THE CAT FAMILY
Members of the cat family are quite easy to identify. They differ widely in size, color, and markings, but all look “catlike.” They have long, rather slender but powerfully built bodies.
The head seems quite large and the legs short when compared with the body size. All parts of the body fit together smoothly to give overall balance and structural smoothness.
Some animals called cats are not. The polecat is a member of the weasel family, and in the United States the name polecat is also used for the skunk. The bashful cat of Asia is really a loris–one of the primates. The tiger cat of Australia is a marsupial, and its proper name is dasyure.
Although the members of the cat family are reasonably easy to identify by outward appearance, they share much more than this apparent likeness. They may live in vastly different surroundings: open grassy plains, dense jungles, thick swamplands, or dry deserts. Most seem to like warm climates, but some live in the Far North and others in the severe cold of Central Asia. Wherever they are found, however, they have basic characteristics in common that mark them as cats.
All cats move in the same way. They walk on the tips of their toes, not on the soles of their feet as do humans and many other kinds of animals. At a medium speed they trot, much as a horse does. But when they are trying to hunt down prey or escape a human hunter, they really want speed, and so they move in great, bounding leaps that cover ground rapidly. The cheetah is the fastest of all land mammals and has been clocked at speeds of up to 70 miles per hour. But all cats, even the domestic cat, are capable of very rapid acceleration from a standing start.
All cats can swim, and many are excellent fishermen. The ancient Egyptians used cats not only as hunters of mice but as catchers of fish as well. Some cats can and do swim for pleasure, and some–especially the tiger–can swim for long distances. Many cats, however, avoid water and will take to it only as a last resort when there is no other means of escape from a threatening enemy.
All cats except the tiger and cheetah can climb. Lions climb poorly, but they often like to climb out on the low limbs of trees to stretch out with feet dangling. On this perch they can sun themselves, catnap, and survey a small part of their territory. All cats have extremely acute and accurate vision, and their senses of hearing and smell are exceptionally keen.
Members of the cat family, including the domestic cat, are among the most highly specialized of all the meat-eating animals for hunting game. Cats are solitary animals and usually hunt alone. A notable exception is the lion, which lives in a group called a pride and may cooperate with others while hunting. A cat pursues its game with noiseless stealth, moving across the ground on padded feet that make no sound. It is a superb stalker and can wait absolutely motionless for long periods until the moment comes to strike. When that moment comes, it gathers all its forces for the spring to attack. These forces are, of course, its muscles, which have enormous power and bulk in proportion to the animal’s size. They are attached to the skeleton, in which each bone is adjusted to others in such a way that they form an extraordinary system of springs and levers that can propel the body in the final spring. At the attack, the claws–which are sharper and more strongly curved than those of any other mammal–are unsheathed, and the great canines and scissorslike carnassials are bared. In the face of the swiftness, fury, and power of such an attack, the surprised prey has little chance for escape or for survival. Every cat works in this same way, whether it is a domestic cat attacking a mouse or a wild cat attacking a deer.
The furs of cats have long been prized for their beauty and warmth. Coats may be striped, spotted, barred, or solid. Many solid-color cats may be born with markings that fade as they mature. Extensive hunting of exotic striped and spotted cats has caused them to become rare. In recent years laws to protect them from extinction have been enacted.