20 facts about the closest relations of the domestic cat

Intro: this page contains some opinions too! Here are 20 facts about the closest relations of the domestic cat.

African wildcat compared with domestic cat
African wildcat compared with domestic cat. Image: MikeB from images in the public domain.
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Showing subspecies of African wildcat and linked species
Showing subspecies of African wildcat and linked species
  1. The Near Eastern wildcat aka North African wildcat is the ancestor of the domestic cat.
  2. There is one group of small wild cats which are very similar in appearance to the domestic cat, specifically the spotted or mackerel/spotted tabby cat. They are scattered across Africa, Europe and Asia and they are the wildcats. Note how the word ‘wild’ and ‘cats’ are joined together when naming this species.
  3. I think that it is fair to say too that the various subspecies of wild cat merge as you follow their distribution from the south of the African continent, to North Africa, through to the Middle East and in to Asia and finally in China where they have their own wildcat, the Chinese Desert cat. It can be tricky to differentiate these subspecies.
  4. To that group, I think, we can add the Chinese desert cat which is possibly a subspecies of the Eurasian wildcat.
  5. The taxonomy i.e. the classification of the wildcats is somewhat, still, in flux.
  6. The African wild cat is divided into different subspecies, i.e. from the south and from the north but they look very similar.
  7. It is the African-Asian a.k.a. North African or Near Eastern wildcat (yes, the species tend to merge) which the expert had decided is the ancestor of the domestic cat.
  8. Might it have been possible that the Chinese desert cat (aka Chinese mountain cat) was also domesticated? We don’t know. There are still things to know about the small wild cat species including this group who are members of the genus Felis.
  9. The wildcats of Africa behave differently to the wildcats of Scotland if there are any left! It is doubtful whether there are any true Scottish wildcats left because of hybridisation with domestic and feral cats, which is a constant problem with the wildcat because they can mate and do mate with domestic cats.
  10. The Scottish wildcat is truly wild and secretive whereas the African wildcats in Somalia often live close to human settlements, even scavenging within the boundaries of villages.
  11. Studies have proven that the African wildcat has an almost identical genetic footprint to the domestic cat which tells us that the domestic cat is an emigrant from the Middle East and Africa. I say the Middle East because that is where the Fertile Crescent is or was and it is from there that the near Eastern wildcat was first domesticated (or tamed?) and was shipped to other parts of the world with commercial travellers. The Ancient Egyptians and Romans played a role in both domestication (Egyptians) and shipping (Romans)
  12. The wildcats have thrived in climates ranging from the harsh winters of Scotland to the equally harsh burning temperatures and scrub of Africa.
  13. The African wildcat has a less contrasty tabby coat compared to the domestic cat but you can see the similarity.
  14. Tests have shown that when the weak-tabby European and African wildcats are crossed with one another the hybrid kittens develop coat patterns which are much closer to the full tabby pattern of modern domestic cats. Accordingly, it is believed that this how the history of the tabby cat began.
  15. The wildcats do not have blotched or classic tabby patterns and this variation came about in the domestic cat through evolution in Britain in the Elizabethan era. They are perhaps considered to be the most popular tabby pattern.
  16. The Spanish wildcat lives in Iberia and is a remnant of the wildcats that once lived throughout Europe. They were hunted for their pelts and persecuted.
  17. The European wildcat was once almost extinct in the wild but the population is now fairly stable in many countries. They are considered to be intractable and untameable and they are a protected species in countries such as Germany, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
  18. The Indian desert cat also called the India desert wildcat is distributed from South of Russia down to central India. It is smaller than the African and European relations and its coat is distinctly spotted. It is also described as the Asiatic wildcat or Asian wildcat (Felis lybica ornate).
  19. The African wildcat both in the south and north is an elongated and slenderer version of the domestic tabby cat. They have larger brains than domestic cats due to their struggles to survive. Unlike European wildcats they can be quite tame when raised in captivity. It is this unique character of this particular species of wild cat which lent itself to domestication.
  20. The hybridisation of these wildcats threatens their survival in the wild. As mentioned, they mate with domestic cats or other hybrids and the purebred nature of the wildcat is therefore diluted and they can no longer be described as wildcats. The difficulty is that their appearance is very similar to true wild cats. The European wildcat is less prone to hybridisation because they are more reclusive.
European wildcat
European wildcat. Image in public domain.

Sources: The core material comes from Dr Bruce Fogle’s Encyclopaedia of the Cat to which I added my thoughts from memory plus some other references from the internet and some other books where needed.

Below are some more articles on the African wildcat.

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