Where do cats come from?
Like everything alive today, they evolved from primordial soup. All animals that survived the evolutionary process to be here today were the ones that gradually changed and developed to take advantage of changing conditions on Earth. Some ate plants, some ate other animals, some both. Ecosystems arose in which some animals dominated, and others were prey. The largest animals were usually not prey, the meat-eaters among them were strong fast hunters able to kill and tear their victims apart. For the last 40 million years, cats and their ancestors have been hunting other animals and eating their meat.
Our cat’s ancestors
Cats are mammals. Mammals evolved from reptiles 200 million years ago and started dominating earth after the disappearance of dinosaurs around 70 million years ago. Within the class of mammals, the most accomplished hunters are Carnivora or carnivores. Carnivora includes wolves, foxes, bears, pandas, weasels, badgers, skunks, civets, genets, mongooses, hyenas and true cats. This last grouping includes the well-known big cats, lion, tiger, leopard, jaguar, cheetah as well as the less well-known small cats, lynx, ocelot and margay.
The evolutionary process including the adaptation to ecosystems means that over time, some carnivores changed their diet – the most famous of these are pandas who are no longer meat-eaters. Cats remain the only group that is still fully dependent on live vertebrate animals as a food source.
The unique distinctive feature of all cats is a set of teeth well adapted to cutting and tearing meat. These teeth were already present 50 million years ago in the now-extinct group of mammals called Creodonts. They were fearsome beasts, similar in look to today’s wolves and bears. Despite their impressive teeth, they appear not to have evolved over time and have no descendant animal species.
Another group of mammals, called Miacids had teeth which were much more effective in tearing prey apart. They also had bigger brains and athletic bodies – perfect hunters.
Miacids lived in forests and climbed trees and it is believed they had paws with retractive claws. Around 45 million years ago Miacids evolved into various carnivores, including modern cats. This is a ‘family tree’ of cats and their ancestors over the last 10 million years:
Cats began to spread through the world and settled in places or moved depending on conditions to hunt. Because of that various species evolved, each suited to a particular habitat or pray.
The most renowned, now extinct, cat to dominate a continent was the sabre-tooth “tigers”, alive about 35 million years ago. They are no more closely related to tigers than any other feline currently alive, so we just call them sabre-tooth. Fossils show they had dagger-like upper canine teeth. It is estimated that these teeth were a weapon that could potentially kill an adult elephant – not something any of the modern cats would be able to do. They used their teeth for stabbing, had a small brain and a heavy body.
For some time sabre-tooths were also sharing space on earth with smaller-toothed and faster felines. Around 3 million years ago, when the Ice Ages began, quite a variety of felines lived on earth, similar to those of today. These included members of 3 main groups: Acinonyx (cheetahs), Felis (smaller cats) and Panthera (great cats). All of these except for cheetahs were able to spread across different continents. Members of cat families were able to cross from Asia to the Americas via the Bering Sea land bridge at various times over the last few million years and then evolved into different species on the different continents.
Dogs were domesticated quite early in human evolution. During the nomadic era, more than 10 – 12 thousand years ago, sheep, cattle and pigs were already being herded. And dogs were kept to help manage the herd. They became more important in the transition to settlements and the establishment of agriculture. Cats only started being close to humans about 4 thousand years ago, while some stayed as wild species. That may sound like a long time, but in evolutionary terms, for an animal’s body to adapt, it is not long at all.
Cats, carnivores, are hunters. They have a rounded head, with an agile, light-footed body. Cats are in the Felidae family, within the order of Carnivora (carnivores), which is part of the class Mammalia (mammals). The exact number of species within the Felidae family remains a point of disagreement. At least 38 have been defined, including the domestic cat, but classification is not an easy task.
There are the big roaring cats – Panthera. This includes lion, leopard, tiger, snow leopard, clouded leopard and jaguar. They have a uniquely structured hyoid bone, at the base of the tongue – it is made of cartilage and the vocal apparatus can move freely enabling them to roar.
In all other cats, the hyoid bone is fully ossified and rigid – they cannot roar. All of these non-roaring cats, except for one, are grouped in the genus Felis, also called “small cats”. Despite this name, Felis does include the puma, which is as large as a leopard but cannot roar.
The one exception is the Cheetah. Its uniqueness is that its claws do not retract. It has its very Acinonyx gene, not present in any other Felidae.
Close to the wild cousin
Despite all these groupings and subdivisions, there remain many similarities between all Felidae, whether wild or domestic. There are some clear distinguishing features, lions are the only cats with an immediately visible difference between the sexes – the mane of the male. In common with the other large cats, they evolved into their size to take advantage of large prey.
All cats walk on their toes, which lengthens their legs and enables them to run. Most cannot keep up this high speed for long, so they lie in ambush to catch their prey. This is also apparent from their body. It is flexible and powerful so cats can creep up on their victims and suddenly leap. The Cheetah is the exception to this rule of not running for long and has been known to pursue a victim and achieve a running speed of 100 km/h.
