The domestic cat is a small, usually furry, domesticated, and carnivorous mammal. They are often called housecats when kept as an indoor pet or simply cats when there is no need to distinguish them from other felids and felines. Cats are often valued by humans for companionship and their ability to hunt pests. Cats are similar in anatomy to the other felids, with strong, flexible bodies, quick reflexes, sharp retractable claws, and teeth adapted to killing small prey. Cat senses fit a crepuscular and predatory ecological niche. Cats can hear sounds too faint or too high in frequency for human ears, such as those made by mice and other small animals. They can see in near darkness. Like most other mammals, cats have poorer color vision and a better sense of smell than humans. Despite being solitary hunters, cats are a social species and cat communication includes the use of a variety of vocalizations (mewing, purring, trilling, hissing, growling and grunting), as well as cat pheromones and types of cat-specific body language. Cats have a high breeding rate. Under controlled breeding, they can be bred and shown as registered pedigree pets, a hobby known as cat fancy. Failure to control the breeding of pet cats by neutering and the abandonment of former household pets, has resulted in large numbers of feral cats worldwide, requiring population control. This has led to extinction of many bird species. Since cats were cult animals in ancient Egypt, they were commonly believed to have been domesticated there, but there may have been instances of domestication as early as the Neolithic from around 9,500 years ago “7,500 a genetic study in 2007”, concluded that domestic cats are descended from African wildcats (Felis silvestris lybica), having diverged around 8,000 BC in West Asia. Cats are the most popular pet in the world, and are now found in almost every place where humans live.
The Cat communication is the transfer of information by one or more cats that has an effect on the current or future behavior of another animal, including humans. Cats use a range of communication modalities including vocal, visual, tactile and olfactory. The communication modalities used by domestic cats have been affected by domestication.
Cat vocalizations have been categorized according to a range of characteristics.
- The vocalizations according to 3 mouth actions: (1) sounds produced with the mouth closed (murmurs), including the purr, the trill and the chirrup, (2) sounds produced with the mouth open and gradually closing, comprising a large variety of meows with similar vowel patterns, and (3) sounds produced with the mouth held tensely open in the same position, often uttered in aggressive situations (growls, yowls, snarls, hisses, spits and shrieks).
- The vocal responses of cats according to the behavioral context: (1) during separation of kittens from mother cats, (2) during food deprivation, (3) during pain, (4) prior to or during threat or attack behavior, as in disputes over territory or food, (5) during a painful or acutely stressful experience, as in routine prophylactic injections and (6) during kitten deprivation. Less commonly recorded calls from mature cats included purring, conspecific greeting calls or murmurs, extended vocal dialogues between cats in separate cages, “frustration” calls during training or extinction of conditioned responses.
- The vocalizations into 5 categories according to the sound produced: the purr, chirr, call, meow and growl/snarl/hiss.
Domestic cats are similar in size to the other members of the genus Felis, typically weighing between 4 and 5 kg (8.8 and 11.0 lb.). However, some breeds, such as the Maine Coon, can occasionally exceed 11 kg (25 lb.). Conversely, very small cats (less than 1.8 kg (4.0 lb.) have been reported. The world record for the largest cat is 21.3 kg (47 lb.). The smallest adult cat ever officially recorded weighed around 1.36 kg (3.0 lb.). Feral cats tend to be lighter as they have more limited access to food than house cats. In the Boston area, the average feral adult male will weigh 3.9 kg (8.6 lb.) and average feral female 3.3 kg (7.3 lb.). Cats average about 23–25 cm (9–10 in) in height and 46 cm (18.1 in) in head/body length (males being larger than females), with tails averaging 30 cm (11.8 in) in length.
Cats have seven cervical vertebrae, as do almost all mammals; 13 thoracic vertebrae (humans have 12); seven lumbar vertebrae (humans have five); three sacral vertebrae like most mammals (humans have five); and a variable number of caudal vertebrae in the tail (humans retain three to five caudal vertebrae, fused into an internal coccyx). The extra lumbar and thoracic vertebrae account for the cat’s spinal mobility and flexibility. Attached to the spine are 13 ribs, the shoulder, and the pelvis. Unlike human arms, cat forelimbs are attached to the shoulder by free-floating clavicle bones which allow them to pass their bodies through any space into which they can fit their heads.
The cat skull is unusual among mammals in having very large eye sockets and a powerful and specialized jaw. Within the jaw, cats have teeth adapted for killing prey and tearing meat. When it overpowers its prey, a cat delivers a lethal neck bite with its two long canine teeth, inserting them between two of the prey’s vertebrae and severing its spinal cord, causing irreversible paralysis and death. Compared to other felines, domestic cats have narrowly spaced canine teeth, which is an adaptation to their preferred prey of small rodents, which have small vertebrae. The premolar and first molar together compose the carnassial pair on each side of the mouth, which efficiently shears meat into small pieces, like a pair of scissors. These are vital in feeding, since cats’ small molars cannot chew food effectively.
