International Cat Day, or World Cat Day, is celebrated on August 8. It was created in 2002 by the International Fund for Animal Welfare as a way to both celebrate the relationship between humans and cats as well as to advocate for the safety and well-being of our feline friends.
One of the animals with the longest (and most mysterious) histories, it’s generally understood that cat ownership can be traced all the way back to central China some 5,500 years ago. In their efforts to combat rodent infestations, farmers began to domesticate wildcats—cats received food and a place to sleep, while farmers relied on their hunting prowess to eliminate the rodents destroying their crops. Over the years, these early wildcats started evolving into the varieties of cats that share our homes today, although modern society wouldn’t embrace the significant role that cats play in our lives until the beginning of the 21st century.
Here are some facts about cats around the world.
Maine Coon: A North American breed, the Maine Coon is a giant cat that’s loveable—and even say dog-like. “They are picturesque, and easily recognized with their long hair, tufted ears, and beautiful coat patterns,” says Dr. Lauren Demos, board member and past president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP). However, the breed does have genetic tendencies towards developing incurable heart disease, she warns, so it’s important to have a conversation with any breeder before bringing one of these cats home.
Sphynx: According to Demos, the Sphynx descended from a few individual cats with genetic mutations that led to the spontaneous birth of hairless kittens, and then developed as a breed both in the United States and Europe. Interestingly enough, two of the hairless cats that helped to start the breed were named Epidermis and Dermis—the Greek terms for various layers of the skin. “Sphynx cats are gregarious, visually unique, and quite charming,” she adds. Due to their hairlessness, they are prone to skin issues that many other cat breeds are not, including sunburn and even yeast infections.
Domestic Shorthair (DSH): Demos notes that this is the catch-all breed for the typical shorthair cat that’s seen throughout much of North America. “These cats are a mixed bag, but excellent companions and by far the most common cat in North America,” Demos says. There are fun variations on the domestic shorthair breed throughout the world, and they go by multiple different names—for example, in Australia, they’re called “moggies.”
There are also a variety of international breeds that are not as well-known, since they are newer or not yet accepted by all breeding associations, such as the Australian Mist, Russian White and Russian Black, and the striking Toyger—a house cat that looks like a tiger. “There are some studies that suggest there are differences between different pedigrees,” says Celia Haddon, a cat behaviorist and author of several books including The Joy of Cats, Cats Behaving Badly, and 100 Ways to Be More Like Your Cat. She notes that veterinarians in Japan reported that Abysinians, Russian Blues, Somalis, Siamese, and Chinchill were high in aggressiveness and sensitivity and low in vivaciousness. “An earlier study suggested pedigree cats were friendlier to humans than ordinary moggies, mainly because they were more likely to have early contact with humans,” she adds.
Polydactyl cats: Though these aren’t technically a breed of cats, they are a genetic phenotype that has extra toes. Polydactyl cats are often called Hemmingway cats, since it was said that the author had a particularly fondness for them.
Siamese: The Siamese cat originated in Thailand, and remains a very popular breed. They are pointed cats, meaning their coat colors are darker towards their extremities. “Interestingly, these points are temperature dependent, with darker color developing in cooler body areas,” Demos says. “Siamese that live in warmer climates will be lighter overall than their cold-weather counterparts.”
Persian: Persian cats hail from Iran, and selective breeding has led to the two distinct visual appearances that are seen today: an overly flat face, as well as a less dramatic form with a more normal nose and eye structure. Demos notes that this breed is known to have issues stemming from the excessively flat face conformation, as well as a genetic predisposition towards developing polycystic kidney disease.
No matter which international cat breed you take home, there are lots of interesting behaviors that many cats share. Here are some of our favorite facts about our feline friends.
