Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
- For alternative meanings see cat (disambiguation).
The cat (also called domestic cat or house cat) is a small feline carnivorous mammal. Its scientific name is Felis silvestris catus or Felis silvestris domesticus, but the species is sometimes referred to as Felis domesticus or Felis catus. Felis catus is the more current species name.
The cat has been living in close association with humans (although never entirely domesticated as dogs are) since at least 3500 years ago, when the Ancient Egyptians routinely used cats to keep mice and other rodents away from their grain. Currently, the cat is one of the world's most popular household pets. A group of cats is called a clowder. A male cat is usually called a tom cat; a female cat is called a queen. A young cat is called a kitten (which is also an alternate name for baby rats, rabbits, hedgehogs, beavers, and squirrels). A cat whose ancestry is officially registered is called a purebred cat, a pedigreed cat, or a show cat. The owners and breeders of show cats compete to see whose animal bears the closest resemblance to the "ideal" definition of the breed (see selective breeding). Less than one percent of the total feline population are purebred cats—the remaining 99% have mixed ancestry, and are referred to as domestic longhairs and domestic shorthairs. In the UK and Australia, non-purebred cats are sometimes known as moggies. In the U.S., a non-purebred cat is often called an alley-cat, even if it is not a stray.
Relative to size, domestic cats are one of the world's top predators, if not the best. The domestic cat can kill or eat several thousand species—many big cats will eat fewer than 100. Although theoretically, big cats can kill most of these species as well, they usually do not care about exerting any semblance of effort for the little amount of energy the smaller species will bring them. An exception is the leopard, which loves to hunt rabbits and many other smaller animals. On the other hand, it can be argued that cats have an abundance of smaller species available to their disposal. However, because of their small size, cats pose almost no danger to humans—the only hazard is the possibility of infection (or, rarely, rabies) from a cat bite. Cats are, however, historically very dangerous to ecosystems where they were not native and which did not have time to adapt to their introduction. In some cases, cats have contributed to or caused extinctions, such as in Australia and New Zealand. They ambush and dispatch prey using tactics similar to those of leopards and tigers -- by pouncing and delivering a neck bite with their long canine teeth that sever the victim's spinal cord or asphyxiate it by crushing the windpipe.
Cats are thought to be "the perfect carnivores," and have highly specialized teeth and a digestive tract that reflect this. The premolar and first molar together comprise the carnassial pair on each side of the mouth, which efficiently functions to shear meat like a pair of scissors. While this is present in canines, it is highly developed in felines. Unlike virtually all other carnivores cats eat almost no vegetable matter. Whereas bears and dogs commonly supplement their diet of meat with fruits, berries, roots, and honey when they can get them, cats feed exclusively on meat, usually freshly killed. In captivity cats cannot be adapted to a vegetarian diet because they cannot synthesise all the amino acids they need from plant material; this contrasts with domesticated dogs, which commonly are fed a mixture of meat and vegetable products and have been adapted in some cases to a completely vegetarian diet. Also, cats should not be fed cow's milk because it is difficult for them to digest.
Completely white cats with blue eyes have a higher genetic percentage of being born deaf than the average cat. It is most likely to occur if they are born with blue eyes, and in some cases, orange eye colour. There are some examples of white cats with only one blue eye and the result is that they can be deaf on the side of the blue eye. 
This happens due to the dominant gene W. This certain gene usually gives the cat a white coat, blue irides, and deafness.  It can happen in some cat breeds (that can carry the W gene), except Foreign White Cats . Normaly, Foreign White Cats do not have a problem with deafness, but it can happen under very rare circumstances if the breed inherits the W gene. This also occurs with dogs if they have white coat and blue eyes, and in the case of dogs, it can be equally common for them to be born blind.  However, cats do not have a propensity for blindness if they have white coats and blue eyes. 
Around 5% of all cats are completely white, and 10-20% of them are deaf. Very few of them survive in the wild due to the fact that they are not fit for a life in the wild because of all the hazards that they cannot spot or avoid as easily as any other cat would in the same situation. 
