5 Ways Your Tabby Is Just Like Big Cats in the Wild

Video highlights from Soul of the Cat

Our house cats have gone a long way from their big cousins—or have they?

House cats can’t roar and lions can’t purr, but the tiny predators that humans have been living with for thousands of years share a lot with their big, wild cousins.

If you have a house cat, you’ve probably noticed some of the behaviours reminiscent of its wildcat ancestors who lived in the desert. Felis catus may have moved in with us and become more social creatures as a result, but they still stalk prey and mark their territory just like their wild counterparts of various sizes.

Big cats—lions, tigers, jaguars and leopards—are members of the Pantherinae cat subfamily, which means they diverged from the rest of the cats at least six million years ago. But if you watch these majestic animals close enough, the similarities with your tabby are not hard to spot. Here are just a few of them.

Soul of the Cat: House Cats And Big Cats Hunt The Same

They rub against things

All cats have a collection of scent glands located on their body—on the sides of the face, around the mouth, on the front paws, and at the base of the tail. When your cat rubs against things (including you), it is marking its territory with pheromones. Big cats also give head-bumps to things in their environment, and the scent they leave behind serves as a warning sign to others who might come across their territory.

They sleep a lot

“Does my cat sleep too much?” is a common search engine query from many cat owners, but the answer invariably is “probably not.” It’s typical for a cat to sleep between 12-16 hours a day, but that’s not because they are lazy—as predators, cats need to conserve energy for high-intensity hunting activities. Not every hunt results in a meal, so felines typically live in a feed-rest-hunt cycle. This applies to big cats as well; a tiger or a lion can easily spend up to 20 hours just sleeping in the shade. And if they’ve recently had a successful kill, they’re basically not moving until they’ve digested that meal.

They like catnip

The Nepeta cataria plant or catnip has quite a profound effect on domestic cats. Give a sprig of catnip to your pet and plenty of licking, sniffing, and rolling around will follow (and if they have a large dose, also some jumping around and a sleepy crash afterwards). The ability to enjoy catnip’s active compound nepetalactone is genetic, and while some 30-40% of domestic cats remain indifferent to it, plenty of their big cousins actually love the stuff. Lions and jaguars react to it quite strongly, although just like with house cats, there is variation between individuals. (Big Cat Rescue in Florida have documented some of these behaviours in a popular online video.)

They scratch things

Big or small, all members of the feline family have retractable claws, with the exception of cheetahs whose claws are only semi-retractable due to their running habits. Claws are used not just for hunting, but also for gaining traction and climbing trees, so being able to stow them away when not in use keeps these tools sharp. Scratching a tree trunk doesn’t just help a lion condition the claws, though. It’s also a way to mark their territory by using the scent glands on their paws we mentioned earlier.

They smell things with their mouth open

Our feline friends have an acute sense of smell, with tens of millions of receptors lining their tiny noses (humans, in contrast, have only five million olfactory receptors). On top of that, they are also amongst the many animals who have an extra scent detection organ. Called Jacobson’s organ, it’s placed at the base of the nasal cavity and is found not just in cats, but also all snakes and lizards, dogs, cattle, and even pigs. The organ gives cats an ability to taste-smell substances, and to use it they employ a movement known as the Flehmen response—open the mouth, wrinkle the nose and pause breathing. This “stink face” is more noticeable in big cats, but cat owners can spot it in their pets as well.

A tiger demonstrating the characteristic Flehmen response.

Bonus: Big cats also play with boxes!

Buy your cat a toy and watch it play with the box it came in—or buy a fridge and give the box to a lion. This Big Cat Rescue video shows that an undying love of cardboard goes across many feline species.

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