This article deals with the domestic cat. For other species of the cat family, please see Felidae.
The cat, Felis catus domesticus, is a small feline carnivore that has been domesticated for several millennia. The term cat most commonly means a domestic cat, although it can also be used to refer to the other members of the feline family. For example lions, tigers, jaguars and the like are often referred to as the big cats. All cats today, domestic and big, probably descended from an animal called Proailurus, which lived in Europe until about 20 million years ago.
The cat was first domesticated by the Ancient Egyptians in 3000 BC, to keep mice and rats away from their grain stores. They regarded cats as embodiments of their god; the penalty for killing a cat was death, and when a cat died it was mummified in the same way as a human. In the Middle Ages, though, cats were often thought to be witches' familiars. Today some people believe that white cats are unlucky, or that it is unlucky if a black cat crosses your path, but others believe that black cats are lucky.
Can someone clarify the various superstitions associating cats with good and bad luck?
Cats are kept for companionship as pets, and to hunt mice and rats. Farms often have dozens of cats, living semi-wild in the barns. Hunting in the barns and the fields, they kill and eat rodents that would otherwise eat large parts of the grain crop. (Many pet cats successfully hunt and kill mice, birds and fish by instinct[?], but may not eat their prey.) Feral cats may live alone or in large groups with communal nurseries, depending on resource availability.
The physiology of cats is fairly consistent, especially when compared to the other most common domestic animal, the dog. Cats typically weigh somewhere in the range of 10 to 15 pounds (5 to 7 kg), rarely over 20 pounds. In captivity cats typically live 10 to 15 years, though the oldest known cat lived to age 34. There are many named breeds, each with distinct features and heritage. However, due to common cross-breeding in populated areas, many cats are simply identified as belonging to the homogeneous breeds of domestic longhair and domestic shorthair, depending on their type of fur.
The wild ancestor of the cat is believed to have been from a desert climate, and cats display behaviours associated with such creatures. They enjoy heat and sunning themselves. Their feces are usually very dry and cats prefer to bury them in sandy places. They are able to stay unmoving in one place for long periods of time, usually when observing prey.
A male cat is usually called a tom cat[?], a female cat is called a queen. A young cat is called a kitten. A cat whose ancestry is officially registered is called a purebred cat or a Pedigreed cat or a Show cat. The owners and breeders of show cats compete to see who can breed the cat with the closest resemblance to the 'ideal' definition of the breed. Less than one percent of the total feline population are purebred cats - the remaining 99% have mixed ancestry and are generally known as moggies, or more properly domestic longhairs and domestic shorthairs.
The sound a cat makes is written "meow" in American English and "miaow" in British English.
Cats are low-maintenance pets compared to dogs, and are suitable for households where everyone works full-time, although you might want to get two cats so that they can keep each other company during the day. Also consider getting an adult cat rather than a kitten. Animal shelters often find that many people are keen to adopt kittens, but adult cats are harder to home. Take your new cat to the vet to have it neutered and vaccinated.
Feed your cat a good-quality cat food. There are cat foods which are formulated for cats with special dietary needs, such as kittens or older or less active cats. Cats should also have fresh water available at all times, although many cats prefer to drink rain water (possibly because they can taste the chlorine in tap water). Avoid feeding them tuna - this can contribute to premature kidney failure, especially in males.
Long-haired cats need to be groomed every day to prevent their fur from getting matted. Short-haired cats can handle most of their own grooming, but should still be brushed occasionally to remove loose hairs.
Cats are very clean animals and are normally easy to house-train by showing them their litterbox after meals and perhaps scratching their paws in it. If a cat suddenly stops using its litterbox, take it to the vet, because this may be caused by a medical problem - if the cat finds it painful to relieve itself, it may associate the pain with the litterbox. It can also be a behavioural problem; for example, the cat may be resentful over the introduction of a new kitten to the household. Since citrus smells unpleasant to cats, cleaning up the mess with a citrus-scented cleaner may help.
Another problem some people have with cats is that some cats sharpen their claws on the furniture. Often it is the owner's favourite chair that is clawed most, because the cat is responding to its owner's scent. Cats which are allowed to go outside are less likely to have this problem because they can sharpen their claws on trees. Try giving the cat a scratching post; you may have to try several to find one your cat likes, and a log of wood with the bark still on may work better than a commercial scratching post. Covering the furniture with aluminium foil may help discourage the cat.