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A cat, what is it?

What is a cat? When we talk about cats, we sometimes have the image of the lions of the savannah or the tigers stalking their prey in the jungle… but much more often, we think of those lazy and endearing fur balls that spend their time basking on the couch. Despite undeniable differences, big wild cats and small domestic cats have 95% of DNA in common.


Domestic cats belong to the biological family of felines. They have many wild cousins, such as lions, cheetahs, and servals. Felines can be divided into two subfamilies: the Pantherinae (large roaring felines) which includes most large cats such as lions, tigers, jaguars; and the Felinae (small purring felines) which include mostly small and medium-sized cats such as domestic cats, cheetahs, and servals

Scientists were able to sequence the DNA of domestic cats and showed that there was little difference with their wild cousins. This is not surprising when many domestic cats can spend their entire lives in the wild, without interaction with humans.

Unlike dogs, which are considered fully domesticated, cats are semi-domesticated. Some are more dependent on us than others who are much closer to their wild cousins.

Hybrid cat breeds

Hybrid cat breeds are a perfect example of the category of cats that are considered domestic but share a greater part of their genes with wild cats.

They exist in the wild but are more commonly produced through selective breeding programs and can bring in a good price.

Hybrid cats in Great Britain

A good example of hybrid cats existing in the wild is the cross between the Scottish feral cat and the domestic cat. It occurs when Scottish feral cats breed with stray domestic cats, resulting in a litter of hybrid kittens.

This phenomenon is detrimental to the feral cat population: hybridization dilutes the feral genes and makes reproduction between two feral cats rare.

It is now estimated that less than 100 purebred Scottish feral cats exist in the wild and this hybridization is one of the main causes of the reduction of their population.

Reproduction of hybrid cats

In recent years, the popularity of hybrid cats has exploded, which has seen the arrival of new hybrid breeds. The one that is probably the most easily recognizable is the Bengal breed, which is a cross between a Bengal (or Asian) leopard cat and a domestic feline.

A Bengal whose parents are an Asian leopard cat and a domestic Bengal will be called an F1 Bengal. The "F" refers to Filiation, which simply means son or daughter, and the accompanying number indicates how many generations separate it from the leopard cat.

Thus, a Bengal F3 is a Bengal with a feline-leopard great-grandparent, an F4 has a cat-leopard great-great-great-grandfather, and so on. The first three generations (F1, F2, and F3) are considered as the semi-wild generations, they are called Foundation Bengals and these cats are not allowed to participate in contests or show nor to be sold to individuals.

From F4 onwards, the animals are considered as domestic and are called Stud Book Tradition (SBT), which means that at least 4 generations separate them from the Asian Leopard Cat and that the specimen is a product of pure pedigree obtained by the mating of 2 Bengals.

SBT Bengals are known to combine the grace and beauty of a wild cat with the personality of a domestic cat, with its endearing quirks and sometimes a pronounced taste for water.

Hybrid cat breeds and their wild lineage

  • Bengal (Asian Leopard Cat)
  • Caracal (Caracal)
  • Chausie (Shoe)
  • Safari (Geoffroy's cat)
  • Savannah (Serval)

Reproduce cats for a wild look

Just like hybrid cats, some cats are bred selectively to obtain a wild appearance without crossing with a feral cat. Like hybrids, these new breeds are gaining popularity because of their wild appearance.

The Toyger cat has received a lot of media attention. As its name suggests, it has been reproduced to look like a miniature tiger or a toy. These cats have no tiger DNA but their tiger-like coat and short ears may suggest otherwise.

Wild looking cats and the wild cat they are intended to look like

  • Ocicat (Ocelot)
  • Pixie-Bob (Lynx, Bobcat)
  • Serengeti (Serval)
  • Toyger (Tiger)
  • Cheetoh (Reproduced to look wild)

Knowing the difference between a stray cat and a feral cat

When approaching an unknown cat, it is sometimes difficult to know if it is a stray or a wild (feral) cat. To find out the obvious differences, we have compared these two types of cats below.

Feral cats

A feral cat is a cat either born in the wild or a stray cat (or haret) that has not had human contact for a very long time. Feral cats differ from stray cats in their fear of humans and are generally untameable. This means that they are not adapted to indoor spaces and prefer to live in a colony outdoors.

A cat colony is a group of feral cats sharing the same living space and a common food source. Many associations control the population of feral cat colonies using the trap-castration-release method.

Taming feral cats is not recommended as they lead a happier and less stressful life in the colony. That said, kittens born as ferals can be socialized and adopted.

Feral cats have little or no contact with humans and as soon as humans approach, they are quickly frightened and keep their distance.

This is not always true though, as many colonies of feral cats have come to learn that humans can be a good source of food (not literally, of course).

This is especially true for colonies living near tourist spots on the coast. Body language generally differs between feral cats and stray cats.

For example, feral cats will not show anybody signs that would indicate that they are happy or comfortable in your presence.

They won't look you in the eye and will either lurk or sit with their tails wrapped around them for protection.

Stray cats or hares

A haret cat is a formerly domestic cat that has escaped and ended up getting lost. Fortunately, stray cats can sometimes be rehabilitated for adoption, as they quickly remember the feeling of having loving owners and warm knees to curl upon.

A stray cat is more likely to approach you or your home than a feral feline. It is less likely to run away when you get too close (some may even tolerate or even enjoy being petted).

A stray cat will be more likely to look you in the eye and use body language that may indicate that it is happy or comfortable, such as walking with its tail raised. Stray cats are more likely to respond to you by meowing, unlike feral cats who do not meow or purr.

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