Physical characteristics

All cat species show considerable resemblance to the domestic cat, being carnivores with long, lithe, muscular bodies, but in a wide range of sizes. Head and body length ranges from 14 in (35.6 cm) for the diminutive black-footed cat (Felis nigripes), to more than 10 ft (3 m) for a large male Amur tiger (Panthera tigris altaica). The weight range varies more than 300 fold, from as little as 1.7 lb (0.8 kg) for the small cat to in excess of 660 lb (300 kg) for the tiger. Males are larger and more muscular than females, but otherwise there is minimal sexual dimorphism, with the notable exception of lions (P. leo). A cat's head is short and rounded with large eyes, long whiskers, powerful jaws, specialized teeth for cutting and gnawing meat, and a rough, rasping tongue covered with horny papillae, to lick bones clean. Ears may be triangular or rounded. Legs are short to long, feet large and padded, with five toes on the front feet, four on the hind feet, and with hooked sickle-shaped claws, which in most species are sharp and retractile. Tails are furred and usually medium to long, up to 40 in (1 m) in large cats, but some species such as bobcats have short, rounded tails.

Coats are cryptically colored, pale gray to brown, with a paler underside and often with black and/or white markings on the face, tail and back of the ears. Many species are spotted, blotched, or striped, for camouflage. Melanistic (black) forms are common among several species, white forms occur rarely. Young often have different markings from the adult coloration—newborn cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) cubs have a long, white-gray mane, absent in the adult, for example. Individual cat species can show considerable variations in color, often linked to geographic location, with animals from warm, humid climates often darker than specimens of the same species living in cooler regions.

Cats have acute, binocular, color vision. The iris, which may be orange, yellow, gray, brown or green, reacts very quickly to darkness and contracts to a small point or slit in bright light. Night vision is very good, helped by a reflecting layer, the tapetum lucidum, outside the retinal receptor layer, which reflects back any light not absorbed by the receptor layer at first pass, and accounts for the eye shine we see in cats at night. Whiskers and long hairs above the eyes are sensitive to touch, which also helps the animals move around at night.

Most felids have acute hearing, especially those species with large ears, which are used like radar dishes to locate prey. The sense of smell is also very important to cats, with a major role in social interaction, maintaining territories, and advertising that females are ready to mate, though not in hunting. Scent glands are often present in foot pads, chin, cheeks and anus.

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