Cats, like dogs, are digitigrades. They walk directly on their toes, with the bones of their feet making up the lower part of the visible leg. Cats are capable of walking very precisely, because like all felines, they directly register; that is, they place each hind paw (almost) directly in the print of the corresponding fore paw, minimizing noise and visible tracks. This also provides sure footing for their hind paws when they navigate rough terrain. Unlike most mammals, when cats walk, they use a “pacing” gait; that is, they move the two legs on one side of the body before the legs on the other side. This trait is shared with camels and giraffes. As a walk speeds up into a trot, a cat’s gait changes to be a diagonal gait, similar to that of most other mammals (and many other land animals, such as lizards) the diagonally opposite hind and fore legs move simultaneously.
Like almost all members of the Felidae, cats have protractable and retractable claws. In their normal, relaxed position, the claws are sheathed with the skin and fur around the paw’s toe pads. This keeps the claws sharp by preventing wear from contact with the ground and allows the silent stalking of prey. The claws on the fore feet are typically sharper than those on the hind feet. Cats can voluntarily extend their claws on one or more paws. They may extend their claws in hunting or self-defense, climbing, kneading, or for extra traction on soft surfaces. Most cats have five claws on their front paws, and four on their rear paws. The fifth front claw (the dewclaw) is proximal to the other claws. More proximally is a protrusion which appears to be a sixth finger. This special feature of the front paws, on the inside of the wrists, is the carpal pad, also found on the paws of big cats and of dogs. It has no function in normal walking, but is thought to be an anti-skidding device used while jumping. Some breeds of cats are prone to polydactyly (extra toes and claws). These are particularly common along the northeast coast of North America.
Cats have excellent night vision and can see at only one-sixth the light level required for human vision. This is partly the result of cat eyes having a bright tapestry, which reflects any light that passes through the retina back into the eye, thereby increasing the eye’s sensitivity to dim light. Another adaptation to dim light is the large pupils of cats’ eyes. Unlike some big cats, such as tigers, domestic cats have slit pupils. These slit pupils can focus bright light without chromatic aberration, and are needed since the domestic cat’s pupils are much larger, relative to their eyes, than the pupils of the big cats. Indeed, at low light levels a cat’s pupils will expand to cover most of the exposed surface of its eyes. However, domestic cats have rather poor color vision and (like most non-primate mammals) have only two types of cones, optimized for sensitivity to blue and yellowish green, they have limited ability to distinguish between red and green. A 1993 paper reported a response to middle wavelengths from a system other than the rods which might be due to a third type of cone. However, this appears to be an adaptation to low light levels rather than representing true trichromatic vision.
Cats have excellent hearing and can detect an extremely broad range of frequencies. They can hear higher-pitched sounds than either dogs or humans, detecting frequencies from 55 Hz to 79,000 Hz, a range of 10.5 octaves, while humans and dogs both have ranges of about 9 octaves. Cats can hear ultrasound, which is important in hunting because many species of rodents make ultrasonic calls. However, they do not communicate using ultrasound like rodents do. Cats’ hearing is also sensitive and among the best of any mammal, being most acute in the range of 500 Hz to 32 kHz. This sensitivity is further enhanced by the cat’s large movable outer ears (their pinnae), which both amplify sounds and help detect the direction of a noise.
Cats’ whiskers are highly sensitive to touch
Cats have an acute sense of smell, due in part to their well-developed olfactory bulb and a large surface of olfactory mucosa, about 5.8 cm2 (0.90 in2) in area, which is about twice that of humans. Cats are sensitive to pheromones such as 3-mercapto-3-methylbutan-1-ol, which they use to communicate through urine spraying and marking with scent glands. Many cats also respond strongly to plants that contain nepetalactone, especially catnip, as they can detect that substance at less than one part per billion. About 70-80% of cats are affected by nepetalactone. This response is also produced by other plants, such as silver vine (Actinidia polygama) and the herb valerian, it may be caused by the smell of these plants mimicking a pheromone and stimulating cats’ social or sexual behaviors.
Cats have relatively few taste buds compared to humans. Domestic and wild cats share a gene mutation that keeps their sweet taste buds from binding to sugary molecules, leaving them with no ability to taste sweetness. Their taste buds instead respond to amino acids, bitter tastes, and acids. To aid with navigation and sensation, cats have dozens of movable whiskers (vibrissae) over their bodies, especially their faces. These provide information on the width of gaps and on the location of objects in the dark, both by touching objects directly and by sensing air currents, they also trigger protective blink reflexes to protect the eyes from damage.
Cats are familiar and easily kept animals, and their physiology has been particularly well studied; it generally resembles that of other carnivorous mammals, but displays several unusual features probably attributable to cats’ descent from desert-dwelling species. For instance, cats are able to tolerate quite high temperatures: Humans generally start to feel uncomfortable when their skin temperature passes about 38 °C (100 °F), but cats show no discomfort until their skin reaches around 52 °C (126 °F), and can tolerate temperatures of up to 56 °C (133 °F) if they have access to water.
