Cat family (felidae)

In the cats (family Felidæ) we come to the most recent and advanced development of the carnivorous type, by straight descent from the Eocene Miacidæ. Their cardinal characteristics are found in their round heads and short muzzles; their teeth fitted for cutting rather than chewing, with sharp and slender canines very prominent; their sheathed claws; and their powerful activity. Although the civets and the foussa have retractile claws they do not show the perfection exhibited in this feature in the cat family. Here the final bone of every toe (the terminal phalange) is so hinged upon the one next behind it that ordinarily it stands upright, held there by an elastic ligament, with the sharp, curved claw hidden in a sheath of skin and thus kept from touching the ground and so becoming blunted; for in the cat's method of work sharp claws are needed to hold the prey on which it has leaped until its teeth can come into play. When this seizing leap is made a tendon running along the underside of the toe is retracted, pulling down the claw and causing it to pierce and hold the body of the victim. This is the explanation of Puss's familiar scratching ability, and accounts for the fact that while dogs, developing long legs for their style of attack, chase and finally seize their prey with their big, strong canines, cats steal upon it or more often lie in ambush and pounce on it, using their slender canines mainly as piercers. The cats do their hunting mostly alone, and are therefore largely at the mercy of wolves, etc., who go in packs; and herein lies the origin of the fear and hate with which cats regard all dogs.

The cats are a very uniform group, all the many species belonging to the single genus Felis, except the few lynxes and the cheetah. No better example of the race can be found than our "fireside sphinx." She is a direct descendant of the "Caffre," or "Libyan" cat, a native of northeastern Africa, and especially of Egypt, where she still runs wild. Reddish sandy in color, with faint, broken, darker bars across the body, limbs, and tail, and narrow vertical lines on the face, excellent copies of this original of all the domestic cats of the western world, at least, may often be seen in our houses. This likeness is supported by the evidence of history and archæology—the skeletons of Egyptian cat mummies, and bones associated with the dawn of history. In regard to the present, however, some deduction must be made. In all parts of the world one or another of the smaller wildcats of the country have been kept as pets in native houses; and wherever the people have been far enough advanced to raise and store grain, they have cultivated a cat or some other animal to free their granaries from thieving mice. It was for this purpose, no doubt, that the cats of Egypt were first tamed; and then, to make the people prudently keep them and care for them, the priests invented a beneficent and cheerful cat goddess, who, naturally, was said to walk abroad mostly by moonlight. When the tamed Egyptian cats reached Europe with the early Phœnician colonists and traders they would certainly soon meet and interbreed with the native stock; and to such crossing is probably due the banded or "tabby" cats. On the other hand, brindled cats were formerly unknown in eastern Asia, whose spotted or foxy house cats were derived from other and local sources. Since intercourse between Europe and the Orient became frequent, more or less mixture has occurred; although one very distinct Eastern breed persists—the long-furred Persian or Angora cats, a race probably derived prehistorically from the manul, of Turkestan.

The differences between members of this genus Felis, all of which seem able to interbreed, when similar in size, are chiefly of size and coat. Their prey and hunting methods are substantially alike everywhere, and in domestication cats are slow to vary from the wild type in any respect except in color—a result of their mixed ancestry. Puss remains a savage in a civilized coat, and, accepting condescendingly the novel comforts offered her, refuses to forsake her own forest gods for the fireside shrines of her tempters.

The word "wildcat" is naturally used for any small feline, but strictly belongs to the yellowish, tabby-marked, forest cat (F. catus ) of Europe and Siberia, now becoming rare. Closely allied to it is the manul, of the central Asian steppes, where the long fur that envelopes it (as preserved in our domestic Persian beauties) is required by the awful cold of those lofty plains. Several other small cats inhabit the desert parts of southern Asia, which abound in rodents; and the long-legged, powerful, fawn-colored caracal ranges, nowhere numerously, from India and Mesopotamia around to Arabia and South Africa. Africa has several other cats of the  open country, the best known of which is the swift-running, handsome serval, which is an expert tree climber. Southeastern Asia has three or four beautifully marked forest cats, and four of great size—three leopards and the tiger.