Felis catusdomestic cat

Geographic Range

Felis catus can be found on every continent except Antarctica, generally in human populated areas. This species can be found on a large number islands as well. Their nearly global distribution can be attributed their domestication by humans; however, there is a large global feral population as well. (Wilkins, 2007)


Domestic cats primarily live in areas of human habitation and are somewhat constrained to developed areas. Most feral populations live in close proximity to current or past human settlements.

Physical Description

Felis catus most likely originated from African wild cats or Asian desert cats. Although both species have the same number of chromosomes as Felis catus, Asian desert cats are common around human settlements and are easily tamed. There are over 100 breeds of domestic cats but all have a very similar body shape and size. Adult mass ranges from 4.1 to 5.4 kg, and average length is 76.2 cm. Interbreed variation is defined based on coat type and coloration or patterning of the fur. Domestic cat have approximately 244 bones in their body, of which about 30 are vertebrae (the number can vary depending upon the length of cat). With so many vertebrae in their spine, cats are very flexible and can rotate half of their spine 180°. They are capable of jumping five times their own height and are able to slip through narrow spaces because they have no collar bone and their scapulae lie medially on their body. Each forelimb (i.e., manus) has five digits and the hindlimbs (i.e., pes) have four. Polydactyly is not uncommon among house cats. They have retractable claws on each paw, which typically do not extend when the animal walks. They have 26 teeth that usually develop within the first year. The dental formula for this species is 3/3, 1/1, 2/2, 1/1. When kittens are about two weeks old they develop deciduous or milk teeth above the gums. By the end of the fourth month the milk incisors are replaced by permanent teeth. (Davison, 1947; Edwards, 2009; Wilkins, 2007)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • Range mass
    4.1 to 5.4 kg
    9.03 to 11.89 lb
  • Average length
    76.2 cm
    30.00 in


House cats are polygynandrous, as both males and females have multiple mates throughout the year. (Wilkins, 2007)

Unless pregnant, female house cats go into estrus approximately every 21 days during breeding season, which occurs from March to September in the northern hemisphere and from October to March in the southern hemisphere. Male house cats patrol territories in search of estrus females during mating season. Estrus females call loudly to potential mates, while continually rolling on the ground. When a potential mate arrives, females present their rumps, which lets the male know they are in estrus. When a pair meets, they may mate many times over a few hours before parting ways. Females have induced ovulation which is stimulated by copulation. Gestation ranges from 60 to 67 days. Average litter size has not been documented for this species; however, as many as 18 kittens in a single litter has been reported. Neonate mass ranges from 110 to 125 g. Most kittens are weaned by 7 to 8 weeks after birth and are completely independent by 12 weeks. Females are reproductively mature by 6 months, and males are reproductively mature by 8 months. (Morris, 1987; Wilkins, 2007)

  • Breeding interval
    Females go into oestrus approximately every 21 days during the breeding season unless mated.
  • Breeding season
    March to September in the northern hemisphere or October to March in the southern hemisphere.
  • Range number of offspring
    18 (high)
  • Range gestation period
    60 to 67 days
  • Range weaning age
    7 to 8 weeks
  • Average time to independence
    12 weeks
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    6 months
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    8 months

Domestic cat kittens are cared for by their mothers and paternal care is virtually non-existent. In some cases, unrelated females may aid new mothers by caring for and nursing her kittens while she hunts. This behavior is rare, however, and often mothers are forced to leave their kittens unguarded while hunting. Mothers also purr to their kittens, which is thought to reduce stress levels. Females nurse their kittens until around 8 weeks after birth, when weaning is completed. Prior to independence, kittens learn how to hunt by mimicking their mother. Mothers also take an active role in teaching their young how to hunt by allowing them to hunt only very small animals, such as mice. Kittens are not permitted to hunt larger prey, such as rats, right away. Weaning is usually complete by 7 to 8 weeks; however, kittens do not leave their mother until they are 6 to 8 months old, depending on sex. ("Health Topics", 2011; Leyhausen, 1979; Morris, 1987)

  • Parental Investment
  • precocial
  • female parental care
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • extended period of juvenile learning


There is no information available regarding the average lifespan of domestic cats in the wild. Captive individuals are expected to live for approximately 14 years.

