First published in 2015 as Cats: A Miscellany
This revised and updated edition copyright © Summersdale Publishers Ltd, 2017

With research by Anna Maria Espsäter

Illustrations © Shutterstock

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Title Page



The History of Domestication

Cat Language

Cat Behaviour and Communication

Cat Breeds

Famous Felines

Cats in Folklore and Mythology

Cats in Popular Culture

The Contemporary Cat


Further Reading




There are many reasons why we find cats so fascinating. Their individual personalities, their curiosity and sheer grace, plentiful purrs and ample affection (when bestowed) joyously enrich our lives.

That said, we know comparatively little about them. Their very independence and aloofness, which can sometimes come across as downright disdain, are interesting and appealing character traits. On the whole, our feline companions are discerning; they don’t just shower every Tom, Dick and Harry with their affections. Instead they take their time, check you out, sniff you, consider you and eventually decide whether they deem you worthy.

The chapters in this book endeavour to capture some of the many joys that cats can bring and explain some of those quirky cat habits. Many cats, from the well known, well loved and heroic to the unknown, unsung and plain, wander through these pages. We look at the history of how our domestic moggies came to grace our homes and lives with their presence, the etymology of the word ‘cat’ and many of the popular cat phrases in use today and in the past.

The Egyptians might have started the trend of cat worship, but today we are arguably in the midst of a new era of looking up to our feline friends, with an estimated half a billion cats sharing our lives around the globe. Our love of cats extends into popular culture, literature, music and television, where they are the focus of our attention, and on the internet, postings of funny cat photos, GIFs and memes abound – we have chapters to cover their popularity across all media, where some famous felines are singled out. Going back in time, there’s a brief look at historically famous cats and famed ailurophiles, as well as mythological felines. Cats feature extensively in folkloric beliefs and superstition, with some surprisingly similar folk tales concerning cats in different parts of the world.

Above all, the book aims to be a celebration of all things cat, the four-pawed friend that we know and love. Sprinkled throughout the book are quirky cat facts and figures along with cat feats, cat celebrities and scientific information if you’re curious to find out more about your favourite moggy. Finally, the book includes a list of further reading and useful websites for follow-up. Happy reading!


The phrase ‘domestic cat’ is an oxymoron.





Cats have a long history: there is fossil evidence of African wildcats going back 38 million years. The domestic cat was first classified by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (later ennobled and known as Carl von Linné) in 1758 as Felis catus. Although cats have been domesticated and shared their lives with humans for centuries (it’s only in the past 60 to 70 years that they have moved from a mostly outdoor life to a more indoor-based lifestyle with fewer hunting and wild traits), the domestication process has been slow. Our domestic moggy, science tells us, is only a few gene mutations away from their wilder ancestors.


Global or International Tiger Day has been celebrated worldwide on 29 July since 2010 to raise public awareness of tiger conservation issues. India is the country with the highest number of wild tigers, estimated at just over 1,700.


Felidae is the common biological name for the cat family, divided into two subfamilies: the Pantherinae, which includes many of the wilder species, and the Felinae, which also includes wild species such as lynx, cougar, cheetah and ocelot, as well as our domestic cat. It’s believed that all felids shared a common ancestor as little as ten to fifteen million years ago. Over the past ten million years, big cats and domestic cats have continued to diverge, but looking at the DNA makeup, there are a surprising amount of similarities among all the members of the felid family. From three million years ago, wildcat species were found around the globe, with the exception of the least hospitable areas, such as Antarctica and the Arctic. There are 36 or 37 (though some sources report 41) species of felids today.


There are five members of the Pantherinae subfamily referred to as ‘big cats’ – lion, tiger, jaguar, leopard and snow leopard. These impressive kitties are the only ones that have the ability to roar. The lion is one of the few social felids, living in groups known as prides, but on the whole cats big or small tend to be solitary. Remarkable though it seems, the world’s big cats, whose lives couldn’t be more different from your average domestic moggy’s, share over 95 per cent of the same DNA, according to a 2013 study by an international team of scientists. Tigers are the largest members of the cat family, lions the tallest.




The Torah, the Jewish religious text, mostly has references to big cats – lions, tigers and leopards – while the Talmud, the book of Jewish law, references the humbler house cat. If God had not given Jewish people the Torah, it states, they would have learned modesty from the cat and this is one of several ‘cat mentions’ in the text. On the whole, cats in Jewish communities flourished in the Middle Ages, a time when Jews were being demonised and killed by Christians.

The holy book of Islam, the Koran or Qur’an, has by far the most mentions of cats, and both the prophet Muhammad and one of his companions Abu Hurayrah (sometimes spelled Hurairah), which means ‘father of kittens’, appear to have been avid cat lovers. Muhammad very much cared for his favourite cat Muezza, who takes centre stage in several stories. Islam teaches that people should look after cats well and mistreating a cat is considered a serious sin.



God made the cat in order that man might have the pleasure of caressing the lion.





1. Largest in the cat kingdom is the Siberian tiger. On average, this tiger reaches about two metres (80 inches) in length and can weigh as much as 425 kilograms (just under 1,000 pounds). These gorgeous creatures that roam the snowy plains of Russia are under serious threat, with only some 400 left in the world today, although exact figures are hazy.

2. The lion may not be the largest big cat, but it’s still the tallest, averaging 120 centimetres (4 feet) for a male and 110 centimetres (3 feet 6 inches) for a female, and weighing in at 127 kilograms (280 pounds) for females, and 190 kilograms (420 pounds) for males. There are now eight recognised subspecies of lion, and they can be found across Africa.

3. The jaguar is the only panther species found in the Americas, and although only the third largest of the cat species in the world, it’s the largest in the western hemisphere. Its territory stretches from southwestern USA right down to Argentina, with the rainforest as its preferred habitat. The jaguar is one of the few cat species that enjoys swimming.

4. The puma, also known as cougar or mountain lion, is the one big cat that most resembles the smaller feline species in looks. Fond of mountains in a territory that ranges from southern Canada to the tip of South America, the puma has a thick coat to keep it warm in the often freezing, high altitude temperatures. The puma is one of the most adaptable predators – although preferring the mountains, its habitats can include deserts, grasslands, forests and even jungles.

5. The smallest of the five big cats is the leopard, part of the panther genus. It’s found, in declining numbers, across large parts of Africa and Asia and is similar in appearance to other large, spotted cats, including the cheetah and the jaguar. Somewhat confusingly, both black leopards and black jaguars are known as black panthers.


Some nine million years ago, the big cats branched off the evolutionary line, and fossilised evidence tells us that small wildcat species have been in existence since then. Our human-friendly felines are direct descendants of, and very similar to, small wildcats that populated large parts of the planet three million years ago. The classification Felis silvestris catus now refers to both domestic cats and wildcats, such as the Scottish wildcat. There are seven species of wildcat today, depending on the classifying body (various scientific and academic bodies classify them differently), including European and African wildcat, the jungle cat, Chinese mountain cat and Arabian sand cat. Over millennia and to this day, there has been much interbreeding between domestic and wildcats – even experts find it hard to tell them apart just by looking. Wildcats, on the whole, are extremely shy around humans, and the main difference between wild and domestic is that of temperament, the wilder relatives remaining far more aggressive than your average lap cat at home.



Her function is to sit and be admired.





There are 19 different wild species of cats in the world that qualify as ‘small cat’ species.