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Cats - Family Felidae

Scientists currently recognize a total of 41 species of cats--40 species of wild cats plus the domestic cat--in the family Felidae. Felidae is a family of animals (called felids) which are commonly referred to as "felines" and "cats". Felids are the most strictly carnivorous mammals of the nine families in the order Carnivora. The family Felidae is divided into the following subfamilies:

  1. Felinae (various genuses of wild cat and the domestic cat)
  2. Acinonyinae (cheetah)
  3. Pantherinae (lion, tiger, jaguar and leopard) - the roaring cats
  4. Neofelinae (clouded leopard and Bornean clouded leopard)
  5. Uncia (snow leopard)

In addition to being divided into subfamilies and genuses, cats are further classified as either big cats or small cats based on particular characteristics. Read the next section to find out just how confusing the distinction between big cats and small cats can actually get.

Big Cat or Small Cat?

The big cat/small cat classification can be quite confusing because pumas, which are classified as small cats, are actually quite large. And, some of the felids classified as big cats are pretty small. If that's not confusing enough, here are some other characteristics that are even more confusing exceptions:

  • Big cats have round pupils; small cats' pupils constrict to slits when you shine a bright light on them. However, the various lynx species and Pallas' cat have round pupils, and they're classified as small cats. Clouded leopards and Bornean clouded leopards (classified as big cats) don't have pupils like either big cats or small cats--they're oblong and are positioned horizontally.
  • Big cats eat lying down; small cats eat crouched down. However, a snow leopard, which is classified as a big cat, eats crouched down like a small cat.
  • Big cats can roar because they have a flexible segment in their hyoid bone (a U-shaped bone in the throat that is suspended above the larynx). Small cats have inflexible, fully-ossified hyoid bones, so they can't roar. However, three felids classified as big cats (cheetah, clouded leopard and Bornean clouded leopard) have fully-ossified hyoid bones like small cats, so they can't roar. Snow leopards, lions, tigers, leopards and jaguars have a flexible segment in their hyoid bone. But, the snow leopard also can't roar. There are actually only four species of big cat (lions, tigers, leopards and jaguars), all in the Pantherinae subfamily, that can roar.

The only sure way to tell to tell a big cat from a small cat: all members of the subfamily Felinae are small cats, and all members of the subfamilies Pantherinae, Neofelinae, Uncia and Acinonyinae are big cats. The following links to pictures and some information about all 41 felid species, neatly categorized under "Small Cats" and "Big Cats" in alphabetical order.

Another thing to note: contrary to popular belief, big cats also purr. Many people think that only domestic cats purr. But, it's been found that not only do domestic cats purr, but other small cats and all big cats purr, as well. Read How Do Cats Purr? to find out how scientists believe cats purr, why they purr and the difference between the way big cats purr and the way small cats purr.

This information on this page is accurate and up-to-date, as far as we know. I try to keep up with the discovery of new species, but new species are discovered everyday, making this impossible. As I find out about new species of big cats and small cats, I'll add them to this page. I also know that animals are periodically reclassified as new DNA evidence is found that warrant reclassification. However, once again, it's impossible to keep up with all new classifications. If you know of any new discovery or reclassification of any big cat or small cat, please let me know. Be sure to indicate your information sources, too. Thank you!


Small Cats (A - E) | Small Cats (F - M) | Small Cats (O - S) | Big Cats | How Cats Purr