Reproductive biology

Female small cats may reach sexual maturity at less than one year old, big cats at around two years, but a female may not produce her first litter until she has established a home range, which might not be until age three or four. Gestation

Female White Tailed Deer Breeding
Bengal cat (Felis bengalensis euptilura) female and cub. (Photo by Animals Animals ©Michael Dick. Reproduced by permission.)
Bobcat White Tail
A bobcat (Felis rufus) with a white-tailed deer fawn carcass. (Photo by Erwin and Peggy Bauer. Bruce Coleman, Inc. Reproduced by permission.)

ranges from two months in small cats to over three months in lion and tiger. Litters may contain up to eight cubs, but two to four is usual. Small cats may reproduce yearly, larger ones at intervals of at least 18 months, unless they lose a litter, in which case they can come into estrous again within weeks. Many cats are non-seasonal breeders, but in areas with strongly seasonal climatic or prey availability conditions breeding occurs at the most favorable time of year.

Cats are polygamous. Estrus may last from one day to three weeks, depending on the species. Females have multiple es-trous cycles until they conceive. They advertise their condition by scent marking, calling, and by becoming hyperactive. Local males may compete for mating rights with displays and sometimes fighting. The successful male may consort with the female for several days, courting with specific calls, by presenting his head, and by rubbing against the female. Females court the male with behavior that is alternatively inviting and defensive, increasingly taking the initiative as they come more into heat. Copulation itself typically lasts less than a minute, but may be repeated several times an hour for up to three days or even longer. Repeated copulation probably serves to induce ovulation in the female. During copulation the female lies prone on her belly, while the male mounts her. In small cats the male bites the female's neck during copulation, but big cats only grab the neck symbolically at ejaculation. Copulation ends with the female twisting to hiss and strike at the male with her paw, before often rolling onto her back. She then resumes affectionate behavior. After several days the male may lose interest and another male may take his place.

With the exception of lions, males apparently play no further part in raising young. Feline young are born blind, deaf, and barely able to crawl. They remain hidden in a den or nest for several weeks until mobile. In some species, individuals in the litter develop a teat order while nursing, with dominant kittens getting the most milk. The mother will defend her kittens aggressively, even against the odds, and will move the hiding place if disturbed, carrying cubs one-by-one by the head, nape or skin on the back. Mothers start to train cubs to hunt from a very young age, bringing back first dead then live prey for them to practice catching and eating. However, cubs may not be independent for up to 18 months or more in the case of some big cats. When the mother is ready to produce a new litter they depart, but may stay within the mother's home range for another year, or indefinitely in the case of females. Young cats play extensively, mainly developing behaviors of importance in adult predatory behavior. Longevity is commonly approximately 15 years for most species, with some individuals reported to have lived over 30 years.

Saguinus Bicolor
A female African lion (Panthera leo) yawning. (Photo by David M. Maylen III. Reproduced by permission.)
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