Cats conserve heat by reducing the flow of blood to their skin and lose heat by evaporation through their mouths. Cats have minimal ability to sweat, with glands located primarily in their paw pads, and pant for heat relief only at very high temperatures, but may also pant when stressed. A cat’s body temperature does not vary throughout the day; this is part of cats’ general lack of circadian rhythms and may reflect their tendency to be active both during the day and at night. Cats’ feces are comparatively dry and their urine is highly concentrated, both of which are adaptations to allow cats to retain as much water as possible. Their kidneys are so efficient, they can survive on a diet consisting only of meat, with no additional water, and can even rehydrate by drinking seawater.
Cats are obligate carnivores: their physiology has evolved to efficiently process meat, and they have difficulty digesting plant matter. In contrast to omnivores such as rats, which only require about 4% protein in their diet, about 20% of a cat’s diet must be protein. Cats are unusually dependent on a constant supply of the amino acid arginine, and a diet lacking arginine causes marked weight loss and can be rapidly fatal. Another unusual feature is that the cat cannot produce taurine, with taurine deficiency causing macular degeneration, wherein the cat’s retina slowly degenerates, causing irreversible blindness. Since cats tend to eat all of their prey, they obtain minerals by digesting animal bones, and a diet composed only of meat may cause calcium deficiency.
A cat’s gastrointestinal tract is adapted to meat eating, being much shorter than that of omnivores and having low levels of several of the digestive enzymes needed to digest carbohydrates. These traits severely limit the cat’s ability to digest and use plant-derived nutrients, as well as certain fatty acids. Despite the cat’s meat-oriented physiology, several vegetarian or vegan cat foods have been marketed that are supplemented with chemically synthesized taurine and other nutrients, in attempts to produce a complete diet. However, some of these products still fail to provide all the nutrients cats require, and diets containing no animal products pose the risk of causing severe nutritional deficiencies. Cats do eat grass occasionally, a proposed explanation is that cats use grass as a source of folic acid. Another proposed explanation is that it is used to supply dietary fiber.
The average lifespan of pet cats has risen in recent years. In the early 1980s it was about seven years, rising to 9.4 years in 1995 and 12-15 years in 2014. However, cats have been reported as surviving into their 30s, with the oldest known cat, Creme Puff, dying at a verified age of 38.
Creme Puff (August 3, 1967 – August 6, 2005), who died at age 38 years and 3 days, was the oldest cat ever recorded, according to the 2007 edition of Guinness World Records. Creme Puff lived with her owner, Jake Perry, in Austin, Texas, United States. There have been unproven reports of cats living into their 40s.
Spaying or neutering increases life expectancy: one study found neutered male cats live twice as long as intact males, while spayed female cats live 62% longer than intact females. Non-neutered cats in the U.S. are four times as likely to be hit by a car as a neutered cat, and are three times more likely to require treatment for an animal bite. Having a cat neutered confers health benefits, because castrated males cannot develop testicular cancer, spayed females cannot develop uterine or ovarian cancer, and both have a reduced risk of mammary cancer. Despite widespread concern about the welfare of free-roaming cats, the lifespans of neutered feral cats in managed colonies compare favorably with those of pet cats. Neutered cats in managed colonies can also live long lives.
Cats can suffer from a wide range of health problems, including infectious diseases, parasites, injuries, and chronic disease. Vaccinations are available for many of these diseases, and domestic cats are regularly given treatments to eliminate parasites such as worms and fleas.
In addition to obvious dangers such as rodenticides, insecticides, and herbicides, cats may be poisoned by many chemicals usually considered safe by their human guardians, because their livers are less effective at some forms of detoxification than those of many other animals, including humans and dogs. Some of the most common causes of poisoning in cats are antifreeze and rodent baits. Cats may be particularly sensitive to environmental pollutants. When a cat has a sudden or prolonged serious illness without any obvious cause, it has possibly been exposed to a toxin.
Many human medicines should never be given to cats. For example, the painkiller paracetamol (or acetaminophen, sold as Tylenol and Panadol) is extremely toxic to cats: even very small doses need immediate treatment and can be fatal. Even aspirin, which is sometimes used to treat arthritis in cats, is much more toxic to them than to humans and must be administered cautiously. Similarly, application of minoxidil (Rogaine) to the skin of cats, either accidentally or by well-meaning guardians attempting to counter loss of fur, has sometimes been fatal. Essential oils can be toxic to cats and cases have been reported of serious illnesses caused by tea tree oil, including flea treatments and shampoos containing it. Other common household substances that should be used with caution around cats include mothballs and other naphthalene products. Phenol-based products (e.g. Pine-Sol, Dettol (Lysol) or hexachlorophene) are often used for cleaning and disinfecting near cats’ feeding areas or litter boxes, but these can sometimes be fatal. Ethylene glycol, often used as an automotive antifreeze, is particularly appealing to cats, and as little as a teaspoonful can be fatal. Some human foods are toxic to cats; for example chocolate can cause theobromine poisoning, although (unlike dogs) few cats will eat chocolate. Large amounts of onions or garlic are also poisonous to cats. Many houseplants are also dangerous, such as Philodendron species and the leaves of the Easter lily (Lilium longiflorum), which can cause permanent and life-threatening kidney damage.
