Cat Characteristics




The proper family name for cats is "Felidae."   Under this family heading are three genera called Panthera, Acinonyx, and Felis.  Cheetahs are the only members of the Acinonyx group.  The Felis group includes all the smaller cats from the puma to the common domestic cat.   These cats can purr and scream, but cannot roar. The remaining cats all belong to the Panthera genus.   These include  the leopard, lion, tiger, and the jaguar. These have the ability to roar.  Roaring is made possible by the vibration of thickened vocal folds just below the vocal in the larynx.  The smaller cats have less developed vocal folds.


Cats are built along very similar lines.  The skeletons of cats are uniform (although size varies and there are other minor variations).  The feline skeleton delivers speed to run down prey and strength to subdue it.  Most cats species tend to be very fast and very strong for short bursts, but lack endurance in either.  They cannot run down prey over long distances as can the dog family nor can they spend hours excavating as do bears.  Cats have slender, long, and relatively light legs.  This is an adaptation for speed.  It also allows them to cover more ground.  The feline spine shows differences amongst different cats.  Smaller cats have longer, flexible spines which help them in their stride length in running  and also increases their ability  to climb.  The cheetah resembles the smaller cats in that they have a longer spine which gives them more speed.  The larger cats have a more short and stiffening of the spine.  The lion's massively robust spine provides powerful leverage for wrestling large prey (buffalo) to the ground.  The leopard has a spine that has retained some flexibility due to its climbing and moving about in trees.

There are differences between the skulls of large cats and those of the small cats.   Larger cats have relatively longer muzzles, smaller eye sockets, smaller braincases, and a well-developed sagittal crest.  The lower jaw enhances the action of the temporalis muscle which closes the jaw.  This increases the force of the killing bite.  As the cat size gets larger, the relative space on the brain-case for anchoring this muscle declines.  Larger cats have smaller brains than small cats.  This means as the jaw increases in size to cope with larger prey, the brain remains relatively small.  To provide space for muscle attachments, large cats have evolved a great flange of bone on top of the skull called the sagittal crest.  Despite the greater size, the cheetah's skull resembles that of the small cats.  This is the result of its capability of reaching great speeds.  It also has the smallest canines of all the large cats.  This creates space for enlarged nasal passages that allow the cheetah to inhale great gulps of air through the nose while maintaining a suffocating throat-hold on its prey.  The cheetah's small skull and jaws work well to bring down medium-sized prey but do not have the structure or strength to overcome larger species.  The leopard's solidly built skull helps it to hold and kill prey over four times the size of the top weight manageable by the cheetah. 

    The conical shape of the teeth in modern cats reinforces them against the risk of breakage during the deep, forceful kill bite.  Most cats kill large prey by a suffocating bite at the throat or sometimes they kill by biting the skull or into the nape of the neck which dislocates the cervical vertebrae and pierces the spinal cord.  The clouded leopards of Asia have proportionately the longest canines of any felid.  It may represent the emergence of saber-toothed form among modern cats.  This species is so little known, that it is yet to be discovered how it kills.

The big cats have strong digestions capable of dealing with chunks of meat swallowed more or less whole.   They  have simple digestion systems because animal tissue is rich and needs less extensive digestion then other foods such as vegetable tissue.  They also appear to be unable to tolerate low levels of protein in their diet.  They cannot move their lower jaws from side to side but they have powerful masseter muscle that allows the lower jaw to move up and down.   They also have a rough tongue thickly coated with little horny projections (called papilla).  This has given them the ability to lick flesh off a carcass.  That is why a zebra carcass can be polished off (and all the bones licked clean)  in about half an hour.  In fact, a few swipes from a lion's tongue could  take  the skin right off  the back of a human's hand.  Originally, the function of these projections were  as taste buds.  Another  function of these projections is  when a cat drinks.  All the cat has to do is lower its tongue into the water and then lift it into the mouth again.  Each papilla acts like a tiny cup and together they hold a surprising amount of liquid. Each genus within the cat family has a different arrangement of these projections of the tongue.

Senses: Eyes/Whiskers/Vision/Hearing/Smell

 No  family of animals is more easily recognizable then the Felidae.   It has a short,  rounded skull  and the cat can turn its head in all directions.  The face is shortened as a consequence to their reduced tooth count (which make them truly meat eating predators!).  Most cats hunt primarily at night or dawn or dusk, but they will also hunt during the day depending upon the activity of their prey.  Consequently, a cat's eyes must be very sensitive to low light levels and yet must also enable it to hunt during daytime brightness.  Cats have solved this difficult problem through a number of adaptations.  The eyes of cats consist primarily of rods which function in low light levels and do not detect rods.  They have a sophisticated muscular mechanism for controlling pupils.  This is seen mostly in the smaller species of cats and they are able to reduce their pupils to a vertical slit.  This protects against intense light during the day.  Large cats can do this too, but it's less developed due to their round- the- clock habits.  Their pupils are more oval shaped.  Another night vision adaptation cats feature is a layered structure at the back of the eye, behind the retina, called the tapetum lucidum.  This redirects unabsorbed light into the retina for a second chance at imaging.  This is the eerie eye shine that occurs when a light is shone into the eyes of a cat a night.  Cats have as many as 15 layers of mirrored cells stacked in their tapetum reflecting up to 130 times as much light as that bounced around inside the human eye.  There is also a very interesting adaptation that the cat has acquired which is the reason why they can see very well in the dark.  Cats cannot synthesize their own vitamin A nor can they access the main source of beta-carotene, plants.  These two fundamental building blocks are what is needed to give  cats a light sensitive pigment (rhodopsin) for night vision.   Ironically, their prey provides it for them.  Herbivores are able to process the compounds and store them in the liver, lungs, and fat.  When cats stalk and strike at prey, they must also be able to gauge distance accurately.  This is especially true of the more arboreal cats, who must often have to jump from branch to branch with extreme precision.  Consequently, evolution has given cats the most highly developed binocular vision of all carnivores, resulting in extremely accurate three dimensional-vision (second only to the primates).  