  • Average lifespan
    Status: captivity
    14 years


Territorial boundaries are demarcated by adult cats via rubbing or marking with urine. Scent is produced by glands near the ears, neck, and back of the head, and is released by rubbing against an object. When a cat scratches something with its claws to sharpen them, scent is released via pedal glands. Sharpening claws on an object or rubbing against it are forms of gentle marking, whereas spraying is used to establish territorial boundaries. Males tend to make territories more often than females. (Alderton, 2002)

House cats sometimes mimic nursing by chewing or sucking on fabrics or other household items. This is considered a comfort-seeking behavior common in kittens but is rare in adults unless they are removed from their mother too early to be weaned. Adult sucking or chewing is found most commonly in Siamese or Burmese breeds and usually continues throughout the animal's life. This type of behavior has been likened to obsessive compulsive disorder in humans caused, in part, by a genetic predisposition. House cats with little access or exposure to plants often chew on plants inside the house, which may be a sign that the cat is craving plant matter or that their diet is fiber deficient. (Childs, 2007; "Health Topics", 2011)

Certain behaviors can be a nuisance to humans if not stopped early on. Kitten behavior can often be aggressive as kittens are still learning behavioral patterns from their peers or family. If a kitten is raised in the absence of family or play mates the play aggression has a much higher chance of becoming more severe and permanent. Unprovoked aggression towards humans may be the result of other stimuli, such as seeing a bird or animal outside and the behavior is then redirected toward a person. Males often show more aggression toward each other than toward females. ("Health Topics", 2011)

Home Range

The home range of domestic cats varies greatly, depending on individual habitat. For example, male farm cats tend to have 150 acres of territory and female farm cats 15 acres. In urban areas territories are significantly decreased and often overlap. Males tend to have territories that overlap those of several females, which increases their number of potential matings. (Morris, 1987)

Communication and Perception

Body language and vocalizations are ways in which domestic cats communicate with conspecifics. Relaxed individuals often have their ears forward and whiskers relaxed. Adults display contentedness via purring. Kittens also purr and knead or prod when content and suckling their mother. Domestic cats also "meow", which changes meaning in relation to posture. If a cat is upset it will likely growl, hiss, or even spit at another cat or animal. In general , cats have advanced auditory perception. Their ears can rotate 180° to either face frontward or be flattened back or any direction in between. With three inner ear canals in each of the three dimensional planes, domestic cats have a great sense of balance. Their ears are sensitive enough to hear ten octaves, which is two more than a human can hear. Domestic cats can hear a broad range of frequencies, from 50 to 65 kilohertz, versus humans which can only hear sounds between 18 and 20 kilohertz. They have vibrissae on the muzzle, eyebrows, and elbows which function as haptic receptors. These touch receptors allow house cats to navigate their way around obstacles in low light conditions by sensing changes in air flow around an object as it approaches it. (Morris, 1987; Wilkins, 2007)

Peripheral vision in domestic cats is very good but their eyes are also farsighted (an adaptation for hunting), which doesn't allow them to focus on objects within 2 feet. A reflective membrane in the back of the eye, called the tapetum lucidum, reflects light from behind the eye's retina and intensifies it. Species possessing tapetum lucidum are able to see exceptionally well in low light. Cats cannot see most colors, although some researchers believe that they may be able to see red and blue. The third eyelid, or haw, is a semi-transparent protective lid which typically retracts into the inner corner of the eye. (Wilkins, 2007)

With about 200 million olfactory cells, the nose of domestic cats is about thirty times more sensitive than that of humans. Jacobson's organ (i.e., the vomeronasal organ) is located immediately dorsal to the hard palate and is particularly exposed to scent molecules when an individual inhales via the mouth. (Wilkins, 2007)

A domestic cat's tongue is covered in hundreds of papillae; hook-like structures, which face backwards and are used to comb and clean the fur. Domestic cats sometimes socially groom, but typically grooming is a singular task unless the cat is the individual's mother. Taste buds are located on the sides, tip, and back of the tongue and allow domestic cats to perceive bitter, acidic and salty flavors but not sweet. (Wilkins, 2007)

Food Habits

Domestic cats are carnivorous and a healthy diet consists of about 30 to 35% muscle meat, 30% carbohydrates, and 8 to 10% fats, which promote growth and healthy skin and coat. Feral cats may hunt for rodents or birds. Some domestic cats depend on human supplied feed. Adult females require around 200 to 300 calories per day, whereas adult males need between 250 and 300 calories per day. In order to kill their prey, all felids bite the back of the neck at the base of the skull, thus, severing the spinal chord from the brain stem. Primary prey for feral animals includes small rodents, birds, fish, and some arthropods. Occasionally, domestic cats ingest plant material to fulfill fiber deficiencies. (Edwards, 2009; Wilkins, 2007)

  • Primary Diet
  • carnivore
    • eats terrestrial vertebrates
  • Animal Foods
  • birds
  • mammals
  • fish
  • insects
  • Plant Foods
  • leaves


Domestic cats are occasionally preyed on by wild predators, such as coyotes, foxes, mountain lions, alligators, and many other terrestrial predators, such as large snakes, crocodiles, other cat species, and other canids.