Free-ranging cats are active both day and night, although they tend to be slightly more active at night. The timing of cats’ activity is quite flexible and varied, which means house cats may be more active in the morning and evening (crepuscular behavior), as a response to greater human activity at these times. Although they spend the majority of their time in the vicinity of their home, housecats can range many hundreds of meters from this central point, and are known to establish territories that vary considerably in size, in one study ranging from 7 to 28 hectares (17–69 acres). Cats conserve energy by sleeping more than most animals, especially as they grow older. The daily duration of sleep varies, usually 12–16 hours, with 13–14 being the average. Some cats can sleep as much as 20 hours in a 24-hour period. The term “cat nap” for a short rest refers to the cat’s tendency to fall asleep (lightly) for a brief period. While asleep, cats experience short periods of rapid eye movement sleep often accompanied by muscle twitches, which suggests they are dreaming.
Although wildcats are solitary, the social behavior of domestic cats is much more variable and ranges from widely dispersed individuals to feral cat colonies that form around a food source, based on groups of co-operating females. Within such groups, one cat is usually dominant over the others. Each cat in a colony holds a distinct territory, with sexually active males having the largest territories, which are about 10 times larger than those of female cats and may overlap with several females’ territories. These territories are marked by urine spraying, by rubbing objects at head height with secretions from facial glands, and by defecation. Between these territories are neutral areas where cats watch and greet one another without territorial conflicts. Outside these neutral areas, territory holders usually chase away stranger cats, at first by staring, hissing, and growling, and if that does not work, by short but noisy and violent attacks. Despite some cats cohabiting in colonies, they do not have a social survival strategy, or a pack mentality, and always hunt alone.
Domestic cats use many vocalizations for communication, including purring, trilling, hissing, growling/snarling, grunting, and several different forms of meowing. By contrast, feral cats are generally silent. Their types of body language, including position of ears and tail, relaxation of whole body, and kneading of paws, are all indicators of mood. The tail and ears are particularly important social signal mechanisms in cats, e.g. with a raised tail acting as a friendly greeting, and flattened ears indicating hostility. Tail-raising also indicates the cat’s position in the group’s social hierarchy, with dominant individuals raising their tails less often than subordinate animals. Nose-to-nose touching is also a common greeting and may be followed by social grooming, which is solicited by one of the cats raising and tilting its head. However, some pet cats are poorly socialized. In particular, older cats may show aggressiveness towards newly arrived kittens, which may include biting and scratching, this type of behavior is known as feline asocial aggression. Though cats and dogs are believed to be natural enemies, they can live together if correctly socialized.
Life in proximity to humans and other domestic animals has led to a symbiotic social adaptation in cats, and cats may express great affection toward humans or other animals. Ethologically, the human keeper of a cat may function as a sort of surrogate for the cat’s mother, and adult housecats live their lives in a kind of extended kitten- hood, a form of behavioral neoteny. The high-pitched sounds housecats make to solicit food may mimic the cries of a hungry human infant, making them particularly hard for humans to ignore. Cats are known for spending considerable amounts of time licking their coat to keep it clean. The cat’s tongue has backwards-facing spines about 500 micrometre long, which are called papillae. These contain keratin which makes them quite rigid so the papillae act like a hairbrush. Some cats, particularly longhaired cats, occasionally regurgitate hairballs of fur that have collected in their stomachs from grooming. These clumps of fur are usually sausage-shaped and about 2–3 cm (0.79–1.18 in) long. Hairballs can be prevented with remedies that ease elimination of the hair through the gut, as well as regular grooming of the coat with a comb or stiff brush. Some cats can develop a compulsive behavior known as psychogenic alopecia, or excessive grooming.
Among domestic cats, males are more likely to fight than females. Among feral cats, the most common reason for cat fighting is competition between two males to mate with a female. In such cases, most fights are won by the heavier male. Another common reason for fighting in domestic cats is the difficulty of establishing territories within a small home. Female cats also fight over territory or to defend their kittens. Neutering will decrease or eliminate this behavior in many cases, suggesting that the behavior is linked to sex hormones.
When cats become aggressive, they try to make themselves appear larger and more threatening by raising their fur, arching their backs, turning sideways and hissing or spitting. Often, the ears are pointed down and back to avoid damage to the inner ear and potentially listen for any changes behind them while focused forward. They may also vocalize loudly and bare their teeth in an effort to further intimidate their opponent. Fights usually consist of grappling and delivering powerful slaps to the face and body with the forepaws as well as bites. Cats throw themselves to the ground in a defensive posture to rake their opponent’s belly with their powerful hind legs.
Serious damage is rare, as the fights are usually short in duration, with the loser running away with little more than a few scratches to the face and ears. However, fights for mating rights are typically more severe and injuries may include deep puncture wounds and lacerations. Normally, serious injuries from fighting are limited to infections of scratches and bites, though these can occasionally kill cats if untreated. In addition, bites are probably the main route of transmission of feline immunodeficiency virus. Sexually active males are usually involved in many fights during their lives, and often have decidedly battered faces with obvious scars and cuts to their ears and noses.
