Felis silvestriswild cat

Geographic Range

Wild cats are found throughout continental Europe, southwestern Asia, and the savannah regions of Africa. Felis silvestris is currently regarded as being made up of three, distinct groups (or subspecies): F. silvestris lybica, African wild cats, F. silvestris silvestris, European wild cats, and F. silvestris ornata, Asiatic wild cats. African wild cats are found in appropriate habitat throughout Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. European wild cats are found throughout Europe and western Russia, except for much of the British Isles (they are found in Scotland) and Scandinavian countries. Asiatic wildcats are found in the Middle East, southern Russia, western China, and western India. Some authorities recognize F. s. silvestris as a species distinct from both F. s. lybica and F. s. ornata. Domestic cats are thought to be descended from African wild cats and are found virtually worldwide in association humans. (IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996a; IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996b; IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996c)


African wild cats occur throughout Africa in a wide variety of habitats. They are absent only from tropical rainforest. In desert regions they are restricted to mountainous areas and waterways.

Asiatic wild cats are found primarily in scrub desert, but can be found in a wide variety of habitats. They are absent from alpine and steppe grasslands and the northern limit of their distribution may be determined by snow depth. They can be found up to 3000 m in mountains and are usually found in areas near water sources.

European wild cats are found primarily in deciduous forests. They are also known from coniferous forests, but these may be marginal habitats. They are restricted in their northern distribution by snow depth and are typically found in areas of low human populations. European wild cats cannot persist in areas where snow depth in the winter is more than 20 cm deep for more than 100 days. They are known from human dominated landscapes where grazing is the dominant form of agriculture and, therefore, land use is not intensive. They are also known from scrublands, riparian habitats, and coastal areas.

Domestic cats occur in many habitat types because of their association with humans. They do best in areas where winters are not severely cold. (IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996a; IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996b; IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996c)

  • Range elevation
    3000 (high) m
    9842.52 (high) ft

Physical Description

Wild cats range in weight from an average of 2.7 to 4 kg in females (F. s. silvestris average 3.5 kg, F. s. notatus average 2.7 kg, F. s. libyca average 4 kg) to an average of 4 to 5 kg in males (F. s. silvestris average 5 kg, F. s. notatus average 4 kg, F. s. libyca average 5 kg), although the weight of individual cats varies substantially throughout the year. Domestic cats are similar in size, but can become much heavier as a result of over-feeding. Body length is usually 500 to 750 mm and tail length ranges between 210 and 350 mm.

Wildcats are generally grey-brown with bushy tails and a well-defined pattern of black stripes over their entire body. Their fur is short and soft. Their coloration is similar to that of a tabby domestic cat and makes them difficult to see in their forested habitats. European wild cats (F. s. silvestris) have thick, winter fur, which sometimes makes them look larger than other wild cats. Asiatic wild cats (F. s. notatus) tend to have a background fur color that is more reddish or yellow, with an overlying pattern of dark spots that sometimes converges into stripes. African wild cats (F. s. libyca) are difficult to distinguish from domestic cats. Their fur is lighter and less dense than European wild cats, and their tails are thin and tapering. African wild cats (F. s. libyca) span a large geographic range, though, and coat coloration and density varies with latitude, ranging from sandy yellow to gray and brown, with darker stripes and spots. They have a characteristic reddish tint to the fur on the backs of their ears.

Domestic cats have been selected by humans to display a wide array of body shapes and colors, from hairless forms to long-haired Persians and tail-less Manx cats to very large Maine coon cats. Colors range from black through white, with mixtures of reds, yellows, and browns also occurring.

