Are all cats the same species?

Are all cats the same species?

The world of the domestic cat is a stunningly diverse one. From the tiny, elegant Singapura to the charmingly robust British Shorthair, from the slinky Sphinx to the long hair and Viking whiskers of the Norwegian forest cat, there is such a divergence in types and temperaments that you’d be forgiven for thinking that some of these cats must be different species. In fact, all domestic cats, no matter how distinct they look from each other, are the same species.

Are all cats the same species? All domestic cats belong to the species Felis catus. There are other species of cats, such as lions, tigers and cheetahs. These belong to different species but are all part of the same family as domestic cats: Felidae.

You’ve found this page because you have questions about cats and their relatives.

  • Are domestic cats the same species, even if they look different?
  • Are house cats a different species to wild cats?
  • Why are tigers and house cats considered part of the same family? Fortunately, you’ve come to the right place.

Read on to find out more about the fascinating Felis catus and her cousins in the wild.

Are all cats the same species?

Every domestic cat is a member of the same species. This is true no matter how distinct they may look. Just as a chihuahua is the same species as a Great Dane, a Sphinx is the same species as a Maine Coon. This can be a little mind-boggling when you consider how very different breeds of cats can be but it’s true. They are all variations of one single species, Felis catus.

Confusion arises when we talk about “cats” in the more general sense. As well as referring to the domestic house cat, the term “cat” can also be applied to other members of the family Felidae. The domestic cat, Felis catus, is just one member of this much larger family, which includes multiple different species. So while all domestic cats are definitely the same species, you can also talk about cats in a broader sense which would include multiple other species in the same family.

The Felidae or felids are a large and diverse group of species. Like the domestic cat, all felids have retractile claws and sharp teeth for hunting their prey. They’re all obligate carnivores (that is, they have to eat meat). No other group of terrestrial carnivores is so diverse in their beautiful markings and colouration; from spots to stripes to the tawny fur of the lion, the range of colours and patterns that felids display is truly magnificent.

The Felidae can be divided down into three subfamilies. One of these is the Pantherinae, which includes lions, tigers, leopards and jaguars. Another is the Felinae, which is the subfamily our own familiar domestic kitties belong to. The third subfamily is considered part of the Felinae. These are the Acinonychinae, which include the cougar, cheetah and jaguarundi. The Felinae subfamily also includes the lynx and the wildcat. All of the animals in the Felinae subfamily are able to purr but not to roar — yes, even an enormous cheetah or cougar can purr just like a giant house cat.

Cat cousins: wildcats

As well as Felis catus, there are many other smaller felines who are referred to as cats. One of the most familiar is the European wildcat (F. silvestris). The European wildcat looks very like a large domestic tabby — hardly surprising since they’re one of the ancestors of the common house cats who live in Europe today. Despite looking rather like a domestic cat, the European wildcat isn’t really susceptible to domestication. The European wildcat is found across Europe, Turkey and the Caucasus, inhabiting forested areas. Although now wiped out in England and Wales, it still roams the forests of Scotland.

Another probable ancestor of the modern domestic cat is the African wildcat, Felis lybica. Although shy and hard to approach, the African wildcat is a little friendlier than the European wildcat. These graceful creatures seem to have lived in proximity to humans for millennia, with evidence from neolithic settlements that they were at least partially domesticated. The African wildcat is found across broad swathes of Africa and Asia, and can flourish in a range of different habitats and climates.

Where does Felis catus come from?

For a long time, it was believed that the earliest people to domesticate cat were the ancient Egyptians. This made a great deal of sense: after all, the Egyptians certainly lived with cats and held them in great reverence. There are cats who were mummified just like people, images of cats and even a cat-headed goddess called Bast. More recently, though, archaeologists discovered a neolithic burial that included the skeleton of an Egyptian wildcat. The cat had been buried very close to the human as if to keep the dead person company. It’s now believed that domestication occurred at some point in the Near East, possibly around 10,000 years ago. When people started to grow and store grain, the cats would have become an invaluable ally.

Historians believe that some of the earliest domestic cats in Europe were brought over from Egypt by the Romans. These would be the domesticated descendants of Felis lybica. Despite also being a wild cat, F. lybica is significantly more tractable than her cousin. While European wildcats remain fierce and shy even when reared from kittenhood, Felis lybica can be tamed and will live close to humans without fleeing or becoming aggressive.

They were valued by the Roman troops because they took care of vermin on board their ships, and also protected the food stores when the Romans settled at their destination. While they probably weren’t as friendly and affectionate as today’s house cats, these felines were social enough to live around humans and form a bond with them. In the British Isles and elsewhere, these early domestic cats mated with the native wildcats. Although they come from different species, the two are similar enough that they can produce offspring. These cats, with the thicker fur of the European wildcat and the nicer nature of their African cousins, became the main breeding stock for domestic cats in Europe.

Other domestic cats

Felis lybica isn’t the only wild cat that proved susceptible to domestication. In ancient China, the leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis) was also domesticated — at least partially. They were able to be tamed by humans and may have been the first domesticated cats in China. This partial domestication occurred somewhat later than that of the African wildcat, around 5000-7000 years ago. Researchers discovered bones from several different individual cats in sites used by the people living in the region at the time, suggesting that they lived very closely with the cats.

It’s unlikely that leopard cats would have been kept as pets (except perhaps in the same way that some people insist on trying to keep tigers as pets today) but there is distinct evidence of a give-and-take relationship between the people living in the region and their handsome spotted neighbours. The teeth of at least one of the cats were unusually worn, suggesting that it lived a long life and was fed by humans. Some of the bones were found in refuse pits but one complete cat skeleton was uncovered in a small grave. It had clearly been buried with a certain amount of care and was evidently important to the people who buried it.

Sadly, it seems that these early companion cats never got a chance to leave their mark on the modern population. Not a trace of their DNA can be found in the modern domestic cat. Leopard cats still live in the wild, although many of their populations are under threat.

How come cats look so different?

You may be wondering how a single feline species could have so many different variants. The answer is selective breeding by humans. The earliest breeding would have been conducted very informally, with cats being selected for useful traits such as intelligence, approachability and (perhaps most importantly for cat owners at the time) their ability to hunt. Today’s domestic cats all originate from eight different regions, after which they were bred selectively for desirable traits.

The earliest known attempts to engage in cat breeding as we know it today occurred in Victorian England, with the very first cat show taking place at the Crystal Palace. Those cats were bred for colour, configuration and personality. In 1871, the first cat breeder association listed just five recognised breeds. Its modern successor, the Cat Fanciers Association, now recognises over 40. The International Cat Association recognises even more, with 57 breeds listed on its books. Cats are now bred for all sorts of traits, from long hair to hairlessness, long limbs or short ones, large ears or tiny folded ears. All of these wonderful cats are members of a single, very special species.

Barbara Read

Barbara Read - Cat owner, researcher and behavioural expert. Cats are not only fantastic pets but also wonderful and complex animals with great personalities. It takes time and effort to learn their behaviour but its completely worth it.

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