Cats range in color from pale gray to brown, many with rosettes, spots, and stripes that help them blend in with their natural surroundings. The head is rounded, with a short snout. Ears are rounded or pointed. Sensitive whiskers are useful for night movements and for inflicting the fatal bite on a prey’s body. Tiny, rough projections on the tongue are used to scrape meat off bones. Feet are padded for quiet stalking of prey. Claws in most species are retractable, or can be pulled back into a sheath of skin, to keep the nails sharp for climbing trees and clasping prey. The cat’s ability to land on its feet from a fall is due to a flexible spine that can turn the body around.
Cats naturally occur in most areas of the world, except Australia, the polar regions, and some oceanic islands.
Cats inhabit all types of habitats with the exception of tundra and polar ice. Most species occupy more than one type of habitat.
Large cats prey on ungulates (hoofed animals) such as deer, zebras, and wildebeests, but also eat other meat. Small cats eat rabbits, hares, rodents, snakes, frogs, fish, and birds. Many consume carrion (dead and decaying flesh).
BEHAVIOR AND REPRODUCTION
Most cats are solitary, except when mating and raising young. Only lions form social groups. Cats defend territories but avoid physical confrontations through different means of communication. They scrape tree trunks and scent-mark with urine and feces. They use sounds, including roars, meows, purrs, hisses, and growls. They also use body language. Most hunt at night, but may show increased activity at dawn and dusk. Many are excellent climbers, and some are good swimmers. Males and females have several mating partners, producing an average of two to four kittens per litter. The young stay with their mother for up to eighteen months, longer for big cats.
CATS AND PEOPLE
The African wild cat is considered the ancestor of domestic cats. Experts believe ancient Egyptians tamed the cat to catch rodents. Cats are prized for their fur and as trophies. Some are popular exhibit animals in zoos. Large cats prey on humans and livestock.
The United States classifies the Florida panther and the eastern puma as Endangered. The World Conservation Union (IUCN) lists the Iberian lynx as Critically Endangered, facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild; four species as Endangered, facing a very high risk of extinction; twelve species as Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction; and eight species as Near Threatened, not currently threatened, but could become so.