Cat Breed Versus Cat Species

All cat breeds, of which there are over 100, are balled together with random bred cats (moggies), feral cats and strays in any country, and classified as a species of cat called “the domestic cat”, which is a domesticated African wildcat². The domestic cat is on the same level, in terms of classification, as the 5 subspecies of wildcat.

The term “cat breed” is not a scientific classification, whereas “domestic cat”  – scientific name: felis silvestris catus is classified by scientists. Some people write that “felis catus”. The wildcat has a similar scientific name: felis silvestris lybica (African wildcat for example).

cat breed versus cat species

Cat breed versus cat species

Cats breeds in the West are a human creation. Some of them are literally created by mating a cat of one breed with a cat of another breed. The real Turkish Angora in Turkey is not registered or recognised by a cat association but is a cat breed nonetheless. The same goes for the Siamese in Thailand and other so called “natural cat breeds”.

Some people would prefer to call the natural cat breeds “types of domestic cat with a certain appearance”. However, the real Turkish Angora in Turkey, the real Siamese cat in Thailand, the real Japanese Bobtail in Japan, the real Norwegian Forest Cat etc. are all seen as “domestic cats” by scientists when classifying cat species.

You can see in the chart that a cat species (of which there are 36) is a higher rank that the domestic cat, which is in effect a subspecies of the wildcat.

So, a person can’t say “wild cat breed”. That is wrong. And they can’t say “a species of domestic cat” because there is only one species of domestic cat, which is in fact a subspecies.

The term “wildcat” and “wild cat” are often mixed up. It is confusing and makes it harder to understand. “Wild cat” refers to any one of the 36 species of wild cat – the wild cat species. ‘Wildcat” is one of the 36 species and is a small wild cat species that looks very similar to the tabby domestic cat.

It is ironic that the wildcat has frequently mated with the domestic cat in the wild to create hybrid cats. These then mate again with domestic cats. It is quite possible that there are very few true wildcats left in the world.

Also the domestic cat is very close to the wildcat. A tabby feral cat is similar to wildcat hybrids in behavior and appearance. The boundaries are blurred.

The situation with respect to cat breeds has been confused by the cat fancy in the West. It would have been better if there were no formally designated cat breeds bred by breeders. Before about the 1850s there were no formal cat breeds, as there are now. There were just “domestic cats” and they varied somewhat in appearance from region to region due to evolution over 10,000 years.

The state of affairs before the middle of the 19th century reflects the classification of the species, namely, as mentioned, that all domestic cats are the same in the eyes of the taxonomists, the people involved with classifying all living species. The science of classification is called “taxonomy”.

Note: (2) the “African wildcat” that was domesticated is better described as the Near Eastern wildcat or North African wildcat because it has been decided that there are two types of African wildcat.

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Cat Breed Versus Cat Species — 12 Comments

    • Yes, Marc. you are right. There are some true “purebred” wildcats but we don’t know where they are or what they look like. A lot of wildcats have mated with domestic cats. The offspring look like their parents with small differences. Add to that differences of opinion on classification itself and what should be simple gets harder. One thing for sure “breed” and “species” are completely different.

      I tried to make this simple and in my mind it was but as I wrote it I realised it is a bit complicated. There are complications.

  1. ^Thanks Michael for a great article. To clarify (or add to the confusion)the terms wildcat and wild cat. A wild cat is a domestic cat gone wild or feral. Wildcat refers to the truly wild and undomesticated species that freely roam in certain parts of the world. Such as the Felis s Lybica, Manul, Felis Negripes, etc.
    I might suggest that the free-roaming Anatolian cat which includes the legitimate Turkish Angora and so-called Turkish Van are in the twilight between wild cat and wildcat since in their country of origin the great majority of them never see the inside of a house but are in contact with people to a greater or lesser degree.
    My gut feeling is that the Anatolian long-haired cat owes more to the Felis sylvestris Caucasica than many people care to admit.

    • Thanks Harvey. The terminology can be confusing. When I write about this subject I realise how simple it could be but how complicated it becomes. All the complications are human generated.

    • the free-roaming Anatolian cat which includes the legitimate Turkish Angora and so-called Turkish Van are in the twilight between wild cat

      I agree that they are. They are “domesticated” or are meant to be so they look like domestic cats because the coat colour and patterns evolved as domestic cats but they revert to their roots. The domestic cat can revert back to the wild. Get rid of people and cat domestication would go into reverse.

    • Thanks, Harvey. I understand better now. So, the majority of my colony ferals are wild cats? You know, I don’t think I like that description. I, usually, think in terms of “disadvantaged”, “unloved”, “undomesticated”. I’m a softy about them.

  2. When I said a wild cat is a domestic cat gone wild, I really do mean wild, and virtually indistinguishable from a true wildcat. It does however remain a Felis silvesris Catus, and it’s kittens would easily be tamed if separated from it’s mother at an early age unlike some species of wildcat. The Manul, Felis Silvestris Silvestris The European Forest cat or Scottish wildcat, the Felis Negripes, and the Manul are not tamable under any circumstances.
    We are talking about feline behaviour here which is a separate subject from whether anybody loves them or not.

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