Hunting and feeding
Cats hunt small prey, primarily birds and rodents, and are often used as a form of pest control. Domestic cats are a major predator of wildlife in the United States, killing an estimated 1.4–3.7 billion birds and 6.9–20.7 billion mammals annually. The bulk of predation in the United States is done by 80 million feral and stray cats. Effective measures to reduce this population are elusive, meeting opposition from cat enthusiasts. In the case of free-ranging pets, equipping cats with bells and not letting them out at night will reduce wildlife predation. Free-fed feral cats and house cats tend to consume many small meals in a single day, although the frequency and size of meals varies between individuals. Cats use two hunting strategies, either stalking prey actively, or waiting in ambush until an animal comes close enough to be captured. Although it is not certain, the strategy used may depend on the prey species in the area, with cats waiting in ambush outside burrows, but tending to actively stalk birds.
Most breeds of cat have a noted fondness for settling in high places, or perching. In the wild, a higher place may serve as a concealed site from which to hunt; domestic cats may strike prey by pouncing from a perch such as a tree branch, as does a leopard. Another possible explanation is that height gives the cat a better observation point, allowing it to survey its territory. During a fall from a high place, a cat can reflexively twist its body and right itself using its acute sense of balance and flexibility. This is known as the cat righting reflex. An individual cat always rights itself in the same way, provided it has the time to do so, during a fall. The height required for this to occur is around 3 ft. Cats without a tail (e.g. Manx cats) also have this ability, since a cat mostly moves its hind legs and relies on conservation of angular momentum to set up for landing, and the tail is little used for this feat.
The perhaps best known element of cats’ hunting behavior, which is commonly misunderstood and often appalls cat owners because it looks like torture, is that cats often appear to play with prey by releasing it after capture. This behavior is due to an instinctive imperative to ensure that the prey is weak enough to be killed without endangering the cat. This behavior is referred to in the idiom “cat-and-mouse game” or simply “cat and mouse”. Another poorly understood element of cat hunting behavior is the presentation of prey to human guardians. Ethologist Paul Leyhausen proposed that cats adopt humans into their social group and share excess kill with others in the group according to the dominance hierarchy, in which humans are reacted to as if they are at, or near, the top.
Domestic cats select food based on its temperature, smell, and texture, strongly disliking chilled foods and responding most strongly to moist foods rich in amino acids, which are similar to meat. Cats may reject novel flavors and learn quickly to avoid foods that have tasted unpleasant in the past. They may also avoid sugary foods and milk, since they are lactose intolerant, these sugars are not easily digested and may cause soft stools or diarrhea. They can also develop odd eating habits. Some cats like to eat or chew on other things, most commonly wool, but also plastic, cables, paper, string, aluminum foil/Christmas tree tinsel, or even coal. This condition can threaten their health, depending on the amount and toxicity of the items eaten. Since cats cannot fully close their lips around something to create suction, they use a lapping method with the tongue to draw liquid upwards into their mouths. Lapping at a rate of four times a second, the cat touches the smooth tip of its tongue to the surface of the water, and quickly retracts it, drawing water upwards.
Domestic cats, especially young kittens, are known for their love of play. This behavior mimics hunting and is important in helping kittens learn to stalk, capture, and kill prey. Cats also engage in play fighting, with each other and with humans. This behavior may be a way for cats to practice the skills needed for real combat, and might also reduce any fear they associate with launching attacks on other animals. Owing to the close similarity between play and hunting, cats prefer to play with objects that resemble prey, such as small furry toys that move rapidly, but rapidly lose interest in a toy they have played with before. Cats also tend to play with toys more when they are hungry. String is often used as a toy, but if it is eaten, it can become caught at the base of the cat’s tongue and then move into the intestines, a medical emergency which can cause serious illness, even death. Owing to the risks posed by cats eating string, it is sometimes replaced with a laser pointer’s dot, which cats may chase. While concerns have been raised about the safety of playing with lasers, John Marshall, an ophthalmologist at St Thomas’ Hospital, has stated it would be “virtually impossible” to blind a cat with a laser pointer.
Female cats are seasonally polyestrous, which means they may have many periods of heat over the course of a year, the season beginning in spring and ending in late autumn. Heat periods occur about every two weeks and last about 4 to 7 days. Multiple males will be attracted to a female in heat. The males will fight over her, and the victor wins the right to mate. At first, the female rejects the male, but eventually the female allows the male to mate. The female utters a loud yowl as the male pulls out of her because a male cat’s penis has a band of about 120–150 backwards-pointing penile spines, which are about 1 mm long, upon withdrawal of the penis, the spines rake the walls of the female’s vagina, which is a trigger for ovulation. This act also occurs to clear the vagina of other sperm in the context of a second (or more) mating, thus giving the later males a larger chance of conception. After mating, the female washes her vulva thoroughly. If a male attempts to mate with her at this point, the female will attack him. After about 20 to 30 minutes, once the female is finished grooming, the cycle will repeat. Because ovulation is not always triggered by a single mating, females may not be impregnated by the first male with which they mate. Furthermore, cats are super fecund, a female may mate with more than one male when she is in heat, with the result that different kittens in a litter may have different fathers. At 124 hours after conception, the morula forms. At 148 hours, early blastocysts form. At 10–12 days, implantation occurs.
