The cat family includes many species of cats, some large and some small. The many, many breeds of common house cats belong to this family, but so do leopards, tigers, lions, and many other different cats.
There are 35 different types of wild cats. Seven of these types belong to the group known as the big cats. These seven are the lion, tiger, jaguar, cheetah, leopard, snow leopard, and clouded leopard. The other 28 types of cats belong to the group known as the small cats.
Household cats may be found in homes on every continent. They have been domesticated (tamed or raised). Wild cats may be found on every continent and major island except for Antarctica, Australia, and Madagascar. In the wild, cats find shelter in a variety of places from trees to caves.
Cats have long, muscular, flexible bodies and rounded heads. Their tails are of varying lengths. The limbs in the cat family range from short to long. The front feet have five toes and the hind feet have four. Each toe has a claw. Cat’s claws are retractile, which means they can be pulled back into the paw. Except for the pads of the feet, cats’ feet are covered with hair. This enables cats to stalk their prey in silence. Cats have sharp senses of smell, hearing and vision. Cats also have long, stiff, sensitive whiskers which help them move about and hunt at night. Each cat’s whiskers are as different as human fingerprints.
The smallest member of the wild cats in the cat family is the Black-footed cat, whose head and body is 14 to 16 inches (35 to 40 centimeters) long and weighs between 2 and 4 1/2 pounds (3/4 to 1 1/2 kilograms) The largest of the small cats is the puma, which is 3 1/2 to 6 1/2 feet (one to two meters) long, not including its tail. They may weigh up to 225 pounds (83 kilograms).
The smallest of the big cats is the clouded leopard which is 2 to 3 1/2 feet (1/2 to 3/4 meters) long with a two- to three-foot- (1/2 to 3/4-meter) long tail. Clouded leopards weigh between 30 and 45 pounds (11 to 17 kilograms). The largest of the big cats is the tiger. Tigers may be 7 1/2 to 10 feet (two to three meters) long, not including their tails, and may weigh up to 575 pounds (213 kilograms). The largest Siberian tiger weighed around 845 pounds (313 kilograms).
In general the big cats are larger than the small cats, but the largest of the small cats is larger than the smallest of the big cats. Size is important, but one of the main differences between the small cats and the large cats is the sounds they make. The small cats are able to purr constantly but cannot roar. The big cats are able to roar but cannot purr. Big cats are able to roar because of special cartilage (soft bone-like material) in their throats that lets them move their tongues and mouths more. Small cats do not have cartilage but have bones in their throats instead. The clouded leopard and snow leopard are big cats, but they cannot roar. These two leopards purr just like small cats.
Cats are carnivores (meat eaters). All cats are skillful hunters. Their jaws are powerful and contain 30 sharp teeth. They are also able to stalk their prey very quietly and pounce quickly. They are also able to run fast and catch prey. They will prey on almost any animal they can overpower. Quite often, cats prey on birds and fish. Some cats will prey on reptiles. Big cats, such as leopards, prey on livestock and large, wild animals such as buffalo. Wild cats have few, if any, natural enemies. The greatest threat to them is people. If they are attacked, cats defend themselves with their teeth and claws.
Members of the cat family walk, trot, or run. They are also good at climbing, and some even are good swimmers and spend time in the water. Most cats live alone and avoid contact with other animals. Other cats live in pairs or in family groups. Groups of lions are called prides. Cats also have the special ability to consistently land on their feet when they are jumping or falling, even if they were upside down when they began to fall.
Usually, cats have one or two litters of kittens or cubs a year, although the larger cats sometimes breed only once every two or three years. Gestation (duration of pregnancy) may be two to four months. Litter size ranges from one to six. At birth, most cats are blind and helpless. The young remain with their mother until they are able to hunt for themselves.
Cats may live as long as 30 years.