The relationship we have with pets is a subject that has interested me since I was a little girl looking at some of my friends’ lizard pets and reading books about animals.  Of course, my family had pets too, but we had the more common dogs, cats and goldfish.  Many questions ran through my mind as a little girl.  I did not know any answers at that time.  What was it, I wondered, that made a pet a pet?  Were they just our prisoners?  I knew that all of them were not, because our cats roamed the neighbourhood but always came back each evening.  Did it have to do with how long the animals’ ancestors had lived alongside people, or was there something more?   I noticed that if a friend fed his lizard and gave it every comfort it might still escape him and disappear.Then he would have to ask his parents to buy him another. Our cats stayed with us.  Cats gain more advantages from humans than the lizards.  What advantages might they be?

The cougar, the lynx and the bobcat are the only species of wild cats where I live, the United States.  No one could mistake grown lynxes, bobcats or cougars for pet or feral cats.  Anytime someone sees a small cat in the United States, even one that has the natural striped coat pattern, one knows the cat is feral, the result of owners who at some point let them get lost or even abandoned them outright. The next generation was born wild as a result.

But when South Africans see a small cat resembling a domestic tabby cat roaming, it is not so easy for them to know whether the cat is one of the two small native wildcats or whether it is feral.  The longer legs of the common African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica) will assist in identification, but since the wildcat resembles so closely the tame light brown tabby cat, identification is often difficult!  This is an odd little cat, one that has among its population individuals that made their own domestication possible through partnering with early farmers in the Middle East and Africa who needed help.  The humans had granaries that rats often invaded.  They would have to have someone assigned to stay up all night and guard the grain, and even that would not keep every single rat out of it. The wildcats desired a steady supply of easy to find food so that they did not have to rely on mostly locusts and birds that required so much more energy to catch. Those cats who did not fear people got better food and had healthier kittens than the skittish ones.  Their kittens were taught the skill of adapting to human beings.

This Cyprus cat does not know that the island is where the earliest evidence of cat domestication has been found. Credits: Dimitri Svetsikas

The oldest known association of a cat with people consists of remains found by archaeologists at a human burial in Cyprus. The cat remains date to 9,500 years B. P. (before present).  The cats are not native to the island; thus, it is very likely they were domestic cats.  In Egypt, the African wildcat was domesticated and worshipped 4,000 years ago. The skeletons of those buried or mummified are essentially those of the African wildcats of our modern South Africa and those of the Middle East.  It was not until about a thousand or so years ago that cats began to be bred for colour and coat texture.  After cats were imported from the Middle East to Asia, the Siamese cat came into being. Before that time, the Chinese kept leopard cats, a distinct species, as companion animals and rat killers, abandoning this practice with the coming of the descendants of Felis silvestris lybica.

Felis nigripes, the endangered South African black footed cat, resembles the African wildcat to a large degree but unlike the wildcat, this South African species does not adapt well to human presence.  It is killed by farmers, since it destroys the occasional chicken.

It is becoming more and more difficult to find a pure African wildcat, even in wild places, because it freely breeds with feral cats of our own domestic catsubspecies Felis silvestris domesticus. The status of the African wildcat in South Africa is “Least Concern” as designated by the Endangered Wildlife Trust and the South African Biodiversity Institute. This means the species has been evaluated and the populations are well distributed and large enough to not be classed as critically endangered, endangered, threatened or vulnerable.

An African wildcat in its natural state. Credits: Poinger Herzschlog

Where can one find the African wildcat in its natural habitat in the bushveld?  In the early morning or the early evening they emerge from their daytime naps from hiding placesamid thick vegetation or under the shade of a rock.  African wildcats meow, hiss, and purr just like beloved pet cats.  Their normal food is locusts and small rodents but they will also take birds and hyraxes.  When food is scarce the African wildcat tends to live in solitude but in areas of abundant prey and waterthey will form complex social groups that rival those of lions. Male lions, like male African wildcats, do not share baby care duties with the mothers. Male lions will at least protect their young, whereas male wildcats cannot be trusted around their own offspring.

   The Mount Sheba Nature Reserve near Pilgrims Rest and the rock formations of the Cederberg Wilderness Area in Clanwilliam are fine places to observe wildcats.  Rehabilitation work to prepare African wildcats and other small wild native cats for release back into the wild is being carried out by the Emdoneni Lodge Cat Rehabilitation Centrein Hluhluwe and the Tenikwa Wildlife Awareness Center and Wildlife Hospital at Plettenberg Bay.

Suggestions for Further Reading


 Apps, Peter.  1992 Wild Ways: Field Guide to the Behaviour of Southern African Mammals. Struik Press. 198 pages.


Cats for Africa. African Wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica) page.
Guggisberg, C. A. W. 1975. Wild Cats of the World.  Taplinger Publishing Company New York 328 pages.




SA  June 18, 2015  South Africa’s Four Small Wild Cats – Where to See Them


Tenikwa Wildlife Awareness and Rehabilitation web page.