CAT FAMILY - common name for the Felidæ, an almost exclusively meat-eating family of mammals of the order Carnivora that are superbly adapted for their typically predatory life. All members of the family are closely similar in having a lithe and agile soft-furred body, acute vision and hearing, and claws and teeth that are highly adapted for grasping and tearing. The four genera, containing 37 species, naturally occur on all continents except Antarctica and Australia. The tiger, lion, jaguar, and leopard, the so-called big cats, constitute the genus Panthera (formerly Leo). The clouded leopard is the sole species of the genus Neofelis, as is the cheetah of the genus Acinonyx.
Twelve species of the family Felidæ, occur in the western hemisphere: the bobcat, Lynx rufus; Geoffrey's cat, Felis geoffroyi; the jaguar, P. onca; the jaguarundi, F. yagouaroundi; the kodkod, F. guigna; the little spotted cat, F. tigrinus; the lynx, F. lynx (or Lynx lynx ); the margay, F. wiedii; the mountain cat, F. jacobita; the ocelot, F. pardalis; the pampas cat, F. colocolo; and the puma, cougar, or mountain lion, F. concolor.
Cats as a family have characteristically short faces and small, broad skulls. The ears are erect and readily rotate to pick up sound or to signal intention; they range in shape from round to pointed. The strong jaws do almost no grinding; food is cut and chopped with a tooth formation in the upper and lower jaws of six incisors, two canines, four or six premolars, and two molars. The molar is modified to a formidable shearing tooth, or carnassial, and three incisors. The tongue is covered with sharp, backward-slanted projections, or papillae, which help to clean the flesh from the bones of animal prey. The paws are well padded; the forefeet have five toes and the hindfeet have four. All cats are digitigrade; that is, they walk on the toes with the back part of the foot raised. The claws are long, sharp, and, with the sole exception of the cheetah, completely retractile, that is, they can be drawn in so that the paw can be used without scratching or ripping. Cats have certain characteristic traits such as sharpening the claws and washing the face with the front paws.
Most cats hunt in dim light. They either stalk their prey or lie in wait and spring upon their quarry unexpectedly. They generally hunt alone or in family parties, relying mostly on their sight and hearing. Their sense of smell is also keen but is usually employed in the examination of the kill. The pupils of the eyes, which contract to vertical slits during the daytime, become rounded and greatly expanded in the dark.
Species of cat that live in cold regions are covered with long, soft fur. The male is usually longer and heavier than the female but otherwise has about the same colouring and build. All cats except the lion are thought to be monogamous. Offspring are usually two to three in number in the larger species and may be up to five in the smaller.