Wildcats have five toes on each of their forepaws, but only four toes on each back paw. Cats have claws that can be drawn back into sheaths when not in use, keeping them quite sharp. Cat teeth are highly specialized for carnivory. Canines are excellent for stabbing and holding prey as the upper ones point almost straight down and the lower ones are curved. Molars are specialized for cutting. Since wildcats lack any teeth for crushing, they eat their food by slicing it. The tongue is covered with tiny, curved projections called papillae. These are used for grooming and licking meat off bones. Although cats have whiskers, they lack eyelashes. They have a full inner eyelid, or nictitating membrane, which protects the eye from damage and drying. (IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996a; IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996b; IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996c; Nowak, 1997)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • Range mass
    3.5 to 5 kg
    7.71 to 11.01 lb


When a female wild cat goes into estrous, local males congregate near the female and compete for access to her. Males screech, yowl, display, and fight. Females will mate with multiple males and multiple paternity in single litters is possible.

Breeding in wild cats occurs at different times of the year, depending on local climate. In European wild cats (F. s. silvestris) breeding occurs in late winter (January to March) and births occur in the spring, usually in May. Breeding has been recorded nearly year round in Asiatic wild cats (F. s. notatus) and, in African wild cats (F. s. libyca) breeding has been recorded from September through March. Females are pregnant for 56 to 68 days and give birth to 1 to 8 young, with an average of 3.4, in a protected burrow, often a space under rocks or in dense vegetation. Females become sexually mature at about 10 to 11 months old, and males from 9 to 22 months old.

Domestic cats may breed much more frequently, as often as 3 times a year, as they are not typically limited by nutrition or climate. Average litter size in domestic cats is 4 to 6. The gestation period averages 65 days. Domestic kittens are weaned at about 8 weeks old and become independent at about 6 months old. Females become sexually mature as early as 6 months old. (IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996a; IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996b; IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996c; Nowak, 1997)

  • Breeding interval
    European wildcats give birth to one litter each year. Sometimes they may give birth to a second litter if the first was lost early in the season.
  • Breeding season
    Births occur usually in May.
  • Range number of offspring
    1 to 8
  • Average number of offspring
  • Average number of offspring
  • Range gestation period
    60 to 70 days
  • Average gestation period
    66 days
  • Range weaning age
    42 to 84 days
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    9.0 to 12.0 months
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    9.0 to 12.0 months

The young are born with eyes closed and are unable to walk. They are nursed and cared for in the den by their mother for 4 to 12 weeks. Their eyes open at 10 days old and they nurse for about 30 days. They remain with their mother, learning hunting and survival skills for from 4 to 10 months, usually around 5 months. After that they are driven from their mother's range and must become independent. Males do not help to care for kittens. (IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996a; IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996b; IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996c; Nowak, 1997)


European wildcats live up to 15 years in the wild, though most die before the end of their first year. Domestic cats may live for longer in captivity: 30 years or longer in unusual cases. (IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996a; IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996c; Nowak, 1997)


Wild cats and their domestic counterparts are usually active at night or at dusk and dawn, although they are also active during the day, particularly in areas with little human disturbance. Asiatic wild cats in particular are often active during the day. Wild cats often travel widely at night in search prey. One European wild cat was recorded traveling 10km in a night.

Wild cats are primarily solitary animals, their domestic counterparts are more social and can occur in small family groups. Feral domestic cats are also usually solitary, but may form small colonies in areas where food sources are clustered, such as garbage dumps. In unrestrained domestic cat populations, female cats typically stay in their area of birth while males leave their area of birth and attempt to establish a home range elsewhere. In areas with concentrations of free-ranging domestic cats a sort of hierarchy is formed. Newcomers must go through a series of fights with resident animals before their position in the hierarchy is established. (IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996a; IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996b; IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996c; Nowak, 1997)

Home Range

Male wild cats have home ranges that overlap with the ranges of several females. A male African wild cat was recorded with a home range of 4.3 square kilometers.

The home ranges of domestic cats varies widely with the concentration of resources and the density of restrained versus feral cats. (IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996c)

Communication and Perception

Wild cat males mark territories by spraying strong urine on objects throughout their home ranges. Females also communicate when they are ready to breed with scents that they emit which are highly attractive to males. Cats have scent glands on their foreheads, around their mouths, and near the bases of their tails. A cat rubs these glands against objects to mark them with its scent.

