Why Are Cats So Small?


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Do you ever get the feeling that your kitty is the mini version of their larger feline cousins, like the regal lion, or the exotic tiger? Whenever I see my black cat stalking his toy mice, I always imagine him as a large panther in the wilderness, only less scary!

And while I do love having my pocket-sized cats inside my home, their small stature does make me wonder…

Why are cats so small compared to their much larger cousins?

Domesticated cats are the smallest member of the Felidae family, which encompasses all cats. Natural selection favored smaller cats, because of the living conditions, where they’d have more success surviving on smaller prey and hiding in smaller shelters.

Let’s dive deeper into our cat’s historic past and uncover the reasons behind their small size and how closely they’re related to big cats!

Why Are Cats So Small?

While you might be thinking that your kitty is already pretty small for a cat, we’re not here to compare pet cats, instead, we’re here to explore the evolution of cats and the ways it’s connected to their petite size!

The Advantages Of Being Small

Whether we’re talking about pet cats or other small animals, there must be a reason behind their mini size, and from an evolutionary perspective, it must be for their own advantage. Felines come in all sizes, but a cat’s small demeanor can be attributed to limited resources, and being small definitely reduces the total energy that’s your body needs.

Felisa Smith from the University of Mexico who has studied animals body size extensively explains that the benefits for being smaller include “increased heat dissipation as body size decreases; earlier reproduction within a species’ lifespan, and possibly greater resistance to extinction, as smaller animals tend to be more abundant.

The Origin Of Cats

To understand why cats came to look the way they do we need to also look at their classification. First of all, cats are part of a large family that consists of 36 wild cat species. Nadine Lamberski, Chief Animal Health Officer states that “these felids are morphologically similar with rounded, flat faces, facial whiskers, large eyes, and large ears. They have the widest range of body sizes of all living carnivore families.”

The Felidae family can be broken down into two subfamilies, the first is the Pantherinae, which includes cats that roar, such as lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars. The second is called Felinae, and it includes the cougar, cheetah, lynxes, ocelots, and the domestic cat.

To be even more precise, all small and medium-sized cat species, including our domestic kitties, are part of the Felis genus, and genetic studies showed that the Domestic Cat lineage “diverged from a common ancestor in North America about 6.2 million years ago.”

Moreso these studies showed that our cats are part of the most recent lineage and that domesticated cats came from the small wildcat species native to Africa, called Felis Silvestris Lybica. By looking at these discoveries even though cats are part of a carnivorous family that encompasses large felines, domestic cats were always small, or at least for millions and millions of years.

The Domestication Of Cats

What sets cats apart from other felines isn’t just their petite size, but their close relationship to humans. Which for some might raise the question of whether humans had something to do with their smallness.

Humans have been involved in selective animal breeding for several hundreds of years, creating new breeds with new unique characteristics. Of course, cats have been a part of selective breeding, but according to research “Most of the selection that produced the cat breeds recognized today took place over the last 75 years.” While when it comes to dogs humans have been involved in “creating” new and different breeds for much longer!

What’s even more interesting is that, while cats decided to become members of the human communities at least 10,000 years ago, as the Egyptian obsession has shown us,  cats haven’t changed much during this period. In fact, a study conducted by Claudio Ottoni of the University of Leuven showed that “wild and domestic cats showed no major differences in their genetic makeup.”

This proves that while our small feline companions have learned the tricks of true friendship, they’re probably still wild at heart, similar to the big cats!

Did Cats Descend From Lions And Tigers?

We know that all felines are part of the same family, so it makes sense that our tiny fluffballs are closely related to large cats like lions and tigers. Well, researchers found that “common domestic house cat shares about 95.6% of its DNA with tigers, from which they diverged on the evolutionary tree about 10.8 million years ago.

Studies also tell us, that “of all the felines, big cats were the first to split off into their own group from the common ancestor.” These unbelievable findings can truly reveal to us that these big cats are crucial to understanding all cat evolution, even for our small house familiars!