Despite its reputation as a solitary animal, the domestic cat is social enough to form colonies, but does not attack in groups as do lions. Although a minority, some breeds like bengal are very social. While each cat holds a distinct territory (sexually active males having the largest territories and neutered cats have the smallest) there are "neutral" areas where cats watch and greet one another without territorial conflict or aggression. Outside of these neutral areas, territory holders usually vigorously chase away strangers, at first by staring, hissing, and growling, and if that doesn't work by short but noisy and violent attacks. Fighting cats make themselves look larger by raising their fur and arching their backs. Attacks usually comprise powerful slaps to the face and body with the forepaws as well as bites, but serious damage is rarely done, and usually the loser runs away with little more than a few scratches to the face. Sexually active males may be engaged in many fights over their lives and often have decidedly weathered faces, often with obvious scars and cuts to the ears and nose. It is not just males that fight; females will also fight over territory or to defend their kittens and even neutered cats will defend their small territories vigorously.
The wild cat ancestor of the domestic cat is believed to have evolved in a desert climate, as evident in the behavior common to both the domestic and wild forms. Cats enjoy heat and solar exposure, often sleeping in a warm area during the heat of the day. Their feces are usually dry, and cats prefer to bury them in sandy places. They are able to remain motionless for long periods of time, especially when observing prey and preparing to pounce. In North Africa there are still small wildcats that are probably closely related to the ancestors of today's domesticated breeds.
Being closely related to desert animals, cats can withstand the heat and cold of a temperate climate, but not for long periods of time. They have little resistance against fog, rain and snow, although certain breeds such as the Norwegian Forest Cat and Maine Coon have developed more protection than others; and struggle to maintain their 39°C (102°F) body temperature when wet. Most cats dislike immersion in water, but one exception is the Turkish Van cat.
The male cat's penis has spines which point backwards. Upon removal of the penis, the spines rake the walls of the female's vagina. This stimulation is required by the female in order for ovulation to begin. Because of this, females are rarely impregnated by the first male they mate with. The gestation period for cats is approximately 63 days. Kittens are weaned at between 6 and 7 weeks, and cats normally reach sexual maturity at six months (females) to seven months (males). Cats typically give birth to four kittens, as their uterus has four distinct areas.
Cats typically weigh between 2½ and 7 kg (5.5-16 pounds) and rarely exceed 10 kg (22 pounds). They have been known to reach weights in excess of 23 kg (50 pounds) when overfed. This is very unhealthy for the cat, and should be avoided through exercise (playing), especially with indoor cats. One of the smallest cat breeds is the black-footed cat, which weighs just over 1 kg (2½ pounds). In captivity, cats typically live 15 to 20 years, though the oldest known cat lived to age 36. Domestic cats live longer if they are not permitted to go outdoors (thus avoiding fights and accidents) and if they are spayed or neutered. Feral cats living in modern urban environments often live 2 years or less.
Indoor cats must be provided a litterbox containing sand or similar commercial material (litter). This arrangement serves the same purpose as a toilet for humans. It should be cleaned daily, and changed often (depending on the type of litter - clumping litter stays cleaner longer). A litterbox is recommended for indoor-outdoor cats as well. Indoor cats will also benefit from being provided with a scratching post so they are less likely to ruin furniture with their claws. Nails can be trimmed, but care should be taken so avoid cutting a vein in the claw.
Cats are also very clean, as they groom themselves by licking their fur. Their saliva is a powerful cleaning agent, but it can provoke allergic reactions in humans. Many cats also enjoy grooming humans or other cats. Some cats occasionally vomit up hair balls of fur that have collected in their stomachs.
Cats often have a reputation as fussy eaters. This is because they have a scent organ in the roof of their mouths called the vomeronasal, or Jacobson's organ. When this organ becomes sensitised to a specific food, a cat will reject any food that doesn't fit the pattern it is expecting. When a cat wrinkles its muzzle, lowers its chin, and lets its tongue hang a bit, it is opening the passage to the vomeronasal. This is called gaping. Gaping is the equivalent of the Flehmen response in other animals, such as dogs and horses.
Cats have excellent diurnal and night-vision. In very bright light, the slit-like iris closes very narrowly over the eye, reducing the amount of light on the sensitive retina, but greatly limiting the cat's field of view. An organ called the tapetum lucidum is responsible for their strong low-light vision, as well as for the varied colours of cats' eyes in flash photographs. As with most predators their eyes are both forward-facing, affording depth perception at the expense of field of view. Cats are weakly trichromatic.
When there is too little light for even cats to see, they use their whiskers (technically called vibrissae) to aid with navigation and sensation. Whiskers can detect very small shifts in air currents, enabling a cat to know they are near obstructions without actually seeing them.
Cats have a third eyelid, the nictitating membrane, which is a thin cover which closes from the side and appears when the cat's eyelid opens. This membrane partially closes if the cat is sick, although a very sleepy and happy cat can also show this membrane. If a cat chronically shows the third eyelid, it should be taken to a veterinarian.