No matter what size, all cats also have five toes on their forepaws and four on their hind paws (pads at the base of each toe and a large pad in the middle). These pads enable them to move quietly to stalk prey. They are also all good tree-climbers, some known to kill their prey by dropping from a tree. Their fine sense of balance enables them to hunt efficiently as do their ears and eyes. Their sense of smell is also well developed, but not used in hunting. Rather, it is used for detecting signals from other cats! The Flehmen response also called flehming, is a unique skill carried out by the unique vomeronasal organ. It is a combination of smelling and tasting used for in-depth investigation of an aroma. An open mouth with a grimace curling the upper lip allows a cat to inhale the scent and for it to reach this analysis organ.
Hunting and food
Each cat hunts its prey differently, the impulse to hunt is hereditary. The young cat plays with anything that moves, and movement provides a stimulus to attack. While cats hunting behaviour is an instinct, the cats are born with, the technique of catching prey (hunting, stalking, seizing, killing, etc) has to be learnt and perfected before a young cat leaves the protection of its parent. Having learned how to find and catch food from their parents, some cats decide to try and teach their human family members to hunt and kill. A cat that brings you a mouse or bird is trying to show you where food comes from and share that food with you to eventually teach you how to catch your own. Do not punish a cat that brings you its food, it is their way of showing you they want you to be part of their family. What is often characterised as ‘play’ by humans, batting a prey animal around before killing it, is actually a test to ensure the prey will not defend itself and hurt the cat. This activity weakens the prey so that it can be killed more easily. Most cats kill by severing the prey’s spinal cord with their canine teeth. Lions jump on the prey and break their back, while tigers go for the throat. In all cases though, the cat’s natural diet is other animals – meat.
Hunting also dictates the eating patterns of wild cats – inactivity punctuated by forays in search of food. Wild cats will eat as much as they can, consuming up to a third of their body weight at one sitting and after that, can go without food for several days. Some cats have a primordial pouch, which acts similar to a camel’s hump. It is a fatty deposit on the lower belly between the hind legs. During times of low food availability, fat stored here can keep the cat alive for longer. It is less common in domestic cats as it is less necessary in their lives, however, it remains frequent in some breeds, like the Arabian Mau or Bengal. Food and hunger are quite important to a cat and dictate its behaviour. Cats will often sleep for 18 hours a day and start being active only when hunger dictates. Domestic cats are no different in terms of their need for sleep and food. The big difference is that they do not need to hunt because they are fed by their human. This means they may not be spending enough time using up the energy they are eating which is a major cause of obesity.
There are times when cats cannot eat all of what they have killed. They will bury their food so that it is not found and eaten by others. Particularly nursing mothers will do this, to protect themselves and their cubs or kitten from being found by predators. This desire to cover left-over food can sometimes be witnessed in domestic settings. Cat pawing around a food bowl is a search for something to cover it with. If newspaper is placed under the food bowl, they may tear up the paper and place it into the bowl to prevent others from finding their food. If you notice your cat behaving this way, don’t try to stop it, rather leave it alone and it will gain confidence that its food will not be taken by others if they leave it in the bowl.
In addition to their food of fellow animals, wild cats will eat grass sometimes. The infrequency of this makes it clear that this is not because of dietary needs. It is believed that it may help to get rid of hair swallowed when grooming, a behaviour wild and domestic cats also share.
Another behaviour cats are born with is kneading behaviour. It looks similar to pawing and around the food bowl happens before the cat eats. It is a sign of contentment, related to the instinctive movements kittens make while suckling. Many cats also make this movement in other situations, as they are settling down to sleep or to welcome their feline or human friends.
The colouring of the eyes and the patterns on wild cats’ skin is also inherited. In pedigree cats, they are the signs which distinguish the particular breed. In the wild, they will have evolved to camouflage the cats. Only because cats are hunters, does not mean they are not hunted by others too. The cats with the most appropriate skin and fur colour to hide in their environment are those who will have survived and had young, establishing a line of well-camouflaged animals.
Although domestic cats share 95.6% of their DNA and many traits and behaviours are closely related, luckily when domestic cats snuggle, they do not take up the whole sofa! We should remember though, that the evolutionary timescale is very long and that at their core, cats are obligate carnivores. That many retain the instinct to bury their food for protection (and all cats bury their poop to remain undetected!) demonstrates that they have not evolved away from their wild cousins. Their surroundings may not be as dangerous and how they get their food a lot easier, however, a cat diet needs to be as natural as possible to satisfy the physical needs of a true carnivore.
Natural cat food
At 3coty® we take nature as our guide and have developed 100% meat-based natural wet cat food so that your cat gets all the same nutrients as it would if it went hunting, without the effort of stalking its prey. We understand that obligate carnivores should have their diet based fully on meat and meat only. Even when the owner chooses to be vegan, the cat will always be a meat-eater.