Unique personalities: While dogs have been bred over the years to share many of the same qualities, cats are considered to be more individual and unique. “I often advise people to stop thinking of cats as domestic animals—because over the years, we honestly haven’t domesticated them very much,” says Jackson Galaxy, a cat behaviorist, author of Catification, Catify to Satisfy, and Cat Daddy, and host of the TV show My Cat From Hell. “The most important thing to do when bringing a new cat home is to take your time to learn about their individual nature, and be willing to compromise and meet them in the middle…while accepting the fact that there may always be some degree of mystery. Because for every fact we know about a cat, there’s 10 that we don’t.”
Flehmen: This typical cat behavior involves the same vomeronasal organ (located in the roof of the mouth) that snakes use to scent prey. Cats do it primarily to detect scents from other cats. “Many people won’t have the opportunity to see this behavior at home unless your cat smells another cat—either a housemate or an outdoor passer-by,” Demos explains. “Anal glands are one of the most common secretions that will cause a cat to exhibit this flehmen response, which almost looks like a smile: they pull back their lips, open their mouth slightly, and then sniff repeatedly.”
Sense of smell. According to Haddon, cats have a sense of smell that’s almost as good as a dog’s. “They live in a world of scent that we cannot even begin to understand…they identify friend and foe by scent, they use scent to leave messages for other cats, and they rub on the furniture and on us humans in order to develop a home scent,” she says.
Meowing: Meowing is a cat’s way of communicating with humans. Other vocalizations, such as hissing, purring, chirping, and yowling, may all be directed at other cats, but meowing is generally reserved only for people. “Speaking of purring, though it’s commonly observed when a cat is happy, cats can also purr when nervous, frightened, in pain, or in other scenarios of high stress,” Demos adds.
Coloring: According to Haddon, cat owners often report that coat color affects personality, with ginger breeds being more friendly, tortoiseshell are less tolerant, and white cats more aloof. “In 2016, four American scientists reported that these differences might well be true, but that breed differences were stronger than coat color differences…which might be because the genes that influence coat color also influence behavior,” she adds.
Wagging tail: When you come home to a dog that’s wagging its tail, it’s clear that your four-legged friend is happy and excited to greet you. However, Demos points out that a wagging tail with a cat is the exact opposite of a dog. “In a cat, a wagging tail means an annoyed cat—the faster it is wagging, the more annoyed they are,” she says. “This is not the time to try and pet the cat’s belly!”
Galaxy notes that the one thing he advises new cat owners is to go into their relationship not expecting a dog. “If you think you’re going to get a cat that greets you at the door wagging its tail, thinking where have you been for the last hour, I missed you so much…it’s just not how cats are,” he adds.
Socialization: According to Haddon, if a kitten hasn’t met human within the first eight weeks of its life, it will always find it difficult to relate to people. “That’s why you should never buy a kitten from a shop, from the Internet, from the back of a van or from a breeder that sells lots of kittens…and you’ll always want to insist on seeing the kittens with their mother on a visit,” she warns. Proper breeders will have one litter of kittens at a time, she adds.
Territorial nature: One of the most important facts about cats is that they are not dogs, and thus shouldn’t be expected to behave like their canine counterparts in the home…particularly when it comes to someone invading their territory. “Many owners think cats are more sociable than they are. They just add another cat to the household expecting the resident cat to get on with it,” Haddon says. “Dogs might do this, but cats often don’t like a strange cat or kitten being put into their territory. We wouldn’t like to have to share our home with a complete stranger, yet we expect cats to do this.”
Eye winking: If you’ve ever seen a cat wink at you, it’s actually their way of communicating contentment and comfort to a human. “They will make eye contact, then slowly close both their eyes, while maintaining eye contact,” Demos says. “Seeing this in your cat, and reciprocating the eye wink, is a great way to bond with your cat.”
Play: While dogs crave playtime with their humans, and often love nothing more than chasing a ball around for hours on end, Galaxy notes that cats are just not that into it. “Because we’re bringing a cat into our home and saying to them that instead of what you’ve been doing for thousands of years—hunting and killing prey—you now have to live indoors and play with toys, cats are generally only interested when you become a thing they can pretend to kill…which is why so many cat toys are wands or butterflies or other things they can hunt,” he says.