Seven Little Ways Your Cat Is Like Its Big Cat Family

Our pet cats may not be tiny tigers or little leopards, but thanks to a common ancestor some 11.5 million years ago, these distant feline cousins have plenty in common. In fact, based on what scientists now know, pet cats share more similarities than differences with their wild, big-cat cousins. Here are a few of those mutual traits.


Both wild and pet cats spend anywhere from 12 to 20 hours a day sleeping. As predators, wild cats need to conserve energy for high-intensity hunting activities. Not every hunt results in a meal — which is not the case for our “kept kitties” — so wild cats typically live in a feed-hunt-rest cycle.


Regardless of size and domestication, all cats stalk their prey and typically limit their hunting to dusk, nighttime and dawn. And like pet cats, some big cats can be a bit flexible as to whether their activity is more nocturnal or crepuscular in nature.


Both pet cats and their wild, big-cat cousins are obligate carnivores, which means they must have meat in their diet. Unlike animals who can make taurine, cats cannot and must get the sulfur-containing essential amino acid from meat and fish. Meat is an excellent source of arginine, another essential amino acid for cats. Cats also require meat for its vitamin A and niacin, two vitamins that cats can’t make from the precursor compounds beta-carotene and tryptophan, respectively.


Pet cats and big cats groom themselves often, spending anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of their waking hours cleaning and conditioning their coat and claws. Why? Wild cats constantly groom themselves to remove any scent that might alert prey animals to their presence. Grooming also helps remove external parasites and keep cats cool.


All cats except cheetahs have retractable claws. Cat claws are used for more than hunting; they’re also necessary for gaining traction (especially when running), climbing trees and marking a cat’s territory. Whether big or small, cats scratch objects in their environment to mark their territory in two ways — with visible scratch marks and with a pheromone from the scent glands in their paws. The scent is undetectable to people but unmistakable to other cats.

Scent glands are found in other areas of a cat’s body — not just in the front paws. Glands can be found around a cat’s head — including chin, cheeks, forehead, ears and near the mouth — at the base of the tail and along the tail. When your cat rubs against or bunts things (including you) with his or her head, your cat is marking those things with pheromones. Some of the messages communicate safety, while others express fear or stress. Big cats also give head bumps to objects in the environment, leaving a scent that serves as a warning to others who encounter their territory.


Big and little cats have an extremely sensitive sense of smell with an estimated 200 million odor-sensitive cells lining their nasal passages. They also have an extra scent detection organ, known as the vomeronasal or Jacobson’s organ, located above the roof of the mouth (between the palate and nasal cavity). The organ’s function is to detect and analyze pheromones from other cats, especially the ones found in urine. You can tell when cats are analyzing scent using their Jacobson’s organ because they appear to breathe with an open mouth as they wrinkle their nose and intermittently hold their breath. This grimace or “stink face” is more obvious in big cats, but you can spot your pet cat doing it too.


Like some of their small, domesticated cousins, some big cats react to catnip (Nepeta cataria). A cat’s response to catnip’s active substance nepetalactone is genetic, with 50 to 80 percent of the domestic cat population responding to the chemical. Lions and jaguars react to catnip in ways similar to pet cats, although there are differences between individuals. In contrast, most tigers are indifferent to catnip’s effects.

So the next time you have an opportunity to visit a zoo, consider spending some time watching the activities of the big cats. We’re sure you’ll find that their behaviors will remind you of your cat.


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The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.


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