Ecosystem Roles

Domestic cats are great pest control agents for rodents in and around areas of human habitation. Cats can become infected with hookworm (Ancylostoma and Uncinaria) larvae either from ingested food or from penetration through the skin. Once infection occurs, hookworms travel to the lungs and then to the intestines where they develop into adults and attach to the intestinal walls. Hookworm infestation can cause anemia and if left untreated can result in blood in the feces and eventually death. Roundworms (Toxascaris leonina and Toxocara cati), the most common parasites among house cats, may infect cats when they eat rodents. Approximately 25 to 75% of the global cat population is estimated to be infected with roundworms. Roundworms also live and develop in the intestine where females produce eggs that are excreted with feces. Infection can result in intestinal blockage and death. Sometimes, larvae from domestic cats can be passed onto humans causing visceral larval migrans and ocular larval migrans. Cats can become infected with tapeworms during grooming by ingesting larvae or eggs or by eating infected rodents. Controlling infection is highly successful with the aid of medications from veterinarians. Tapeworms rarely cause significant illness or death in domestic cats. ("Health Topics", 2011)

Mutualist Species
Commensal/Parasitic Species
  • fleas (Siphonaptera)
  • ticks (Ixodida)
  • ringworm (Dermatophytosis)
  • mites (Acari)
  • lice (Pthiraptera)
  • fly larvae (Diptera)
  • roundworms (Nematoda)
  • tapeworms (Cestoda)
  • hookworms (Ancylostomatidae)
  • coccidians (Coccidia)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Aside from the benefit that humans receive from domestic cats as pets, domestic cats are used as model organisms for various biomedical research efforts and have been used as rodent pest control agents for thousands of years. It is likely that cats were first domesticated due to their usefulness as pest control agents. There has been a great deal of effort put into mapping the genome of domestic cats. (Morris, 1987; Wilkins, 2007)

  • Positive Impacts
  • pet trade
  • research and education
  • controls pest population

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Domestic cats are abundant and overpopulation has become a significant economic burden in some locations. Feral cats can be a nuisance, and have decreased the abundance and diversity of bird communities at various locations across the globe. Feral cats have also been known to spread parasites and disease to domesticated individuals. Cats can also transmit parasites and disease to humans. For example, domestic cats can pass tapeworms, hookworms and possibly roundworms to humans. (Morris, 1987; Wilkins, 2007)

Conservation Status

Domestic cats are abundant and overpopulation is a major issue throughout various parts of their global distribution. Large population numbers and their natural predatory instincts has lead to the decline of numerous species of small vertebrates, including many species of bird


Nicolle Birch Anna Toenjes (author), Augsburg College, Kevin Potts (editor), Augsburg College, John Berini (editor), Animal Diversity Web Staff.



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.

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

causes or carries domestic animal disease

either directly causes, or indirectly transmits, a disease to a domestic animal


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.

dominance hierarchies

ranking system or pecking order among members of a long-term social group, where dominance status affects access to resources or mates


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.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females


a distribution that more or less circles the Arctic, so occurring in both the Nearctic and Palearctic biogeographic regions.

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Found in northern North America and northern Europe or Asia.

induced ovulation

ovulation is stimulated by the act of copulation (does not occur spontaneously)


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).


imitates a communication signal or appearance of another kind of organism


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.


chemicals released into air or water that are detected by and responded to by other animals of the same species


the kind of polygamy in which a female pairs with several males, each of which also pairs with several different females.


"many forms." A species is polymorphic if its individuals can be divided into two or more easily recognized groups, based on structure, color, or other similar characteristics. The term only applies when the distinct groups can be found in the same area; graded or clinal variation throughout the range of a species (e.g. a north-to-south decrease in size) is not polymorphism. Polymorphic characteristics may be inherited because the differences have a genetic basis, or they may be the result of environmental influences. We do not consider sexual differences (i.e. sexual dimorphism), seasonal changes (e.g. change in fur color), or age-related changes to be polymorphic. Polymorphism in a local population can be an adaptation to prevent density-dependent predation, where predators preferentially prey on the most common morph.

scent marks

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


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


lives alone


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.


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement


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


movements of a hard surface that are produced by animals as signals to others


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.

year-round breeding

breeding takes place throughout the year

young precocial

young are relatively well-developed when born


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Leyhausen, P. 1979. Cat Behavior The Predatory and Social Behavior of Domestic and Wild Cats. New York, New York: Garland STPM Press.

Morris, D. 1987. Cat Watching: Why cats purr and everything else you ever wanted to know.. New York, NY: Crown Publishers, Inc..

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