The unique sound a small cat makes is written "meow" in American English, "miaow" in British English, 'miaou' in French, and various ways in other languages. The cat's pronunciation of "miaow" varies significantly depending on meaning. Usually cats meow for indicating pain, or requesting human attention (i.e. for being fed or for playing) or, sometimes, in a form of "hello." Some cats are very vocal, and others rarely meow. Cats can also produce a purring noise that typically indicates that the cat is pleased, though rarely cats have been known to purr when distressed. Since the purr is not a vocal sound, it is possible for a cat to meow and purr simultaneously, though this is typically only done by particularly vocal cats. In addition to purring, happy cats may blink slowly or partially close their eyes, though obviously a cat blinks at other times as well. Most cats also growl or hiss on occasion.
This however, does not affect the breed's balance system. Virtually all cats have straight upward ears. Unlike dogs, flap-eared breeds are very rare. Scottish Folds are one such exceptional genetic mutation. When angry or frightened, a cat will lay its ears back, to accompany the growl or hiss sounds it makes. When listening for something, a cat's ears will swivel in that direction; thus a cat's ears can point backward as well as forward and sideways.
Cats conserve energy by sleeping more than most animals, especially as they grow older. Daily durations are variously reported as 12-16 hours, with 13-14 a possible average, but some cats sleep as much as 20 hours in a 24 hour period. In English, the term "cat nap" refers to the cat's ability to fall asleep for a brief period of time and someone who nods off for a few moments is said to be "taking a cat nap."
A popular belief is that cats always land on their feet, which is typically the case but not always true. During a fall a cat can usually determine which way is up and right itself, due to its acute sense of balance and flexible body.
Varieties of domestic cat
The list of cat breeds is quite large. Each breed has distinct features and heritage. Due to common cross-breeding in populated areas, many cats are simply identified as belonging to the homogeneous breeds of domestic longhair and domestic shorthair, depending on their type of fur.
Cats come in a variety of colors and patterns. These are physical properties and should not be confused with a breed of cat.
Household cats are divided into:
These are grouped into a smaller number of types according to basic physical appearance:
- Bicolor cat
- Also known as 'Tuxedo cat' or 'Jellicle cat' (tuxedos are mostly black with white paws/legs, bellies, chests, and possible markings on face).
- Cat coat genetics can produce a variety of coat patterns; some of the most common are
- White with distinct black or red (or blue and cream in the dilute variant) spots. The Japanese refer to this pattern as mi-ke. Calico cats are typically female.
- Maltese cat
- The former name for a blue (grey) cat.
- Oriental cat (not a specific breed, but any cat with an elongated slender build, almond-shaped eyes, large ears and very short sleek fur).
- Tabby cat
- Striped, with a variety of patterns. The classic pattern is the most common and consists of butterflies and bullseyes. The mackerel tabby is a series of vertical stripes down the cat's side (resembling the fish). This pattern broken into spots is referred to as spotted tabby.
- Black with red and white mottled throughout the coat. A true tortoiseshell, also known as Calimanco cat or Clouded Tiger cat, is a tricolour of black, light and dark red markings. The dilute of this pattern is referred to as blue-cream.
Like some other domesticated animals, cats live in a mutualistic arrangement with humans, but have done so for a much shorter time than almost all domesticated animals, and the degree of domestication of cats is somewhat disputed. Since the benefit of removing rats and mice from humans' food stores outweighed the cost of allowing a formerly-wild animal to enjoy the relative safety of a human settlement, the relationship between cat and human flourished. However, unlike other more domesticated species, housecats' ancestors did not hunt socially or enjoy the safety of a herd, as other more domesticated animals did. This evolutionary history may be the reason cats do not "understand" the desires of humans in the same way that dogs do: before humans, cats had fewer social relationships to benefit from. This may also contribute to a sense common among pet owners that cats are both more aloof and more self-sufficient than other pets. However, cats can be very affectionate towards their humans, especially if they imprint on them at a very young age and are treated with consistent affection.
Humans still keep cats for companionship as pets and to hunt mice and rats. Farms often have dozens of cats living semi-wild in the barns. Hunting in the barns and the fields, they kill and eat rodents that would otherwise eat large parts of the grain crop. Many pet cats successfully hunt and kill mice, rabbits, birds, lizards, frogs, fish, and large insects by instinct, but might not eat their prey. They may even present such victims (dead or maimed) to a beloved owner, often expecting reward.