The gestation period for cats is between 64 and 67 days, with an average of 66 days. The size of a litter usually is three to five kittens, with the first litter usually smaller than subsequent litters. Kittens are weaned between six and seven weeks old, and female cats normally reach sexual maturity at 5-10 months and male cats to 5–7 months, although this can vary depending on breed. Females can have two to three litters per year, so may produce up to 150 kittens in their breeding span of around ten years. Cats are ready to go to new homes at about 12 weeks of age, when they are ready to leave their mother. They can be surgically sterilized (spayed or castrated) as early as 7 weeks to limit unwanted reproduction. This surgery also prevents undesirable sex-related behavior, such as aggression, territory marking (spraying urine) in males and yowling (calling) in females. Traditionally, this surgery was performed at around six to nine months of age, but it is increasingly being performed prior to puberty, at about three to six months. In the US, about 80% of household cats are neutered.
The cat is a very vocal animal. Known for its trademark purring, it also produces a wide variety of other sounds. The mechanism by which cats purr is elusive. The cat has no unique anatomical feature that is clearly responsible for the sound. It was, until recent times, believed that only the cats of the Felis genus could purr. However, felids of the Panthera genus (tiger, lion, jaguar and leopard) also produce sounds similar to purring, but only when exhaling.
Cats are a cosmopolitan species and are found across much of the world. Geneticist Stephen James O’Brien, of the National Cancer Institute in Frederick-Maryland, remarked on how successful cats have been in evolutionary terms; Cats are one of evolution’s most charismatic creatures, they can live on the highest mountains and in the hottest deserts. They are extremely adaptable and are now present on all continents except Antarctica, and on 118 of the 131 main groups of islands, even on sub-Antarctic islands such as the Kerguelen Islands. Feral cats can live in forests, grasslands, tundra, coastal areas, agricultural land, scrublands, urban areas, and wetlands. Their habitats even include small oceanic islands with no human inhabitants. Further, the close relatives of domestic cats, the African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica) and the Arabian sand cat (Felis margarita) both inhabit desert environments, and domestic cats still show similar adaptations and behaviors.
The cat’s ability to thrive in almost any terrestrial habitat has led to its designation as one of the world’s worst invasive species. As domestic cats are little altered from wildcats, they can readily interbreed. This hybridization poses a danger to the genetic distinctiveness of some wildcat populations, particularly in Scotland and Hungary and possibly also the Iberian Peninsula. A feral cat is a domesticated cat that has returned to the wild, or the descendants of such an animal. It is distinguished from a stray cat, which is a pet cat that has been lost or abandoned, while feral cats have never been socialized. The offspring of a stray cat can be considered feral if born in the wild. In many parts of the world, feral cats are the offspring of unaltered domestic cats.
To date, little scientific data is available to assess the impact of cat predation on prey populations. Even well-fed domestic cats may hunt and kill, mainly catching small mammals, but also birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish, and invertebrates. Hunting by domestic cats may be contributing to the decline in the numbers of birds in urban areas, although the importance of this effect remains controversial. In the wild, the introduction of feral cats during human settlement can threaten native species with extinction. In many cases, controlling or eliminating the populations of non-native cats can produce a rapid recovery in native animals. However, the ecological role of introduced cats can be more complicated. For example, cats can control the numbers of rats, which also prey on birds’ eggs and young, so a cat population can protect an endangered bird species by suppressing mesopredators (a mesopredator is a middle trophic level predator, which predates and is predated upon. Examples are raccoons, skunks, snakes, cownose rays, and small sharks. They are defined as medium sized).
In the Southern Hemisphere, cats are a particular problem in landmasses such as Australasia, where cat species have never been native and few equivalent native medium-sized mammalian predators occurred. Native species such as the New Zealand kakapo and the Australian bettong (rat-kangaroos), for example, tend to be more ecologically vulnerable and behaviorally “naive” to predation by feral cats. Feral cats have had a major impact on these native species and have played a leading role in the endangerment and extinction of many animals. Cat numbers in the UK are growing and their abundance is far above the natural carrying capacity, because their population sizes are independent of their prey’s dynamics: i.e. cats are recreational hunters, with other food sources. Population densities can be as high as 2,000 individuals per km² and the trend is an increase of 0.5 million cats annually.