  Cats have whiskers that perform a "touch sense" that is extremely important to cats in varying ways.  They have whiskers on the cheeks, above the eyes, and on the muzzle.   They even have some on their wrists that help them place their feet without looking down. The muzzle whiskers are particularly well developed on cats.  When sniffing, cats retract these whiskers against the side of the face.  When resting, cats extend them laterally and when walking, cats extend them forward. At the time of prey capture, the muzzle whiskers are spread like a circular net in front of the mouth so that the cat can judge exactly where the prey is for a killing bite.  They also have long, tactile hairs (tylotriches) which are scattered thinly over entire body among "ordinary" fur.  All this allows cats to hunt and walk in total darkness.

All cats have superb vision, but some cats rely more on their hearing especially when they hunt.  Small cats are particularly well adapted to hearing high pitched sounds up to 2 octaves higher then the upper limit detectable to humans.  Some small cats have large ears because some prey not only have high pitched sounds, but these are also extremely soft.      

 Cats use their sense of smell as a very important method for communication and social life.  It is the least sense used in hunting.  They use their  senses of vision and hearing the most to help with  their hunting.  They employ their sense of smell amongst themselves to both identify and to mark territory.  It is thirty times finer then humans.  However, their sense of smell is not as highly developed  as it is in most other carnivores (ex: Canids).


A cat's body is long and supple.  Its bones gets their strength from the density of their material.  Along with these moderate-sized but strong bones goes a set of equally strong muscles and sinews on which the bones are rather loosely strung together.  It is this loose structure that gives a cat its surpassing grace and beautiful movement.  Except for the lynxes,  cats are usually long-tailed animals.    The hind legs tend to be well developed  for springing and pouncing.  The vertebral column of the cat must support the body while allowing flexibility of movement. The skin hangs very loosely giving protection in fights. The fur varies even within a single species.  Markings throughout the family are really strikingly similar consisting of stripes, blotches, and spots with bands or bars round the tail which often has a black tip. The ground color is usually a shade of  light brown,  tawny,  or golden yellow though some kinds have gray color phases. Some like the Jaguar or the Ocelot have spots in the form of rosettes  (irregular dark circles with light centers) which are very beautiful.  Others like the cheetah have dark solid spots.  The lion, puma, etc seem to be unmarked but are spotted when they are cubs.  It has been said that all cats were originally striped (probably along the back) or spotted and that the single color is perhaps an adaptation to a life in the open......


Big cats walk on their toes and have large pads.  These soft pads make for quiet and easy movement.  They have five toes on their forepaws and four on their hind paws. Claws often split and cats pull the old sheath off  by scratching down trees or even hard-packed soil which allows a new one to grow.   Cats have retractile claws and it has even been discovered that cheetahs have them too.  They just have claws that stick out further even when retracted. Cats are mainly animals of warmer temperate and tropical zones. Although true, the Snow Leopard  is adapted to live at higher altitudes and colder climates.  The Siberian tiger is very adapted in living in a colder environment. This proves to us  that  the felidae is  very hardy and capable of evolving to fit their environmental needs!  

Most cats are solitary and live and hunt alone.  Again,  there are exceptions like the lions and a group of male cheetahs that band together for life to make hunting and surviving more easier.   I have even seen films of cheetahs which show a mother and her babies and an unrelated full grown female band together!  There have also been pictures of  a male tiger with a female's cub climbing over (while she is nearby) or they are sharing a waterhole  together (all are laying in the water next to each other). Just like there are exceptions for us humans,  there are exceptions for the cat family as well....   

  The modern natural distribution of the cat family covers almost all the land masses of Europe,  Asia,  Africa,  and both Americas.



Lumpkin, Susan and Seidensticker, John. 1991. Great Cats Majestic Creatures of the Wild. Rodale Press, Pa. Pgs 26 and 27.
Denis, Armand. 1964. Cats of The World. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston. Pgs 9 through 15.  

Brakefield, Tom. 1993. Kingdom of Might. Voyageur Press Inc, MN.  Pgs 18-20.

Hunter, Luke. 2005. Cats of Africa. John Hopkins University Press, MD. Pgs 46, 47, 50 &51.