Domestic Cat
Felis catus

How did it get here?

Feral CatDomestic cats originated from an ancestral wild species, Felis silvestris, also known as the European or African wild cat. In appearance and behavior, "house cats" still resemble their ancestors, but they are now considered a separate species.

Cats were domesticated in Egypt around 2000 B.C., though recent evidence suggests an even earlier relationship with people. Humans helped these animals spread throughout the world by keeping them as companion animals and using them to control rodent populations. Domestic cats came to North America with Colonial settlers in the early 1700s. An estimated 60 million cats are now kept as pets in the United States, with an additional 40 million roaming wild.

How to spot

Domestic feral catFelis catus has extremely variable color and patterns. The average weight is 7 to 10 pounds, but it can vary by breed and lifestyle. It is about 29 to 32 inches in length, including tail.

Domestic cats are often differentiated as either house cats (pets) or feral cats (born in the wild or reverted to an untamed state). Free-roaming house cats usually have collars or tags. Feral cats are typically shy and more slender than pet cats, due to malnutrition.

Habitat characteristics

Felis catus can live almost anywhere, except for true deserts, high mountains, and frozen regions. Feral cats range from farms and neighborhoods to parks and forests, preying on wild animals or eating garbage or food left for them.

Life Cycle

Fertile domestic cats can have up to three litters per year, with four to six kittens per litter. Cats mature quickly and can begin to breed within one year. A cat's typical life span is 10 to 15 years.

Why is this animal a problem?

In ecosystems, domestic cats are "unnatural" predators. It is estimated that free-ranging cats kill tens of millions of wild animals each year in the United States. Even well-fed house pets may kill wildlife when let outdoors.

Studies have found that such cats, on average, kill 14 or more animals per year. Small mammals make up 70 percent of their prey; birds, 20 percent; and reptiles and amphibians, about 10 percent. Cats also compete with native predators by reducing the amount of available prey.

Feral cats are more likely than house cats to harbor diseases such as rabies, feline leukemia, feline distemper, and feline immuno-deficiency virus. Rabies, cat-scratch disease, and toxoplasmosis can be transmitted to humans. Do not approach feral cats. They could be aggressive or transmit disease. Contact an animal control officer for assistance.

Management approaches

  • People can help protect wildlife by keeping their cats indoors, spaying and neutering them, and keeping their vaccinations current. An estimated 65 percent of American cat owners let their pets go outdoors at least part of the time, and sometimes these animals become strays.
  • Some 20 percent of cat owners do not have their animals neutered or spayed, and many of the resulting kittens become feral adults. Many people intentionally abandon cats to the wild.
  • Cover garbage and keep pet food inside.

Other resources

USDA Forest Service
Article: "Biology and Ecology of Feral, Free-roaming, and Stray Cats"

American Bird Conservancy
"Cats Indoors!" campaign information

National Audubon Society
Article and organization's position statement on feral and free-roaming cats


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© 2004 NC Museum of Natural Sciences