An Illustrated Guide to Cats

Two lions (Panthera leo) walking along grasslands. Photographed in Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve.

Jonathan and Angela Scott / Getty Images

Cats are graceful, efficient predators that have strong, supple muscles, impressive agility, acute eyesight, and sharp teeth. The cat family is diverse and includes lions, tigers, ocelots, jaguars, caracals, leopards, pumas, lynxes, domestic cats, and many other groups.

Cats inhabit a wide variety of habitats including coasts, deserts, forests, grasslands, and mountains. They have naturally colonized many terrestrial regions with a few exceptions (those being Australia, Greenland, Iceland, New Zealand, Antarctica, Madagascar, and remote oceanic islands). Domestic cats have been introduced into many regions where there were previously no cats. As a result, feral populations of domestic cats have formed in some areas, and they pose a threat to native species of birds and other small animals.

Cats Are Skilled at Hunting

A lion (Panthera leo) hunting a Burchell's zebra.

Tom Brakefield / Getty Images.

Cats are superb hunters. Some species of cats can take down prey that is much larger than themselves, demonstrating their well-honed skills as predators. Most cats are superbly camouflaged, with stripes or spots that enable them to blend into the surrounding vegetation and shadows. 

Cats use several different methods of hunting prey. There's the ambush approach, which involves the cat taking cover and waiting for an unfortunate animal to cross their path, at which time they pounce in for the kill. There's also the stalking approach, which involves cats that follow their prey, take position for an attack, and charge in for the capture.

Key Cat Adaptations

A tiger family in Ranthambhore National Park, India.

Aditya Singh / Getty Images

Some important adaptations of cats include retractable claws, acute eyesight, and agility. Together, these adaptations enable cats to capture prey with great skill and efficiency.

Many species of cats extended their claws only when needed to capture prey or to gain better traction when running or climbing. During times when a cat doesn't need to use their claws, the claws are retracted and kept ready for use. Cheetahs are one exception to this rule, as they are unable to retract their claws. Scientists have suggested that this is an adaptation that cheetahs have made to fast running.

Vision is the best developed of a cat's senses. Cats have sharp eyesight and their eyes are positioned on the front of their head facing forward. This produces a keen focusing ability and superb depth perception.

Cats have an extremely flexible spine. This enables them to use more muscles when running and achieve faster speeds than other mammals. Because cats use more muscles when running, they burn a lot of energy and cannot maintain high speeds for long before they fatigue.


How Cats Are Classified

An adult female cougar (Puma concolor) pictured in Alberta, Canada.

Wayne Lynch / Getty Images.

Cats belong to the group of vertebrates known as mammals. Within the mammals, cats are classified with other meat-eaters in the Order Carnivora (known commonly as 'carnivores'). The classification of cats is as follows:


The family Felidae is broken down into two subfamilies:

Subfamily Felinae

Subfamily Pantherinae

The Subfamily Felinae are the small cats (cheetahs, pumas, lynx, ocelot, domestic cat, and others) and the Subfamily Pantherinae are the large cats (leopards, lions, jaguars, and tigers).

Members of the Small Cat Subfamily

An Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus).

Fotografia / Getty Images

The Subfamily Felinae, or the small cats, are a diverse group of carnivores that includes the following groups:

Genus Acinonyx (cheetah)

Genus Caracal (caracal)

Genus Catopuma (Asiatic golden cat and bay cat)

Genus Felis (small cats)

Genus Leopardus (small American cats)

Genus Leptialurus (serval)

Genus Lynx (lynxes)

Genus Pardofelis (marbled cat)

Genus Prionailurus (Asian small cats)

Genus Profelis (African golden cat)

Genus Puma (puma and jaguarundi)

Of these, the puma is the largest of the small cats and the cheetah is the fastest land mammal alive today.

The Panthers: Pantherinae or the Large Cats

A royal Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) cub, pictured in Tadoba Andheri Tiger Reserve, Maharashtra, India.

Danita Delimont / Getty Images

The Subfamily Pantherinae, or the large cats, include some of the most powerful and well-known cats on Earth:

Genus Neofelis (clouded leopard)

  • Neofelis nebulosa (clouded leopard)

Genus Panthera (roaring cats)

Panthera leo (lion)

Panthera onca (jaguar)

Panthera pardus (leopard)

Panthera tigris (tiger)

Panthera uncia (snow leopard)

Note: There is some controversy over the classification of the snow leopard. Some schemes place the snow leopard within the Genus Panthera and assign it the latin name of Panthera uncia, while other schemes place it in its own genus, Genus Uncia, and assign it the latin name of Uncia uncia.

