What are the closest relatives to domestic cats?

Most people know that pet cats are closely related to big cats, like lions and tigers. Most of us love this resemblance and view our pets as smaller versions of them. But how close cousins are they and do you know which animal is the closest wild relative to domestic cats?

African wildcat - closest relative to a domestic cat
While looking a lot like a pet cat, the African wildcat is not a domestic cat, but its closest wild cousin. Photo by Sonelle, Johannesburg Zoo, South Africa, CC BY-SA 3.0

All cats belong to the family of Felidae, which translates from Latin as “cats”. Within this family are two subfamilies–Felinae, which still means “cats”, and Pantherinae which means “panthers”. Panthers are all cats that roar, that is, most big cats, such as lions, tigers, and jaguars, whereas the first term refers to all the other cats–the ones that do not roar, including our pets.

The closest relatives to domestic cats are from a species going by the Latin name Felis silvestris, literally meaning “forest cat”. The species contains several sub-species, including the European wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris) and the African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica). Genetic studies have shown that the latter animal is a direct predecessor of earliest domesticated cats.

But is the domestic cat the same cat as the wildcat?

While debatable, domestic cats are often regarded as a subspecies of the wildcat, and in some instances it has been named as Felis silvestris catus, though the regular Felis catus still remains the correct one in academic literature.

At the same time, biologists agree that defining species is a tricky task. Under the general definition of species, domestic cats would belong to the wildcat species, since they are able to interbreed and produce fertile offspring. But, mainly because of their relationship with humans, they are still regarded as a distinct species. However, regardless of the definition, it does not really change who Felis catus, the domestic cat, actually is–a very close relative to the African and European wildcat.

Besides Felis silvestris, or the wildcat, domestic cat lineage and genus Felis also include the jungle cat, Chinese mountain cat, sand cat, and black-footed cat, among others. They are all still very much like domestic cats (hence the same lineage), sharing a common ancestor from approximately 6 to 7 million years ago. They are all similar in appearance and size, though their behavioral differences, especially their poor ability to form friendly relationships with humans, must be respected.

Outside the genus of domestic cat, the closest distinctive lineage is that of the leopard cat, which split 6.7 million years ago, about the same time when the first human-like two legged animals emerged.

leopard cat
Leopard cat – the closest relative to all Felis. Photo by Kuribo, CC BY-SA 3.0

The leopard cat, not to be confused with the leopard, is a small cat with a spotted back and lines around the eyes. They live mainly in the south-eastern part of Asia with an estimated population of over 50,000 individuals; thus they are not listed as endangered, although animal conservation organizations are keeping an eye on them. The same lineage, besides the leopard cat and other spotted cats from Asia, also includes the comic-looking Pallas’s cat, a.k.a. the manul.

As for the large and better-known cats, they are still cousins of our pets, though more distant than the ones already mentioned. Pumas and jaguars separated “only” 7.2 million years ago, while the line of lions and tigers took a different path 10.6 million years before today; thus large cats are regarded as distant relatives of domestic cats, though still belonging to the vast family of cats.

Last, but not least, closest relatives to domestic (and all the other) cats that are not cats themselves are linsangs (small, tree dwelling mammals from southeast Asia and Africa), but among those you might have heard about before—civets, hyenas, mongooses, and meerkats.