Things to Consider Before Adopting a Cat
Bringing a new pet into your home is an exciting event, but it is important to be prepared for the commitment. Cats have a reputation for independence but still require an investment of time and money. There are several things to consider before making the decision to adopt. Do you have other pets in the home? Don’t assume your pet will accept the newcomer with as much as excitement as the rest of your family. Particularly if the pet is older, a new addition can be stressful for both animals. Unfortunately, this is the exact time many people choose to add to their pet family. As the existing pet ages, he may become less “fun,” and the idea of adding a cute kitten is appealing. The older pet, justifiably, feels territorial, and may express his feelings in a variety of ways, including aggression toward the new pet, changing his toilet habits, refusing to eat or becoming less social with family members. If you have an older pet in the home, carefully consider how he may react before adding a new cat to the family.
Who will take care of the pet? It is easy to say that kids will, but, until they are in their early teens, it is unrealistic to hand over the responsibility of your new cat’s care entirely to a child. Encourage children to help and feel free to assign pet care chores, but, unless you or your spouse is willing to assume total responsibility for the cat’s care, reconsider adoption. Is your home cat proof? Before bringing your cat home, take the time to walk through the house and determine how safe the home is for your new addition. Kittens are extremely playful and will make toys out of unlikely household items. Toilet paper, tissue, electric cords and houseplants are all tempting, and are all potentially dangerous.
Gather the necessary supplies before bringing your cat home. Once your cat is home, you’ll want to spend time helping him become acclimated and comfortable in his new environment, not running to the nearest pet store. Your cat will need a litter box, litter, food, dishes for food and water, brush, nail clippers, a few toys and a bed or blanket. Arrange your cat’s possessions to give him the best chance of success. Place the litter box in a quiet, out-of-the-way location. Place his food and water near the litter box, but not so close that he will be averse to using the box. By spending some time thinking about what your new cat may need and preparing for his arrival, you increase the chances he will fit into the family with few problems.
Essentials for Bringing Home a New Kitten
In order to be prepared for the day when you bring home your new feline friend, you’ll need to have a few new kitten essentials on hand. Whether you choose to adopt from a breeder, local animal shelter or from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), a new kitten can be a fun and exciting way for you to have a companion in your home. This organization recommends investing in the following new kitten essentials:
- A water bowl
- A food dish
- Kitten food
- Litter box and litter
- A scratching post
- A collar with identification
- A cat bed
- Grooming and other health/personal care items
For additional peace of mind, you may consider a permanent identification microchip for your new kitten.
Retailer PetSmart suggests buying a kitten carrier as part of your new kitten essentials. Most retailers offer a variety of different kitten and cat carriers, which will help you to transport your new pet, whether for short distances or long. Carriers range from soft-sided bags to plastic and metal carriers with a door and a convenient handle.
Choose a Veterinarian
Familiarize yourself with a local veterinarian’s office or choose a veterinarian who can help you care for your new kitten. A veterinarian will ensure that your kitten receives the appropriate medical attention it requires. For example, a veterinarian will administer vaccinations and discuss spaying or neutering the kitten.
Beyond the Basics
While new kitten essentials will make your new pet feel at home, you should first carefully consider whether adoption is the right choice for you. Your new kitten should suit your lifestyle. Since any pet will depend on you for a long-term commitment, you need to be willing and able to accommodate your cat’s needs for about the next two decades. Be aware that there are other on-going costs and unexpected demands associated with caring for a pet.
A few do’s and don’ts can make your new kitten’s environment happy and safe:
- Do allow him or her time to get used to a new environment.
- Do expect your kitten to scratch and claw (and make provisions for that).
- Do establish a daily routine for your kitten that includes feeding, exercise and play.
- Do train and socialize your kitten.
- Don’t expect too much too soon.
- Don’t let your kitten roam around outside unless he or she is on a lead or under your supervision.
- Don’t physically punish or scream at your kitten for what you may consider to be inappropriate behavior.
Acclimating a New Kitten to Your Home
Nothing stirs up a household quite like a new kitten. A bundle of energy on the biggest adventure of her young life, she’ll need plenty of sweet talk and a little forethought to ensure her quick assimilation into the household. Initially, you’ll want to create a temporary refuge in your home to create a sense of security for the kitten.
Before you bring your kitten home
Inquire about the kitten’s history with the seller or shelter provider. A well-socialized kitten who has been weaned properly and has had frequent interaction with people is likely to be open to new experiences. A less trusting kitten will require more patience and care. Prior to the kitten’s arrival, prepare a small room, such as a bedroom or bathroom: Remove any objects that may be dangerous to a cat, such as unstable shelves, small furniture, houseplants, knickknacks, etc. that could fall over if jumped on.
Place appropriate bedding in a quiet corner
Set out food and water, fill the litter box with litter and arrange the items near the carrier, though keep the food distant from the litter. Later you may move the food and litter box gradually to other areas of the house. It’s a good idea to continue feeding your kitten with whatever type and brand of food she was previously fed. Once your kitten adapts to the new environment, the menu can be adjusted as well.