Wild cats communicate with visual cues, such as raising the hair on their backs, moving their tails, and facial expressions. They also have a variety of sounds that communicate different intents, including aggressive hisses and yowls, affectionate purring, and a 'be quiet' squeak used to silence kittens.

Wild cats have a well developed sense of smell and hearing. The ears of a cat can rotate rapidly to identify the source of a particular sound and are able to respond to frequencies up to 25,000 vibrations per second. Because of this ability, cats can hear even ultrasonic noises made by small rodents. This sometimes allows them to locate and capture prey without seeing it. Their sight is good but probably not better than that of humans. The range of colors seen by cats is smaller than the human range. The eyes of cats are located on the front of the head. Although this allows them to have excellent depth perception, a useful tool in hunting, cats cannot see directly under their noses. They also have the ability to see even tiny movements, helping them to locate prey. Their eyes are adapted for vision in dim light for hunting just after dusk or before dawn.

Another notable mode of sensation in cats are whiskers, or vibrissae. Whiskers are special hairs that are used as highly sensitive touch organs. A cat uses its whiskers to determine if their bodies can fit through small openings such as small pipes, and other various objects. They also use them to detect the movement of prey.

Food Habits

As with most small cat species, the diet of wild cats, or domestic cats, is mainly made up of small rodents, such as mice and rats. Rabbits may be preferred prey in some areas and seem to be the dominant prey for European wild cats (F. s. silvestris). Other prey items include birds, young ungulates, reptiles, amphibians, eggs, and large insects and arachnids. European wild cats (F. s. silvestris) have been recorded scavenging carrion, but this is reported to be rare in African and Asiatic wild cats (F. s. libyca and F. s. notatus). Food caching has been reported in European wild cats (F. s. silvestris). Rodents preyed on by Asiatic wild cats (F. s. notatus) include jerboas, gerbils, voles, and mice. Occasionally, cats eat grass in order to clear their stomach of indigestible food, like bones, fur, and feathers. Wild cats are able to subdue prey almost as large as themselves and tend to avoid prey that is spiny, has shells, or has an offensive odor. Female wild cats may teach their young how to capture prey by bringing them injured animals on which to practice. (IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996a; IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996b; IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996c; Nowak, 1997)

  • Primary Diet
  • carnivore
    • eats terrestrial vertebrates
  • Animal Foods
  • birds
  • mammals
  • reptiles
  • carrion
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods


Most wild cats are preyed upon as young cats by larger predators, such as foxes, wolves, other cats, and large birds of prey, such as owls and hawks.

Wild cats are fierce when threatened and can protect themselves from animals larger than themselves. They are also secretive and agile. (IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996a; IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996b; IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996c; Nowak, 1997)

Ecosystem Roles

European wildcats play an important role in controlling populations of rodents and other small mammals. Indeed, it is this characteristic that probably led to the domestication of European wildcats. Domestic cats are still primarily kept worldwide to control rodent populations in urban and agricultural areas.

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Domestic cats are highly valued as pets and as working animals throughout the world. They help to control rodent populations and have been used as animal subjects in behavioral and physiological research.

Wild cats are important members of natural ecosystems. They are instrumental in controlling populations of small mammals throughout their range. (IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996a; IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996b; IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996c; Nowak, 1997)

  • Positive Impacts
  • pet trade
  • controls pest population

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Domestic cats carry a number of diseases that may be transmitted to humans, including rabies, cat-scratch fever, and several parasitic infections. Domestic cats are also responsible for population declines and extinctions of many species of birds and mammals, particularly those restricted to islands. Efforts to control populations of domestic cats that have been introduced to islands cost many thousands of dollars to those governments, and cost us all valuable parts of global biodiversity.

