All continents except Australia and Antarctica


All habitats, depending on species

The mystery of the small cat

Like the unicorn, small cats have been the stuff of legends. Many of these cats have never been studied in their natural habitats, which are often in rugged, remote areas. Some small cats are active only at night, making it hard for researchers to study them. Until recently, the bay cat of Borneo was known to exist only in stories and identified by a few skins in museums; it was not studied in the wild until the late 1990s! There are reports of a cat known only as the onza, from Mexico, which may be related to the mountain lion. It is as big as a mountain lion but more slender. Scientists have only seen one, which had been killed by hunters.

There is also the Iriomote cat (named for the small Japanese island near Taiwan where it lives), which was only discovered by scientists in 1965. It has been declared a national treasure by the government of Japan, but there may be fewer than 100 of these cats left. And have you ever heard of the kodkod? Only people who really know small cats can say they have, and almost nothing is known about this cat, native to a small area of Chile and Argentina.

Sizing up the cat family

Surprisingly, some of the "small cats” are rather large, like the mountain lion (sometimes called a puma or cougar), which most people think of as one of the big cats. Zoologists group cats by certain physical features, not really by size. Here’s what they look for:

Roar or purr?— The group of small cats cannot roar like the big cats do, because the bones in their throat are hardened and close together and can only produce smaller vibrations. Instead, they mew, scream, and growl. Anyone with a house cat knows that small cats can purr nonstop whether they are breathing in or out, but big cats can’t purr continuously; they can only purr when they breathe out, and the purr is interrupted when the cat breathes in. As a result, some big cats make a noise keepers refer to as a "chuffle.”

Eyes—The pupils of small cats close to a vertical slit, while the pupils of big cats close to a circle, like a human’s pupil.

Nose— Small cats have a strip of leathery skin across the top of their nose, directly above the wet tip. On big cats, this area is covered with fur.

Resting— Big cats prefer to stretch out when they rest, but small cats like to curl up with their paws tucked underneath and their tail wrapped around their body.

The African wild cat is thought to be the ancestor of today’s domestic house cat. The earliest evidence of domestic cats was found in a 4,000-year-old tomb in Egypt. It contained 17 cat skeletons, each with a pot of milk for the afterlife.
Margays can run headfirst down a tree trunk like a squirrel and even hang upside down by their feet from branches.
Not all small cats hate water. The leopard cat, fishing cat, flat-headed cat, and Geoffroy’s cat all swim and hunt for amphibians and fish in streams and rivers.
The caracal can jump 6 feet (1.8 meters) straight up to knock a bird out of the air, even twisting nimbly to catch another bird on the other side before coming down to the ground.
Nicknamed "the tiger of the termite mound,” the black-footed cat of Africa digs in the sand to find insects and spiders, which it eats in addition to rodents.
Cat tongues are rough because they are covered with rows of rough bumps, called papillae, to scrape hair off hides and meat off bones. The papillae also help hold water on the tongue when the cat drinks.

The San Diego Zoo has had a variety of small cat species over the years, starting with ocelots and bobcats in 1925. In 1934, our first ocelot was born, and in 1938, our first golden cats were born. Other significant births include clouded leopards, West Mexican margays, and Indian leopard cats.

Today, Zoo visitors can see caracals, ocelots, servals, Eurasian lynx, fishing cats, and mountain lions. Many have been trained as animal ambassadors that are brought out by their keepers or trainers to meet guests up close, go to schools for assembly programs, and make appearances on TV. The San Diego Zoo Safari Park has an ocelot living in our Condor Ridge habitat, and a caracal and servals that help us as animal ambassadors. They can be seen in keeper talks throughout the Park. Connecting people to wildlife, such as these amazing small cats, is part of our mission!

Cats in decline

Small cats’ numbers are getting smaller, and researchers believe there are two reasons for this decline:

Fur trade— Since the penalties for hunting big cats have increased, people have begun hunting the small, spotted cats for their fur. Coats made from cat fur are still popular in parts of Europe and Asia. Since small cats have smaller skins, as many as 25 cats must be killed to make one fur coat. Like their larger cousins, small cats can be helped if people stop wearing their fur.

Loss of habitat— The other threat to the survival of small cats is loss of their habitat due to development of towns, cities, and farms. When people move into their habitat, small cats are often viewed as a threat to pets, livestock, or humans, and so they are killed. We can protect small cats by preserving their habitat and by learning to live with them. Keep in mind that they are important predators that control populations of potential pests like rodents.

Black-footed Cat Working Group

The black-footed cat has a limited range in southern Africa and has received very little attention by the conservation community. San Diego Zoo Global is part of the Black-footed Cat Working Group and has taken a leading role in identifying a disease that may threaten fragile black-footed cat populations. Camera traps and radio collars are used to learn more about the little felids. Biological samples collected from black-footed cats are stored in our Frozen Zoo® and provide a long-term renewable resource of genetic material, including DNA samples for studies into the conservation genetics of this species.