“Wild cat” is a general term used to describe both big cats, such as the lion, leopard and jaguar, and small wild cats, like the marbled cat, ocelot and caracal. The singular word “wildcat” is used in reference to five species of small wild cats that live in various regions around the world, including the African wildcat, Asian wildcat, European wildcat and Chinese Alpine Steppe Cat. Domestic cats are descended from the African wildcat.
Although wild cats can be found in different types of environments ranging from deserts to mountain regions, most live in forests.
Wild cats come in all sizes, from the small black-footed cat to the largest wild cat, the tiger. They have protractible claws (the ability to extend their claws), tongues covered with tiny papilla (v-shaped cones) and fur in many different colors and thicknesses depending on the cat.
How Scientists Classify Wild Cats
All wild cats, including big cats, small wild cats and wildcats, are members of the Carnivore order and Felidae family, which are biological classifications. Members of the Felidae family are called felids.
There are four subfamilies of felids, the Pantherinae, Felinae, Machairodontinae and Proallurinae. The various big cat species can be found in both of the Pantherinae and Felinae subfamilies, however small wild cats (including wildcats) are members of only one subfamily – the Felinae. Members of the Machairodontinae and Proailurinae subfamilies are prehistoric cats.
There have been felids on this planet for approximately 25 million years. All felids (wild cats) are carnivores (meat eaters). Most lead a very solitary life, excluding lions who live in prides, and cheetahs, who hunt together.
Wild Cats in Culture
You can find depictions of wild cats dating back many thousands of years in cultures throughout the world. The oldest paintings of lions were discovered in the Chauvet Cave (southern France) in 1994. The cave is considered one of the most important prehistoric art sites in the world.
Sculptures of lions have been around since the beginning of civilization. You can also find lion statues in many middle-eastern cultures, like the Lion Gate of ancient Mycenae (Greece),
In more modern times, lions and other wild cats have become icons like the Cowardly Lion from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz; Tigger from Winnie the Pooh; Shere Khan from The Jungle Book; Elsa, the lioness from Born Free and Aslan from The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Other famous wild cats include Hobbes – Calvin’s best friend in the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes; Daniel Striped Tiger from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Bubsy the bobcat from the Bubsy video games.
Wild cats have even become commercial mascots, like Tony the Tiger (Frosted Flakes), Chester Cheetah (Cheetos) and Leo (Metro Goldwyn Mayer).
Many Wild Cats Are Endangered
Many wild cat species are currently classified on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as vulnerable, threatened, endangered and critically endangered. Some are even extinct.
Wild cat populations are declining worldwide due to habitat loss (deforestation), human conflict, loss of prey and poaching. Big cats, including tigers and leopards, are aggressively hunted for their pelts, organs and even bones. Some populations of large wild cat species have been reduced by 80% over the past 10 years.