Classifying Cats – Part 2: Feliforms, Felids and Felix the Cat

Felis sylvestris, an ancestor of the domestic cat.  (Wikipedia)

Felis sylvestris, an ancestor of the domestic cat. (Wikipedia)

We humans like to organize everything, but cats are a challenge.

Herding them is impossible. However, since they refuse to even acknowledge the pet names we give them, they’ll also ignore labels which we can use to sort them all out.

A labeling system (taxonomy) is handy when trying to understand how house cats and the big wildcats are related, where the sabertoothed “tiger” fits in, and why hyenas are related to cats even though they resemble dogs.

Are Hyenas Cats or Dogs?

Experts often classify animals according to selected bony structures – it’s a lot easier than going by superficial appearance, which misses many hidden links between species that look very different on the outside.

Here’s the general idea of how it works.

Humans, humpback whales, dogs and cats have four limbs and a backbone. This makes us all vertebrates. Still, we have more differences than similarities, so another set of labels called an order is needed.

Scientists put the humpback whale in the taxonomic order Cetacea, and it probably won’t surprise you to hear that humans are members of the order Primates.

Dogs and cats both belong to the Carnivora order, but each has its own suborder – dog-like (or caniform) and cat-like (or feliform) – based on characteristics of the bony capsules surrounding their middle and inner ears. In cats, these capsules are composed of two bones; in dogs, just a single bone.

Hyenas do have some dog characteristics, but they have two bones in those ear capsules, so they’re classified as feliforms.

Big Cats

There are many feliform families. Here are images of six of them from Wikipedia.


From top left to bottom right:

Where’s Felix the cat?

Well, they could have shown your favorite house cat instead of the leopard. Both are felids, that is, members of the biological family of cats.

Leopards and domestic cats are in different subfamilies, though.

Felix shares the Felinae family with such beautiful animals as cheetahs, jaguars and other relatively small spotted cats, lynxes, and Pallas cats.

Our leopard and all the other famous big cats – lions and tigers, but not bears, oh my! – belong to the Pantherinae family.

The most important difference between Felis and Panthera.  (Wikipedia)

The most important difference, for humans, between Felis and Panthera. (Wikipedia)

Sabertooth “Tiger”

From the Dawn Cat (Proailurus) some 25 million years ago came felines, pantherines, and according to some classification systems, a third subfamily, the Machairodontinae.

They weren’t pantherines, so technically they weren’t tigers but rather sabertoothed cats. The most famous was the Smilodon genus, with its three species.

Felix is glad Smilodon went extinct some 13,000 years ago.  (Wikipedia)

Felix is glad Smilodon went extinct. (Wikipedia)

Sabertoothed cats disappeared during the Quaternary megafauna extinction some 12,000 years ago, along with over 170 other groups of large animals and possibly even Neanderthal man.

It was the last (so far) of Earth’s great extinctions. There is no clear-cut evidence of the cause, but the two most popular culprits are climate change and hunting competition from the first modern human beings, who arrived on the scene at about this time.


Today little Felix the cat looks delicate, but don’t be fooled. It has survived conditions that killed off giants and now prospers in almost every habitat on Earth.

We’re lucky that this beautiful relative of the great cats and Smilodon prefers to make its home among us. House cats and humans have a good thing going – may it last forever!

Edit: You can read “Part 1: Felix the Cat” here.

Categories: Friday's Casual Cat

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