Knowing that our cats descended from the African wild cat, is one thing, but finding out that they also share plenty of their DNA and ancestry with the big cats, makes me appreciate my kitties even more!

What Are The Similarities Between Big And Small Cats?

There’s no denying that our housecats share physical and behavioral traits with bigger cats, but how far does this likeness go?

1. They Are Obligate Carnivores

If a tiger, a lion, and your house kitty were to go out for dinner, they’d definitely order meat dishes, since all felines are obligate carnivores. Having similar gastronomic tastes also means that both small and large cats have less complicated digestive systems than herbivores.

This makes sense if you take a moment to observe their lifestyles. Hunting is an important part of their life and those bursts of high energy require large amounts of protein that will keep their energy levels up. (Though if all they do is eat protein, one would wonder why they sleep so much, both big and small cats!)

2. They Have A Similar Body Shape

Wild or domesticated, all cats come in different sizes, but when it comes to shape and functionality, they definitely share some common themes. Whether you’re the owner of a regular tabby cat, or you have a Norwegian Forest cat you’ll find that they both have strong and supple bodies, like their tiger and lion cousins.

They also have long tails for balance, sharp teeth, retractable claws, and strong hind legs that give them the speed to catch any prey they’re after!

3. They Scent Mark Their Territory

One of the most important tools of communication for our cats is scent marking and it can be expressed by scratching and rubbing their faces against objects, other cats, and their owners. And let’s not forget urine marking which is most common in intact male cats.

Veterinarians will tell you that “Cats will mark their territory to signal “ownership” and to advertise sexual receptivity and availability. Cats will also mark their territory when they feel threatened or stressed.

A 2017 scientific report showed that lions also share this behavior and that “lion scent-marks are indicators of their territorial areas, reproductive state, fitness, individuality, genetic variation, and sexual differentiation.” It’s important to mention that lions aren’t the only big cat that does this since tigers and most felines will partake in scent-marking!

When it came to head rubbing and licking, researchers discovered that this behavior was most likely a social function that helped reduce tension, increase social bonding, and it was a social status expression.

I mean, you can definitely see these lions bonding through allogrooming!

This is not unlike cats, which knead as a sign of affection and rub their faces against their owners to exchange scents, and let them know that they’re part of the family!

4. Similar Social Patterns

Scent-marking their territories and the members of their family is one way all felines exchange important information, but that’s not all.

Lions are the one true social cat, but contrary to some popular beliefs, domestic cats are also quite social. Lions live within groups, called prides, in order to maintain their territories, have more success during hunting and protect their cubs, and similarly, Gary M. Landsberg, BSc, DVM, MRCVS, DACVB, DECAWBM, North Toronto Veterinary Behavior Specialty Clinic states that “cats are social animals that, in feral conditions, live in groups consisting mainly of queens and their litters. The density of the group depends partly on food resources.

Let’s not forget that cats have been living with humans for thousands of years, and they’ve also learned how to communicate with us. I mean they’ve developed a special kind of meow to get our attention!

Of course, if the food resources in the wild are scarce, our small cats will have to depend on themselves instead of a group. Something tigers and practically all big cats have been always doing, being solitary hunters and surviving as loners instead.

5. They Share Similar Hunting Techniques

Remember how I compared my black cat to a panther, well while I know they share the same colors I think what makes them look so similar is their hunting style. To be even more precise I’m referring to the stalking of the prey, real or stuffed.

Given the opportunity, our cats will stalk a bird, while lions will stalk a gazelle in Africa. Stalking is simply something all cats, big or small will do.

And you know how your kitty keeps you up during nighttime hours? Well if it was a lion or any other felid you’d have the same experience because they’re all nocturnal and crepuscular animals.

6.Being Clean

It’s a known fact that cats spend hours on end cleaning their fluffy coats to perfection, but are they the only felines who care about their appearance?

Of course, they’re not! All cats big or small groom themselves, the only thing that sets the two groups apart are the hairball production! Our cats definitely win first place in the hairball race, while larger cats don’t seem to get them almost at all.

