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Anatomy and Behavior
Of all the carnivores, cats are the most exclusive flesh-eaters and are the most highly adapted for hunting and devouring their prey. All cats have rounded heads, short muzzles, large eyes, sensitive whiskers about the mouth, and erect pointed ears. They have short, wide jaws equipped with long canine teeth and strong molars with sharp cutting edges. Their tongues are coated with sharp recurved projections called papillae that aid in drinking and grooming.
Cats have five toes on the forefeet and four on the hind feet. The fifth toe is set high on the forefoot and does not touch the ground during walking, but it is used in grooming and capturing prey. The ends of the toes bear strong, sharp, curved claws. In all but the cheetah the claws are completely retractile, being withdrawn into protective sheaths when not in use. This mechanism is a distinguishing feature of the cat family, although it occurs in a less developed form in some civets.
All cats, with the exception of the lynx and related species, have long tails which they use for balance. The musculo-skeletal system is extremely flexible, allowing cats to arch and twist their bodies in a variety of ways. Most cats have good vision and are able to see well in very dim light; their color vision is weak. Their sense of hearing is excellent and, at least in the small cats, can detect frequencies of up to 40,000 Hz or higher. The sense of smell is not as highly developed as in the dog; its keenness may vary from one species to another.
Cats are extremely agile; they can run faster than any other mammal for short distances and are remarkable jumpers. They are also good swimmers and members of many species appear to enjoy bathing. All are able to climb trees, but they vary in their behavior from almost exclusively terrestrial (e.g., the lion) to largely arboreal (e.g., the clouded leopards). Most cats stalk their victims with great stealth and silence; even the lion, which lives in open country, usually lies in concealment until it can pounce on its victim. Only the cheetah, the swiftest of all mammals, runs down its prey.
Most are more or less solitary, but cheetahs live in family groups and lions live in groups, called prides, of up to 30 individuals. Cats live in a wide variety of habitats, although they are most numerous in warm climates. Even a single species, such as the tiger, may range from cold northern regions to the tropics. All continents except Australia and Antarctica have native species.
Cats have been domesticated since prehistoric times, perhaps for 10,000 years; there is evidence (from a Neolithic grave on Cyprus) of some sort of association with humans dating back to the 8th cent. B.C. Cats have been greatly valued as destroyers of vermin, as well as for their ornamental qualities. The ancient Egyptian domestic cat, which spread to Europe in historic times, was used as a retriever in hunting as well as for catching rats and mice. It and the modern domestic cat, F. catus, are descended from Felis silvestris lybica, the Near Eastern subspecies of the wildcat. The domestic cat can and does interbreed with the subspecies of wildcat found in Eurasia and Africa. Cats were venerated in the ancient Egyptian and Norse religions, and they have also been the object of superstitious fear, especially in the Middle Ages, when they were tortured and burned as witches.
Cats vary considerably in size; males commonly weigh 9 to 14 lb (4.1–6.4 kg) and females 6 to 10 lb (2.2–4.5 kg). They have coats of varying length and a wide variety of colors: black, white, and many shades of red, yellow, brown, and gray. A cat may be solid-colored or have patches or shadings of a second color. An extremely common pattern, probably derived from wild ancestors, is tabby: a red, brown, or gray background, striped with a lighter shade of the same color. The tortoiseshell pattern is a mixture of red, yellow, and black patches. The calico pattern is similar, but with large patches of white.
Besides the common house cat, with its natural variation, the species F. catus includes recognized breeds with characteristics maintained by breeders and fanciers through selective mating. Breeds are established when particular traits breed true for several generations; the known lineage of an animal is called its pedigree. Cat fanciers' associations set standards, establish pedigrees, and conduct cat shows. There are seven such associations in the United States, one in Canada, and one in Great Britain. The short-haired breeds are in general more slender and active than the long-haired.
The long-haired breeds are the Persian and Himalayan; angora is an old term denoting any long-haired cat. Persians may be black, white, or any of a great variety of colors, including calico, tortoiseshell, tabby, and cameo (cream with red shadings). The Himalayan breed resulted from the crossing of a Siamese with a Persian cat; Himalayans have the stocky bodies and long hair of Persians, with Siamese coloring.
All other breeds are short-haired. Abyssinians have long bodies and ruddy brown coats with ticking (marking on each hair) of darker brown or black. They are thought to be the most unchanged descendants of the ancient Egyptian domestic cat. Siamese are slender cats with almond-shaped blue eyes, and white, cream, or fawn-colored coats with brown or gray areas, called points, on the feet, tail, ears, and face. Show Siamese are divided according to color of their coats and markings into seal-, chocolate-, blue-, lilac-, and red-point types. Burmese are small, muscular, roundheaded cats with medium to dark brown coats. Manx are tailless cats of various colors; their hind legs are longer than their forelegs, so that the rump is elevated. They probably arose by mutation on the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea, although tailless cats also occur in the Orient. The Russian Blue has bright green eyes and an evenly blue-gray coat, distinguished for having two layers of short, thick fur. The Rex is a recent breed resulting from mutation and is the only curly-haired cat. Its short, woolly coat may be any color. Domestic shorthair is also a recognized category in American cat shows; cats of this group differ from the common household cat only in having known parentage for at least two generations.
The Maine coon cat is a non-pedigreed strain of large domestic cats found in Maine and believed to be descended from Persians; coon cats weigh up to 25 lb (11.3 kg). Maltese does not connote a breed but is a name applied indiscriminately to gray cats. In 2006 an American biotechnology firm began selling cats that did not have the glycoprotein that causes an allergic response in humans; the animals had been selectively bred from cats that naturally lacked the allergen.
See M. Boorer, Wild Cats (1970); C. Necker, The Natural History of Cats (1970); G. N. Henderson and D. J. Coffey, ed., The International Encyclopedia of Cats (1973); R. Caras, ed., Harper's Illustrated Handbook of Cats (1985); D. Turner and P. Bateson, ed., The Domestic Cat (1988).