Feral cats may live alone, but most are found in large groups called feral colonies with communal nurseries, depending on resource availability. Many lost or abandoned pet cats join these colonies out of desperation. The average lifespan of these feral cats is much shorter than a domestic housecat, who will live an average of sixteen years or more. Urban areas are not native environments to the cat; most domestic cats evolved from cats in desert climates and were distributed throughout the world by humans, but some feral cat colonies are found in large cities, e.g. around the Colosseum and Forum Romanum in Rome. Although cats are fairly adaptable, feral felines are unable to thrive in extreme cold and heat, and with a protein requirement of about 90%, few ferals in cities find adequate nutrition on their own. In addition, they have little defense or understanding of such predators as dogs, coyotes, and even automobiles. However, there are thousands of volunteers and organizations that trap these unadoptable feral felines, spay or neuter them, immunize the cats against rabies and feline leukemia, and treat them with long-lasting flea products. Before release back into their feral colonies, the attending veterinarian nips the tip off one ear to mark the feral as spayed/neutered and inoculated, as these cats will more than likely find themselves trapped again. Volunteers continue to feed and give care to these cats throughout their lives, and not only is their lifespan greatly increased, but behavior and nuisance problems, due to competition for food, are also greatly reduced. In time, if an entire colony is successfully spayed and neutered, no additional kittens are born and the feral colony disappears. Many hope to see an end to the harsh and unnatural world of urban feral cat colonies through these efforts.
Some environmentalists claim that the domestication of cats is harmful to the environment, and that excessive cat populations result in the overhunting of many small animals and birds in both urban and rural areas, possibly disrupting the food chain and limiting local species' populations. Throughout the centuries, as humans took advantage of the domestic cat's hunting skills, few had regard for their habitat and care, and far fewer thought to practice good animal husbandry. This created many pockets of excessive populations and local imbalances; however, with intervention and management, most especially spay and neuter programs, the disruptions and chaos in both the feline's life cycle as well as its prey can easily be avoided, and the positive effects these small and vital predators have in the appropriate environments can be observed and appreciated.
History and mythology
The exact history of human interaction with cats is still somewhat vague. The earliest written records of the attempt to domesticate cats date to ancient Egypt circa 4000 BC, where cats were employed to keep mice and rats away from grain stores. However, a recently discovered gravesite in Shillourokambos, Cyprus, dating to 7500 BC, contains the skeletons of a ceremonially buried human and a type of young cat. Since cats are not native to Cyprus, this suggests that cats were domesticated (or just tamed) at least this early. The cat found in the Cyprus grave was more similar to the ancestral wildcat species than to modern housecats. .
Ancient Egyptians regarded cats as embodiments of the goddess Bast, also known as Bastet or Thet. The penalty for killing a cat was death, and when a cat died it was sometimes mummified in the same way as a human.
In the Middle Ages, cats were often thought to be witches' familiars, and during festivities were sometimes burnt alive or thrown off tall buildings. Some historians theorize that widespread superstition-induced enmity towards cats accelerated The Black Death (generally held to have been an outbreak of Bubonic Plague). The speed with which the Black Death spread through 14th century Europe led many to believe that the Devil was responsible for the disease. This belief led the Pope to declare that cats, who were known to roam freely, were in league with the devil. Because of the declaration, a great many cats were killed in Europe. The sudden decrease in the cat population led to a massive increase in the number of rats, the number of plague-carrying fleas that fed upon them, and the number of human plague victims, which is what the declaration had aimed to reduce.
Today some people still believe that black cats are unlucky, or that it is unlucky if a black cat crosses one's path, while others believe that black cats are lucky.
Cats are also still to this day associated with witchcraft. Black cats in particular are associated with Halloween festivities. Wiccans and other practitioners of Neopaganism believe that cats are good-natured animals that are attuned to the spirit world and can sense evil spirits.
In Asia, the cat is one of the animals in the 12-year cycle of the Vietnamese zodiac. It does not, however, appear in the Chinese zodiac. Legend holds that the rat, who invited the animals to the Jade Emperor's Palace to be chosen for the zodiac, forgot to invite the cat, so the cat declared the rat its natural enemy.
Cats as food source
See also Taboo meat
Cats are rarely eaten outside of desperate times. Some outrage has been generated when they have been confused with the Civet "cat", an asian animal that slightly resembles cats.
Gallery of Cat Photos
- PetCat is a site devoted to information and books about pet cats
- Kitty entry at Wiktionary
- Meow entry at Wiktionary'
- Wikibooks:How to choose your pet and take care of it
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