Animal behaviorist Letitia Fanucchi explains that “even though cats of all sizes groom themselves the same way, hairballs are “not a normal thing in big cats,” captive or not.”

How Different Are Pet Cats And Big Cats?

It’s clear that our feline companions are in a lot of ways the smaller version of larger cats, from their general appearance to their behavior and the shared DNA! But despite all the things in common, they also have a few differences that set them apart in all the wonderful and unique ways!

Their Pupil Shape

I think one of the reasons some people don’t appreciate cats is because they have slit pupils. I personally see it as a beautiful feature, but for others, it might take away the humanity they want to see coming from an animal.

But having cat eyes isn’t simply exotic and unique, but it also serves an important purpose! A study found that vertical pupils maximized the ability of small animals to judge distances of prey, and it’s a great advantage for ambush predators like our cats!

“A surprising thing we noticed from this study is that the slit pupils were linked to predators that were close to the ground,” said William Sprague, a postdoctoral researcher in Banks’ lab. “So domestic cats have vertical slits, but bigger cats, like tigers and lions, don’t. Their pupils are round, like humans and dogs.

Their Brain Size

Despite their nearly identical build, larger cats have larger brains for their size, than domestic cats.

If you’re wondering which cat has the biggest brain then the tiger is the answer, since it was discovered that the tiger has the largest brain compared to other big cat species, the lion, the leopard, and the jaguar.

Their Vocalization

Another major difference that must be mentioned is the purr and roar. Our domestic cats will purr while we stroke them, while no amount of stroking will make a lion purr, because they simply are anatomically different in that department.

The same thing goes for roaring, something our cats could never do since purring and roaring are mutually exclusive!

Their Personality

While physical differences are of course enough to set small cats apart from big cats it seems that there’s another layer that scientists have unfurled.

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2014, showed that “many differences between wild and domestic cats are in the genes that govern their personality traits, such as aggression.”

This completely makes sense because otherwise, they wouldn’t have the ability to coexist with humans and especially other animals like dogs. More importantly, the researchers uncovered “at least 13 genes that changed as cats morphed from feral to friendly.”

Basically, cats had to become less afraid of us humans, and new territories, for the promise of food. During this process, cat’s brains developed a way of forming memories and learning through reward-based stimuli, which explains why positive reinforcement is the best way to train your kitty new tricks and change old behaviors!

Why Is My Cat Small Even For A Cat?

We’ve established that cats once were part of the large feline group, until millions of years ago they branched out, but I’m sure as cat owners you’ve also noticed that not all domestic cats are the same size.

Let’s take the Maine Coon cats, for example, this breed can grow to weigh up to 11kg, and we can attribute their size to their northern native environment. Then there are cats like the Singapura, one of the smallest cats that can weigh around 2.7 kg, which also benefited from their tiny size.

All these cats, no matter how feral or friendly are part of the same family, and to understand why one cat is smaller than the other, you need to look at their ancestry, their health history, and nutrition. Your cat’s size can also tell a story, perhaps they were the runt of the litter, they battled a health issue, or they are of a certain breed, but a small cat is definitely nowhere less than “normal” and they’re still a part of the feline community, sharing a big chunk of their DNA with the biggest cats on this planet!

Closing Thoughts

Big or small, wild or domesticated, I think we can agree that all cats are magnificent creatures. We should probably thank our luck that the ancestors of our small fluffy companions decided to leave their wild cousins and join forces with us!

Just look at them, sitting all glorious in their boxes, their graceful presence judging our every move. Personally, I wouldn’t have it any other way!

What about you, do you think there’s another reason why cats branched out into a smaller-sized group?

Marina Titova

Marina was cat-struck 8 years ago. It was early autumn when Dante, her grey cat, found her and adopted her. They’ve been inseparable ever since. Dante has been a great cat-teacher and BetterWithCats.net seemed like the perfect place to share his cat-knowledge.

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