No One Agrees On The Domestic Cat’s Scientific Name

Scientific names for cats have varied ever since Swedish zoologist Karl Linnaeus, back in 1758, first named the whole cat family Felis, giving each species second and third names. Lions, for example, were Felis leo, while common cats were Felis catus.

But even Linnaeus had trouble sorting out those small cats, which do all look very much alike.

House cats were fairly easy–Felis catus domesticus. And their Old-World wild relatives, which are virtually untameable in Europe, seemed distinct, too–Felis catus ferus.

But Linnaeus also made what we would call errors today. For instance, he thought that Angoras and tortoiseshell cats were separate subspecies–F. catus angorensis and F. catus hispanicus, respectively. We know that they’re the same species with two different looks that cat fanciers sometimes combine together.

Angora tortie threefer

A silly Angora (left, by lylejk, CC BY 2.0); a sensible tortoiseshell cat (right, by Mariamichelle, at Pixabay, public domain); and a black smoked tortie Angora that would have blown Linnaeus’ mind (Daly69, via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0).

Once the taxonomy ball started rolling, more zoologists went back over the cat family. Again and again, they rearranged it into various logical groupings according to the theories of the day. After the start of the 20th century, this process was improved with insights gained from genetics.

Today, according to one of the most recent taxonomic arrangements (see this 2017 PDF for details), the cat family Felidae now has 14 genus names, not just the single Felis.

Lions are Panthera leo, and according to this source, the domestic cat is Felis catus, per Opinion 2027 of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature in 2003.

However, that opinion can also be taken to mean that house cats are “domestic derivatives” of the wildcat–Felis silvestris–and indeed they were wildcats until just after the last ice age, when they met us.

So you’ll see some zoologists refer to them as Felis silvestris catus in highly-cited papers like this one.

Why should laypeople care about this academic tempest in a teacup? Because its outcome might undercut every conservation law that now protects wildcats, which are endangered species.

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Guest Video: The Scottish Wildcat

Yes, a wildcat can be Scottish.

At least on my equipment, the perspective seems off on this video, but the information is so complete and well presented, based on what I’ve learned about this cat while working on the books, that I’m sharing it anyway.

PS, June 16, 2018: I have mixed feelings about the Scottish wildcat issue, but I am not expressing them here because they stem from reasons that are too complex to get into in just a thousand words or so. It must wait until I have been able to explain the basics of it in the upcoming ebook on the domestic cat, and its sequel on the modern cat family.

As anyone acquainted with a domestic cat might expect, even zoologists find Felis silvestris hard to deal with. One of the book chapters will mention this by focusing on the domestic cat’s scientific name: no one can agree on what it should be.

Wildcats are in the Felis silvestris group, but the scientific name for house cats is highly controversial–some say that it should be Felis silvestris catus, while others rightly point out that this is going to mess up a lot of environmental legislation meant to protect wildcats and therefore it should be Felis catus. But wait! say members of the first group. It is a wildcat descendant . . . and round and round the debate goes.

The Highland Tiger group is on the F. catus end of the opinion spectrum, but this video is a good introduction to the issue. My main concern, from this and from some scientific papers I have read, is two-fold:

  1. Hybridization is common in the cat family, so why should we draw the line between two close species now?
  2. How are they are going to handle feral cats? It is reassuring that many laypeople in the UK are aware of the feral cat issue and, from the looks of things, will not tolerate euthanasia–a too-easy out.

When first scheduling this guest video last week, I didn’t realize a note would be necessary, but on rewatching the thing today, I do want to make this addendum. Online resources on the Scottish wildcat issue generally are very polarized. I hope to add some neutral ground to the debate in the book chapter covering this.

Thank you for your interest!

Featured image: Peter Trimming, CC BY 2.0

Cats and Disasters: Myth v. Fact

While sharing their lives with us, domestic cats occasionally have been caught up in our great tragedies.

The sad facts sometimes are clearly documented, like the landslide on White Island that a cat named Peter the Great survived, though none of his human friends did. (A volcano was involved, but Peter showed no signs of supervillainry.)

In other disasters, we don’t know what happened to the cat afterwards–people understandably were focusing more on their own troubles. It’s a mystery, for example, whether the house cat that escaped London’s Great Fire in 1666 recovered after Samuel Pepys witnessed its rescue (33. Mercers’ Chapel).

And then there are the legends that people make as part of coping psychologically with an enormous calamity. These may or may not have a factual basis. Stories about cats associated with the destruction of Pompeii and the Titanic sinking are two good examples.


It’s very easy to imagine strays and panicked pet cats fleeing the city along with people when this happened.

The remains of dogs and horses have been found in the ruins. What about cats?

A writer/photographer named Carl Van Vechten wrote in 1922 that:

Among the objects unearthed at Pompeii was the skeleton of a woman bearing in her arms the skeleton of a cat, whom perhaps she gave her life to save.

Every cat lover in the world wants this to be true, but let’s face it. In the Internet age, we would have seen the images by now, if they were readily available.

Then again, how many of us knew that the bones of a hapless Herculaneum woman and the baby she tried to protect have been recovered, until the BBC included this fact in Pompeii: The Last Day?

That’s even more compelling, and yet most of us never knew about it until 2003 or whatever time we first watched that Emmy award-winning television special.

Unfortunately, Carl Van Wechten never indicated his source of information about the Pompeiian woman/cat skeletons. Did he make it up or is it neatly filed away, unnoticed, in some archive?

I’ve tried an online search for more details, and here’s what I found.

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