Categories: taxonomy

Scientific name for the domestic cat: felis catus or felis silvestris catus?

There is some confusion on the internet as to whether the scientific name for the domestic cat is felis catus or felis silvestris catus.

The confusion comes from how scientists have decided to classify the domestic cat within the range of all the cats. The question is whether the domestic cat is a distinct species of cat or a subspecies of the wildcat. The classification of species is called taxonomy.

Felis silvestris catus or felis catus – take your pick.

If the domestic cat is a distinct species its scientific name is felis catus. If it is a subspecies its scientific name is felis silvestris catus (as felis silvestris is the name of the wildcat)

On the basis that the domestic cat is a subspecies as decided in 2007 following phylogenetic research the other small cats in this group of cats are the European wildcat and the African-Asian wildcat (North African wildcat). In other words there are three subspecies of the wildcat namely the domestic cat, the European wildcat and the North African wildcat.

Scientists’ thoughts on whether the domestic cat is a subspecies have evolved and changed over the years. Wikipedia says that the latest thought (as at 2017) is that it is a distinct species and not a subspecies and therefore its scientific name is felis catus.

Sometimes you also see felis catus domesticus. This name was proposed by Johann Christian Polycarp Erxleben in 1777 but it is not used as far as know nowadays.

It is confusing. I would suggest that you can use either felis catus or felis silvestris catus and no one will criticise you.

The Latin ‘felis‘ (the genus for all small cats) comes apparently from the Latin ‘feles‘ meaning cat (according to Your Dictionary). However, Dr Morris has a different origin. He says that there are 2 possible derivations. The first is ‘fe‘ meaning to bear young which is a reference to the cat’s ability to breed well and the second is from ‘fell‘, a reference to the cat’s role in felling mice.

‘Silvestris’ means woodland, a reference to the habitat in which the wildcat lives. Lastly the Latin ‘catus‘ means cat in the English language (Your Dictionary).

The Latin word ‘felis‘ has given us the English word ‘feline’ which is a word we all know and understand (thankfully) to mean cat. An example of how you’d use the word ‘feline in a sentence would be: Feline behaviour is interesting.

P.S. Another confusion is the name of the small species of wild cat called the wildcat! Spot the difference? If you are discussing wild cats generally, you refer them as ‘wild cats’ – the words are separated. If you are referring to the species of wild cat called the wildcat (felis silvestris) you refer to them as wildcats.

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Michael Broad

Hi, I am 70-years-of-age at 2019. For 14 years before I retired at 57, I worked as a solicitor in general law specialising in family law. Before that I worked in a number of different jobs including professional photography. I have a longstanding girlfriend, Michelle. We like to walk in Richmond Park which is near my home because I love nature and the landscape (as well as cats and all animals).

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