Bring your kitten and carrier to the designated room and close the door. Open the carrier door, but don’t force the kitten to come out. She’ll emerge in her own time. After your kitten does emerge, remember to leave the carrier door open so the cat can retreat if feeling scared. If your kitten arrived home with cat toys, keep these in or around the carrier. It is especially comforting for the kitten to have her towel or blanket from her previous home. During the first several days, spend significant time just being with your kitten in the room. Have patience if your kitten does not initially want to be held or petted. Sitting nearby and chatting or playing with your kitten will increase her sense of security. As you bond, your kitten will generally look to you for social encouragement, but don’t force the issue. After the kitten has adjusted to the room and to you, leave the door open. Depending on her temperament, the kitten may take a week or longer to venture forth and begin exploring her new digs.
Introducing other animals and family members
Once the kitten has become comfortable with you, introduce other family members slowly. Have them come into the room one at a time to pet and play with the cat. Have younger children sit down, then show them how to gently stroke the cat’s fur. Expect other household animals to display curiosity about the newcomer. You’ll want to closely supervise their initial encounters. If you have a dog, one breeder suggests that you place a child gate in the door to the kitten’s room. This will allow the kitten to roam freely (the kitten will climb the gate) but will keep the dog at a distance. Generally, kittens will quickly adapt to dogs and older cats. Older cats may express resentment over the attention paid to the newcomer. Try to provide the other animals in your household with a bit of extra attention to soothe any jealousy or insecurity. Patience and common sense will resolve most conflicts.
Kitten-proofing the home
You’ll discover that your kitten will explore all levels of the household, including the vertical, so evaluate your home for potential kitten hazards. Ensure there are no areas where the kitten may be injured or household items may be rearranged or damaged. Place scratching posts around the house
Caring for Your New Kitten: The First Year
The first year of your new kitten’s life is by far the most important with regard to his or her lifelong health. This timeline will help you keep track of important dates and milestone developments in the first 12 months so you can make sure your kitten grows up to be a healthy and happy adult.
8 to 12 weeks
- Time for a visit to the veterinarian for a checkup and her first round of vaccines
- Talk to your veterinarian about de-worming and ongoing heartworm prevention
- Begin socializing her
- Begin litter box training
- Ask your veterinarian about flea control products for your pet
12 to 15 weeks
- Round 2 vaccines and deworming are due
- Get your kitten accustomed to being groomed
- Start getting your kitten used to being groomed and handled
- Get her used to wearing a collar if desired
- Continue socializing her
- Get your kitten used to her carrier
- Your kitten will have lost all her baby teeth by now and have a full set of adult teeth
- Get your kitten used to tooth brushing using a special toothbrush and toothpaste for cats
- Neutering (for males) or spaying (for females) at around 6 months of age may help prevent certain diseases and reduce hormone-related behavior problems
- Help keep your kitten safe with microchipping and tagging
7 to 12 months
• Begin transitioning your kitten to an adult cat food
Protecting your cat against flea infestation
Although you might not think it could happen to your pet, flea infestation is a common problem that can become a real nightmare if not properly treated and controlled. When your pet plays outside, fleas can hop on to his skin and coat and basically “hitch a ride” into your home. Once your pet carries fleas into your home, that’s where the real trouble starts. The handful of fleas he picked up outside can start biting, causing him pain and distress, and then multiply quickly becoming hundreds of eggs in just a couple of days.
After they bite, the female flea lays eggs-up to 50 a day. As your pet runs and plays throughout the house, he basically becomes a “salt shaker” for the flea eggs, leaving them on floors, carpeting and bedding, opening the door for continuous infestation. In as few as 12-14 days, these eggs can hatch and develop into new adult fleas, reinfesting your pet and your pet’s surroundings.
When it comes to protecting against flea infestation, prevention is key. Fortunately, flea prevention is now easier than ever before. To help protect your pet from fleas, use once-a-month topical treatments year-round, treat all pets within your household, and have your pet avoid contact with other pets who may have fleas. If your pet already has fleas, it’s important to take him to the veterinary clinic and talk to your veterinarian about the different treatment options available.
Keeping Your Cat Happy at Home Alone
You may not think of cats as paying much attention when their owners come and go, but some cats can develop separation anxiety when they form a particularly strong bond with their owners. Keep an eye on your cats for signs of anxiety and take steps to ensure peace of mind in your absence. Know the signs of separation anxiety. They can range from prolonged vocalizations or excessive grooming when you’re away, to urinating on your personal belongings or near the front door. Basically, you’re looking for anything that’s a departure from their otherwise normal behavior.
Make sure your cat’s needs are being met. Cats are more sensitive to routine that affects them, especially mealtime routines. Be as consistent as possible in your feeding habits – the location within your home, the time, etc. Also, don’t fall behind on litter box scooping despite demands on your schedule. A cat food that helps reduce stool odor might be helpful, too. Provide opportunities for stimulation. Make sure your cats have plenty of engaging toys to enjoy while you’re away. And make the most of playtime when you’re available. Playtime limits frustration and helps your cats maintain emotional balance.
Your veterinarian can help you cope with separation anxiety issues. If you’ve tried the above and don’t see results, your veterinarian may need to take a closer look to rule out underlying health issues or provide additional treatment for anxiety.