Ten things you might not have known about cats:
There is no such thing as a ‘panther’. Lions, tigers, jaguars, snow leopards and leopards – the five ‘big cats’ – are all members of the genus Panthera, and what we call a ‘panther’ is actually one of those five species who happens, due to a relatively rare mutation, to be pure black in colour. Most panthers are black leopards or jaguars, and if you look very closely at their coats it’s usually possible to make out very faint markings that indicate their actual providence.
There is a clear distinction between ‘big cats’ and ‘small cats’, and it’s not all about size – something is called a big cat if it can roar, and a small cat if it can purr both while breathing out and while breathing in. The difference is thought to be caused by a particular bone in the throats of big cats, which allows roaring but prevents purring.
The nose pad of any cat – regardless of species – is ridged in a way that is entirely unique to the specific cat. Nobody is at all sure why cat’s noses have evolved in this way, but it seems to be consistent over the entire Felidae family.
It’s often said that cats are nocturnal, but actually only a few species are – most cats are what is called ‘crepuscular’, meaning that they are most active in the hours of dawn and dusk. There are no species of cats that are strictly diurnal, however, and almost all species of cat are incredibly secretive and elusive.
Unlike many mammals, cats don’t have sweat glands in many places – they sweat through the pads of their paws. This is why they ‘knead’ at humans or bedding; they’re scent marking the object in question as being a part of their territory. Other ways cats scent mark include rubbing their chins against things and spraying them with their bodily fluids. Some species use their faeces to mark out the bounds of their territories and alert other cats to their presence.
Cats only ‘speak’ to humans – with other cats they use signals we can’t easily hear or interpret. Scientists have discovered that this is because the domestic cat’s natural ‘voice’ is outside of the human hearing range, and suspect that they have learned this ad adapt their communication to something that we can be made aware of. Your cats are potentially speaking to each other all the time, but it is impossible for you to hear them.
While it’s undoubtedly true that the ancient Egyptians revered, loved and kept cats, the popular conception that it was they who first domesticated them is untrue. The domestication of felines actually stretches back much further than that – all the way into prehistory. Human beings have been keeping cats for a lot longer than they’ve been keeping records.
Tigers are the largest cats (with one semi-exception that I shall cover later), with adult males often reaching lengths of 11ft and weights of nearly 700lbs. In stark contrast, one the smallest are the black-footed cats, who are just 17 in long when fully grown and almost never reach weights of more than about 5 lb. Astonishingly, these two species of cat have been observed interacting (albeit warily) and are thought to share habitat in some places.
Some cat species are closely related enough that they can be interbred, though this generally speaking only occurs in captivity. Amongst small cats servicals, marlots, blynxes, Eurochauses, ‘jungle lynxes’, and any number of wildcat/domestic cat crossbreeds have all been successfully documented. Pretty much every possible combination between the big cats has been tried, too – giving us ligers, liguars, lipards, liligers, litigons, tigons, tiguars, tigards, taligers, titigons, jaglions, jaggers, jagupards, leopons, doglas, and leguars. Ligers inherit the tiger’s tendency to grow very large and run with it – making them by far the largest cats in the world.
Training, taming and domestication are all different things, and it is not possible – not without hundreds of years worth of selective breeding – to create a ‘domesticated’ wild animal. Most cats can eventually be trained, however, and some can even be tamed – most notably the cheetah, who makes a very good pet for the right kind of owner. They become affectionate, docile and lacking of much hunting instinct with the right handling. Other species have varying levels of tameability; plenty of people keep servals as housepets, but caracals are harder to handle. Lions are both tameable and trainable by the right person, but tigers are far more difficult to deal with and taming a jaguar seems to be entirely impossible.