Lion and Tiger Subspecies

lion looking into the distance

 Ingram Publishing/Getty Images 

Lion Subspecies

There are numerous lion subspecies and there is disagreement among experts as to which subspecies are recognized, but here are a few:

Panthera leo persica (Asiatic lion)

Panthera leo leo (Barbary lion)

Panthera leo azandica (North East Congo lion)

Panthera leo bleyenberghi (Katanga lion)

Panthera leo krugeri (South African lion)

Panthera leo nubica (East African lion)

Panthera leo senegalensis (West African lion)

Tiger Subspecies

There are six tiger subspecies:

Panthera tigris (Amur or Siberian tiger)

Panthera tigris (Bengal tiger)

Panthera tigris (Indochinese tiger)

Panthera tigris (South China tiger)

Panthera tigris (Malayan tiger)

Panthera tigris (Sumatran tiger)

North and South American Cats

puma in the snow

Ibrahim Suha Derbent/Getty Images 

Pumas—Pumas, also known as mountain lions, catamounts, panthers or cougars, are large cats whose former range extended from coast to coast across North America. By 1960, they were declared extinct in most midwestern and eastern ranges.

Jaguar—The Jaguar is the New World's only representative of the Pantherinae (large cat subfamily). Jaguars resemble leopards but have shorter legs and a stockier, more powerful build. They are tan in color with dark rosettes with spots in the center of the rosettes.

Ocelot—The ocelot is a nocturnal cat that lives in the grasslands, swamps, and forests of South and Central America. It has distinct markings of chain-like rosettes and spots and was prized for its fur in recent decades. Fortunately, the ocelot is now protected and its numbers are rebounding modestly.

Margay Cat—The margay cat inhabits South and Central America. It is a small cat of about 18-31in with a 13-20in tail. The margay is a superb climber and is capable of running headfirst down the trunk of a tree. It is classified as vulnerable and faces threats from habitat destruction and illegal hunting for its fur.

Jaguarundi Cat—The jaguarundi is an unusually stocky cat, short legs, long body, and a pointed snout. Its color varies depending on its habitat, from black in forests to pale gray or reddish-brown in more exposed scrub areas. It is a daytime hunter and feeds on small mammals, birds, invertebrates, and reptiles.

Canada Lynx—The Canada lynx has tufted ears and a 'bobbed' tail (similar to the bobcat but the tail of the Canada Lynx is entirely black whereas the bobcat's is black only at the tip). This nocturnal cat is well-adapted to dealing with snow due to its large feet.

Bobcat—The bobcat is native to North America and gets its name from its short 'bobbed' tail. It has a fringe of facial fur and pointed ears.

The Cats of Africa

leopard sitting on rock

 Mint Images/Art Wolfe/Getty Images 

The cats of Africa include:

Caracal—The caracal is also known as the 'desert lynx' has a unique ability to spring up into the air and swat birds with its paw. It grows to lengths of about 23-26in with a tail of lengths 9-12in.

Serval—The serval has a long neck, long legs, and a lean body. It resembles a smaller version of a cheetah.

Cheetah—The cheetah is a unique cat and is known for its speed, holding the respectable title of the fastest animal on land.

Leopard—The leopard is a large spotted cat (with rosettes of black markings) that is found in Africa as well as parts of southern Asia.

Lion—The lion is the only cat to form prides, or groups of related adults and their offspring. Lions are tawny in color. They are sexually dimorphic; males have a thick shaggy mane of hair framing their face (females do not).

The Cats of Asia

two snow leopards cuddling

 Picture by Tambako the Jaguar/Getty Images

Snow leopard—Snow leopards (Panthera uncia) live in mountainous habitat at elevations of between 2000 and 6000 meters. Their range extends from northwestern China to Tibet and the Himalayas (Toriello 2002).

Clouded Leopard—The Clouded Leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) inhabits the southeastern Asian continent. Their range includes Nepal, Taiwan, southern China, the island of Java, Burma (Myanmar), Indochina, Malaysia, and Sumatra and Borneo.

Tiger—Tigers (Panthera tigris) is the largest of all cats. They are orange with black stripes and a cream-colored belly and chin.


Grzimek B. 1990. Grzimek's Encyclopedia of Mammals, Volume 3. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Turner A, Anton M. 1997. The Big Cats and Their Fossil Relatives. New York: Columbia University Press.

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Klappenbach, Laura. "An Illustrated Guide to Cats." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Klappenbach, Laura. (2021, February 16). An Illustrated Guide to Cats. Retrieved from Klappenbach, Laura. "An Illustrated Guide to Cats." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).