Wild cats generally have little or no negative impact on humans. (Nowak, 1997)

  • Negative Impacts
  • injures humans
    • carries human disease

Conservation Status

African and Asiatic wild cats remain fairly common throughout their range, although habitat destruction continues to result in a loss of suitable habitats.

European wildcats are critically endangered in their native range. They were largely exterminated from western and central Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries because they were considered a danger to game and domestic animals. They continue to be threatened by habitat loss, but populations are making a recovery in many parts of their former range. Other threats to European wildcats include population isolation, deaths from being hit by automobiles, and vulnerability to diseases transmitted by domestic cats. They are currently protected throughout Europe and several re-introduction efforts are underway.

The main threat to all wild cat populations, especially those of European wildcats, is continuing hybridization (inter-breeding) with domestic forms. Hybridization results in decreased genetic purity of the wild forms. Some researchers suggest that genetically pure European wild cats are extinct as a result of extensive hybridization.

Domestic cats are not threatened. Instead population control mechanisms are needed in most areas. (IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996a; IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996b; IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996c; Nowak, 1997)

Other Comments

African wild cats (F. silvestris libyca) were present in towns in the middle east at least 7,000 years ago. They were domesticated in Egypt about 4,000 years ago and began to be introduced outside of that area about 2,000 years ago. Domestic cats were probably attracted to the high rodent populations near human settlements and were welcomed as a way of controlling rodent populations. However, true domestication may have had a religious basis. An Egyptian cult centered in the ancient city of Bubastis worshiped cats. Followers of the goddess Bast, the goddess of pleasure, created sanctuaries with bronze statues of cats and mummified hundreds of thousands of cats. It is estimated that there are more than 30 breeds of domestic cat currently. (Nowak, 1997)


Tanya Dewey (author), Animal Diversity Web.



Living in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and associated islands.

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living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.

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living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

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living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

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living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

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uses sound to communicate


living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.


young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


an animal that mainly eats meat


flesh of dead animals.


Found in coastal areas between 30 and 40 degrees latitude, in areas with a Mediterranean climate. Vegetation is dominated by stands of dense, spiny shrubs with tough (hard or waxy) evergreen leaves. May be maintained by periodic fire. In South America it includes the scrub ecotone between forest and paramo.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


having a worldwide distribution. Found on all continents (except maybe Antarctica) and in all biogeographic provinces; or in all the major oceans (Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific.


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


union of egg and spermatozoan


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


referring to animal species that have been transported to and established populations in regions outside of their natural range, usually through human action.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


active during the night

oceanic islands

islands that are not part of continental shelf areas, they are not, and have never been, connected to a continental land mass, most typically these are volcanic islands.


found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.

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pet trade

the business of buying and selling animals for people to keep in their homes as pets.


having more than one female as a mate at one time

scent marks

communicates by producing scents from special gland(s) and placing them on a surface whether others can smell or taste them

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


remains in the same area


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


lives alone

stores or caches food

places a food item in a special place to be eaten later. Also called "hoarding"


living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.


A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.


living in cities and large towns, landscapes dominated by human structures and activity.


uses sight to communicate


reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.


IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996. "African wildcat, Felis silvestris, lybica group" (On-line). IUCN Cat Specialist Group; Species Accounts. Accessed March 12, 2004 at http://lynx.uio.no/catfolk/sp-accts.htm.

IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996. "Asiatic wildcat, Felis silvestris, ornata group" (On-line). IUCN Cat Specialist Group; Species Accounts. Accessed March 12, 2004 at http://lynx.uio.no/catfolk/sp-accts.htm.

IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 1996. "European wildcat, Felis silvestris, silvestris group" (On-line). IUCN Cat Specialist Group; Species Accounts. Accessed March 12, 2004 at http://lynx.uio.no/catfolk/sp-accts.htm.

Nowak, R. 1997. Walker's Mammals of the World. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. Accessed March 12, 2004 at http://www.press.jhu.edu/books/walkers_mammals_of_the_world/carnivora/carnivora.felidae.felis.html.