and gender behaviour differences:  relation to the ancient history and origin of the domestic cat, in The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour, eds, Turner, D., and Bateson, P., 155-165. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Holliday, J. A., and Steppan, S. J. 2004. Evolution of hypercarnivory: the effect of specialization on morphological and taxonomic diversity. Paleobiology. 30(1):108-128.

Kitchener, A. C., Van Valkenburgh, B., and Yamaguchi, N. 2010. Felid form and function, in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, ed. D. W. Macdonald and A. J. Loveridge, 83-106. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Montague, M., G Li, B. Gandolfi, R. Khan, and others. 2014. Comparative analysis of the domestic cat genome reveals genetic signatures underlying feline biology and domestication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA. 111(48):17230-17235.

Turner, A., and M. Antón. 1997. The Big Cats and Their Fossil Relatives: An Illustrated Guide to Their Evolution and Natural History. New York: Columbia University Press.

Van Neer, W.; Linseele, V.; Friedman, R.; and De Cupere, B. 2014. More evidence for cat taming at the Predynastic elite cemetary of Hierakonpolis (Upper Egypt). Journal of Archaeological Science. 45:103-111.

Werdelin, L.; Yamaguchi, N.; Johnson, W. E.; and O’Brien, S. J.. 2010. Phylogeny and evolution of cats (Felidae), in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, ed. D. W. Macdonald and A. J. Loveridge, 59-82. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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