For most people, the term "wildcat" conjures up images of mountain lions or cheetahs. Why not a domestic tabby cat? Get to know felis silvestris lybica, commonly known as the African Wildcat, and you'll see the likenesses are remarkable.
While recent DNA research1, 2 has identified five wild cat species as the closest group of ancestors to domestic cats, it's believed that the African Wildcat is the wild ancestor that was first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent 9,000 years ago.
So if our cats share a lineage with the African Wildcat, what else do they have in common? That's precisely what our team of experts was hoping to answer when they journeyed to South Africa to study this species firsthand.
Here are some of their observations.
1/Coat & Markings
The African Wildcat is sandy brown to yellow grey in color, with black stripes on the tail, orange colored ears and underbelly, white rings around the eyes, and black rings around the tail and bottom of the legs.
These dark markings help them blend into their surroundings in both deserts and savannahs in order to conceal themselves from predators and prey. Their coloration can be lighter or darker, depending on their home environment.
The domestic cat breeds with the closest comparison in both color and pattern are the Abyssinian and Mackerel Tabby.
2/Stature & Body Weight
The African Wildcat ranges in head-body length from 18 - 30 inches and typically weigh 6 - 14 pounds. Both measurements are slightly larger than the average domestic cat and are comparable with the larger breeds of shorthair domestic cats like Abyssinians and Bengals. Most likely attributed to their activity level in the wild, African Wildcats are noticeably lean and muscular and almost always in ideal body condition.
African Wildcats have legs that are long in proportion to the rest of their body. They are an advantage while running, leaping, pouncing and seeking refuge up in trees.
While most domestic cats have shorter legs, they do exhibit similar behaviors like chasing after bugs, pouncing on a toy, or climbing up to a perch on a tall piece of furniture.
This is why it's important to work with your cat to help improve her agility as it also helps stimulate her mind, body and natural instincts.
Retractable claws stay tucked under the skin of the paws when the Wildcat is on the move, but get extended to help with climbing, hunting or fending off predators. They'll scratch on trees to keep their claws fit. Domestic cats instinctively seek out similar situations, which is why it's important to provide them with a sturdy scratching post and a horizontal scratching surface as an alternative to furniture, rugs or curtains.
The African Wildcats' retinas contain a layer of cells that reflect light back into the eye, making them ideally suited for hunting at night. Pupils constrict down to thin slits in broad daylight, and dilate very wide at night. This helps them make the most of available light. Dilated pupils can also be a sign of excitement.
The domestic cat is equipped with equally amazing eyes that allow them to play and roam around the house, even when the lights are off.
Fanned or flattened, pointed out or down - domestic cats are quite similar to African Wildcats in the way they vary the position of their whiskers to communicate.
Since the whiskers extend the width of the head, they're also used to measure openings to ensure there's enough space for the cat to fit through. Whether it's your cat exploring your home or a wildcat out hunting, this is especially handy while navigating their surroundings when they're on the prowl at night.
7/Teeth & Side Chewing
African Wildcats are carnivorous and typically hunt for rodents, birds, reptiles, frogs and insects. They're able to open their mouths extraordinarily wide. Canine teeth are used for piercing, tearing and grasping, while modified molars work like scissors to sheer meat into pieces small enough to swallow.
When using their molars, both wildcats and domestic cats use a technique called side chewing. It's easy to spot - the cat will turn her head as she shears the food with the best teeth for the job.
Orange in color and distinctively shaped, African Wildcats have what are referred to as rufus ears. They're highly sensitive, and they're able to rotate to sense the directionality of movements of both predators and prey.
While your cat's shape and coloring may differ, she'll use her ears to communicate just like her ancestor. Ears pointed straight up can indicate a relaxed state. Pointed forward - friendly or attentive. She'll signal fear with ears that are flattened and pointed out slightly to the side.
An AfricanWildcat's tail is longer than the domestic cat's to help balance while climbing and chasing prey. But like their wild relative, the positioning of your cat's tail can be used to communicate her mood, much like her eyes, ears and whiskers. Friendly, submissive, defensive, and agitated - watching for certain details can help you key into your cat's demeanor.
Hungry for More?
We have plenty of resources to help you get more in tune with your cat's true nature.
If you're interested in learning more about interpreting your cat's body language, check out our guide called What is Your Cat Trying to Tell You?
Many of your cats' preferences at feeding time are linked to their ancestors in the wild. Check out our tips for feeding your cat.
Or you can watch what unfolds as Cash, a kitten adopted from a shelter, gets raised according to principles we've learned from the African Wildcat. Watch Cash's episodes.
1 Carlos A. Driscoll a,b, David W. Macdonald a, and Stephen J. O'Brien b,1
From wild animals to domestic pets, an evolutionary view of domestication
2 J. Wastlhuber, History of Domestic Cats & Cat Breeds, (3).