6 key behaviours that reveal the wild ancestry of your cat

Watching domestic cats can offer some surprising insights into the lives of their wild relatives. Find out more about the lion in your living room.

A domestic cat hunting for mice in the garden. © Daugirdas Tomas Racys/Getty
1

Playing with prey

Many small cats, including feral cats, begin giving live animals to their kittens after about a month.

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The cubs of larger cat species are offered live prey from when they leave the den, at about two months old.

Through play, young cats learn how to tire and disorientate prey before killing it, thus reducing their risk of injury.

2

Tactile greetings

In the cat family, tactile communication is used by mothers and their young, males and females during the mating season and, often, social species such as lions and domestic cats.

Cats have scent glands on their chins, lips and cheeks. They brush these against allies and friends – a behaviour called ‘chinning’.

‘Allorubbing’ is a full-body greeting in which cats nudge, push and rub against each other. It often follows gentle head-butting.

3

Scratch marking

Both male and female cats scratch trees (or other suitable objects) at key locations in their territory. The height of the marks may give other cats a clue to their size – and thus strength.

Cats instinctively rescent these scratching posts at frequent intervals. This is why pet cats keep scraping the same favoured pieces of furniture.

Even de-clawed cats continue to try to scratch, because their pads will still leave a scent mark.

4

Defending territory

Many cats (including domestic ones) mark their territories frequently with scent and urine. Wild cat species supplement this with a range of vocalisations.

If cats do meet, they use ritual displays to try to stop the encounter escalating into a fight. The classic warning is to hiss while on tiptoe, with back arched and fur on the back and tail erect.

5

Attacking methods

Most cats are ambush predators, lying in wait in cover near where prey gathers. A tabby hiding near a birdfeeder is using the same technique as a leopard at a water hole.

Smaller species of cat tend to seize their prey in a pounce, but larger cats may make a short dash from their hiding place.

Domestic cats and lions alike kill prey by biting the neck, to cause suffocation or
sever the spine.

6

Caring for young

The females of both domestic and wild cats raise their offspring in secluded dens. The young are often moved before weaning to prevent losses to predators and infanticide by other cats.

Female cats carry young one at a time, holding the loose skin at the nape or along the back.

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In lion prides and feral cat colonies, the young cats may be suckled by related females as well as by their mother.

3 more cats facts you should know

  • Domestic cats’ adrenal glands, which produce ‘fright or flight’ hormones, are proportionately smaller than those in wild cat species. This may contribute to the relatively placid behaviour of pet cats.
  • Domestic cats have undergone subtle changes in body structure since splitting from wildcats. Their longer intestines are an adaptation to a diet that tends to include less meat than that of their wild ancestors.
  • Catnip, the active ingredient of which is called nepetalactone, has been shown to have a similar temporary effect on some wild felines, including lions and jaguars, as on pet cats.

A domestic cat resting in the sofa. © Manuel Breva Colmeiro/Getty