The difference between ‘cat breeds’ and ‘cat species’

It might be useful to quickly go over the difference between ‘cat breeds’ and ‘cat species’. It’s quite as subtle difference but a very important one.

In 1758 the modern idea of classifying all the world’s animals and plants began. Humans like to create some order in the world (I am afraid they’ve failed 😎) and they wanted to find out how all the plants and animals in the world related to each other and whether some were distinctly different or connected to others because they were and are similar.

Difference between breeds and species
Difference between breeds and species in terms of taxonomy. Image: MikeB
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Over the years, the scientists decided that there are about 8.7 million different species of plant and animal. And in order to classify them they worked out a quite complicated classification method call ‘taxonomy’. See some more articles on taxonomy at the base of the page. And there are many more which you can search for using custom search.

It allowed scientists to categorise the species and set out their connections, one with the other. DNA analysis improved things tremendously because at the beginning all the scientists could do was to decide whether a cat or any other animal was a distinct species by how they looked. But appearances can be misleading.

In the beginning there were more species than there are now because DNA testing has allowed scientists to realise that what were once distinct species are in fact so similar that they should be categorised under the same heading.

And what is interesting is that the scientists are still working out how many cat species there are because, as you see in the chart, I have put the number of cat species between 37 and 40. That looks odd, but you will find that if you do a Google search you will see a spread between those two numbers. It shows us that taxonomy is still in flux and changing.

And so, there are about 38 different cat species and all of them bar one are wild cats. And the one cat which is not wild is called the domestic cat. And the domestic cat is a subspecies of wild cat called the “wildcat”, actually the North African wildcat.

All these different species of cat came about through natural selection along the lines of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Nature created them over millions of years through evolution.

And this is the great difference between species and breeds. All the cat breeds have been created through artificial selection which is also known as selective breeding. Whereas nature allowed the species to evolve, cat breeders working within the cat fancy played at being God to carve up the one species of domestic cat and divide it into over 100 different breeds. But these breeds occupy a very small space in terms of overall numbers. The total number of individual cats classified as purebred cats represents, at a guess, around 1% of all domestic cats across the planet or less.

Some of these breeds are now defunct because they were not accepted by the cat associations. You will find that the current big cat associations accept around 50 breeds. Some accept more and some accept less but that’s around the number. The CFA accept 45 breeds while TICA accept 73 breeds.

But they have all been created by people in their homes and in their facilities working often on the back of a genetic mutation which is a natural event and then using that through artificial selection to build on it to create a distinct breed such as, for example, the hairless cats such as the Sphynx.

That is why, in the chart on this page you see the cat breeds within the bigger umbrella of species. And within taxonomy, the species fall within the umbrella of what is called a ‘Genus’ which is a wider range of different animal types, and you got up that tree to the next level which is ‘Family’ which in respect of cats is ‘Felidae’ and above the family is the ‘Suborder’ and then ‘Order’ and then ‘Class’ and then ‘Phylum’ and finally Kingdom which for animals is Animalia.

Below are some more pages on taxonomy:

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