©Getty Images

©Getty Images

History

The cat family is a large and ancient one, dating back 20 million years. The small cats we now have as pets were domesticated, or tamed as pets, many thousands of years ago. In ancient Egypt cats were regarded as sacred animals, and were welcomed into homes because they they kept snakes away. Cats were also regarded as sacred in Chinain ancient times, and they lived in temples.

Gradually, domestic cats were taken to more and more countries, and now there are hundreds of different breeds of domestic cat.

Body and Behaviours

A male cat is called a tom, and a female is called a queen or a molly. Young cats are called kittens.  A group of cats is called a clowder.

Cats are excellent climbers ©Getty Images

Cats are excellent climbers ©Getty Images

Cats have very flexible bodies, with sharp claws and teeth. Most breeds, or kinds, weigh about 4-5 kg when fully adult.  They have powerful night vision, and an excellent sense of sight and of smell.

When cats walk, their back paws step in almost exactly the same spot as their front paws did, which means they leave less tracks and move very silently. Cats have strong claws which are retractable, which means they can extend them when they want to.

Cats can run fast and climb very well. They spend a lot of time licking their fur to groom themselves. They sleep about 13 hours a day, an effective way of conserving energy.  They are also playful, curious animals. 

Cat Communication

Cats use their whole body to let you know their mood. Ears upright or forward  signal happiness or alertness, but flattened ears signal anger or fear. Moving the tail from side to side signals that the cat is angry, but straight up can mean the cat is happy. If a cat arches its back and its fur is standing up, it  is frightened or angry, but if it arches its back and its fur is flat, it is enjoying being patted.  Contented cats purr, hissing and growling cats are annoyed, frightened or angry. Mother cats make little chirping sounds to tell their kittens to follow them. 

Life Cycle

Mother cat with newborn kittens ©Getty images

Mother cat with newborn kittens ©Getty images

When they are about five months old, cats can begin to breed.  About nine weeks after mating with a male cat, a female cat gives birth to kittens.  There are generally between two and six kittens in a litter.

The kittens are blind and deaf for the first two weeks.

 

They  drink milk from their mother's teats until they are about 21 days old, when they can eat begin to eat solid food. While they are little, kittens are cared for by their mother. She cleans and feeds them and keeps them safe. After they are six weeks old the young cats can look after themselves.

Some cat breeds have long fur ©Getty Images

Some cat breeds have long fur ©Getty Images

Cats as pets

Cats are a very popular pet, and in Australia they are the second most popular pet, with pet cats in more than 30% of homes.

Cats eat meat, fish and vegetables. There are specially prepared cat foods available from pet shops and from vets. They drink milk when they are kittens and then water.  Sometimes cats eat grass now and then. It helps them to digest their food.

Caring for a pet cat

Cats need exercise and should have a safe place to run and play.  Playing with your cat will keep it healthy and prevent it from getting fat, which is not healthy.  A scratching pole will give the cat a place to keep its claws trim.  Sometimes owners must trim their cat's claws. Cats, especially long haired cats, should be brushed to keep their coats clean and free from fleas and to prevent it getting knotted and tangled.

Conservation Issues

A cat enclosure connected to the house.

A cat enclosure connected to the house.

Cats are natural and effective hunters that kill many small native animals and birds.  They are a major threat to native wildlife, because one cat can kill more than five animals in one night. The RSPCA estimates that there are almost 3.5 million pet cats in Australia. Can you do the maths?

Feral Animals

There are also many feral cats in Australia.

Feral animals are domestic animals that have become wild animals. Feral animals are an environmental threat because they damage habitat, prey on native animals, compete for their food or take over their burrows or nesting spots. Native marsupials such as bilbies, bandicoots and small possums have been affected by feral dogs, cats and rabbits, and by introduced species such as foxes.

In Australia, many native birds and animals have been affected by domestic or feral cats. Nine bird species are extinct largely because of cats, and there are 33 others similarly threatened.  

Many people are now making outdoor enclosures for their cats: a fenced and roofed space where the cat can climb and play or sunbake outside without being able to kill birds and small animals. There is a door or tunnel between the house and the play yard.  The cats do not roam around the neighbourhood but still enjoy outside exercise when they want. Because cats love to climb, an enclosure can have different levels. 

Responsible pet ownership

Cats, like most pets, enjoy the company of people and depend on their owners for food, protection and shelter. Before becoming a pet owner think carefully about all the things you will have to do to care for your pet responsibly. 

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Read more about cats-click on 'Kitty Do's and Don'ts' to read about cat care:

http://www.paws.org/kids/learn/pets/cats/

There are hundreds of different breeds of cat: look at an A - Z list with links to

information about them

http://cats.about.com/library/breeds/snapshots/blbreeda.htm?once=true&