11 Ways Big Cats Are Just Like Domestic Cats

iStock/Erin McCarthy
iStock/Erin McCarthy / iStock/Erin McCarthy

Just how much do big cats have in common with the tabby in your home? We asked Susan Bass, director of public relations at Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida—you know, the place that puts out all those awesome videos—to walk us through what behaviors big cats share with their domestic counterparts. (And don’t worry—we’ve put in a request for “sitting on computers” and “hanging out in the sink” videos.)


It's a scenario familiar to anyone with a kitty: You come home, head to the bathroom ... and find a toilet paper massacre. When the staff at Big Cat Rescue put TP in enclosures of servals, bobcats, lynx, and ocelots, they found that even big cats love to play with white tissue. "They’re going to be more curious about anything new in their immediate area," Bass says. Also, it's just plain fun! (For them. Not for whoever has to clean it up/reroll the toilet paper.)


If you present a big cat with a box, he'll hop in it quicker than you can say Maru. "Just like domestic cats, big cats like to hide in things," Bass says. "They like to think that they can see out but you can’t see in—even though you can!"

The cats at Big Cat Rescue are also into bags, though probably not in the same way that domestic cats are. "We haven’t tried bags that they can get into—I don’t know where we would find one big enough!" Bass says. "But we give them paper bags filled with either spices or cologne. Our big cats love Obsession for Men. They just start drooling and rolling over."

If the cats were presented with a bag big enough to get into, Bass says, "they would probably rip through it."


No feline can resist the "What is that red dot—oh I got it—where did it go?" appeal of the laser pointer, big cats included. "I think they like that it moves really fast," Bass says. "They have to chase it. You can go up a wall, under things, like I do with my cat. They’re just fascinated with it."


Domestic cats spend between 30 and 50 percent of their waking hours grooming; big cats are similarly fastidious about cleaning themselves. "It’s to get all of their scent off of them," Bass says. "In the wild, if they’re lying in wait somewhere, and a gazelle gets a whiff of a tiger downwind, they’re going to run the other way. So cats are constantly are grooming themselves to get rid of any smell that they have." Cleaning has a number of other benefits, too; it helps cats get rid of parasites and keeps them cool.


It's all about marking their territory. Both big cats and domestic cats "have scent glands all over—in their faces, especially," Bass says. "So they rub against their things, whether it’s the side of a couch, the side of the cage, or a tree. Or you!"

Big cats also scratch to mark their territory. With the exception of lions, which roam in prides, big cats are solitary, Bass says; tiger cubs, for example, will stay with their mothers for just two years before striking out on their own. "If you are a 2-year-old male tiger and you’re wandering through the wild, and you come on these trees where there are claw marks in all the trees about 8 to 10 feet up—that’s because a tiger will stand on his back legs and put his front paws up as high as possible and scratch right there," Bass says. "That’s telling every tiger that comes into its territory, ‘This is how big I am, I can scratch way up here. If you can’t scratch higher, you better keep moving.'”


Your cat meows, chirps, and purrs. Big cats have their own vocalizations, too, and some of them sound kind of similar to the noises your cat makes. "There are four great cats—lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars—and they roar," Bass says. "They have a different bone in their throat that allows them to do that." The so-called lesser cats (but come on, we all know there's no such thing as "lesser cats"), including cougars, lynx, and bobcats, can't roar. "It's probably because of where they live," Bass says. "Lions live on the savannahs in Africa. A lion’s roar can be heard by another lion at least five miles away. They have to be able to do that. A Canadian lynx that lives in the snow in Canada doesn't need to roar to get its point across."

But a roar is just one way big cats converse. "They all talk," Bass says. "They all make different noises." The lesser cats can all purr, and tigers make a chuffing noise, "like a puffing out of their lips," Bass says, in greeting. "Like my tabby cats, big cats will talk to their people. Some cats are very talkative and some don’t make very many sounds. One of our cougars, Reise, is really talkative. If you just walk by her, all of a sudden she’ll be like 'bluh-ruh ruh ruh.'" You can watch Reise playing soccer here.

Fun fact: The young of the four great cats are called cubs, but the offspring of the lesser cats are called kittens!


Or at least some of them are. Responsiveness to catnip is genetic, and half the domestic cats in the world don't respond to it at all. "It’s the same thing with big cats," Bass says. "Some like it much more than others." In one test, 18 of the sanctuary's 25 cats had a strong reaction to catnip.


Your cat spends most of her day sleeping, and so do her big relatives—between 16 to 20 hours a day, in fact. "The reason for that is because in the wild, they are opportunity hunters," Bass says. "They will sprint to catch prey, but they’re not marathon runners. They will sleep to keep their energy intact. They can go from totally asleep to totally awake in a split second if they hear a gazelle go by."

Speaking of hunting: All cats, big and small, will stalk their prey. "Zabu, our white tiger, is a real stalker," Bass says. "If she sees anyone go by, or golf carts go across, she'll stalk them."


My kitten, Pearl, refuses to eat her food in her bowl. Instead, she shovels it onto the ground and then eats it, making a huge mess. (Thanks, Pearl.) Bass says some captive big cats will move their food to the ground to eat, too. "Some are very food aggressive," Bass says. "If there's more than one cat in an enclosure, we separate them before we bring the food by. One will start gobbling it up and then go to the other one’s food."

Another weird thing some domestic cats do is paw around their food bowls, which also has its roots in wild cat behavior. “In the wild, the cats might only catch something once a week or so, and they won't eat it all at once," Bass says. "They want to leave and come back to eat again, so they will actually try and bury their kill so others don’t smell it and eat it.” Other cats, like leopards, will drag their kill high into a tree, where other not-so-talented climbers (lions in Africa and tigers in Asia) can’t go.


Big cats sometimes make biscuits, too! "It's probably for the same reason house cats do it," Bass says. "It's natural to do it as they nurse as babies, and sometimes they continue to do it after they are past nursing when they are happy."


Both domestic cats and big cats have an excellent sense of smell. "Humans smell in parts per thousand, while cats smell in parts per million," Bass says. And if they smell something really strong, they'll open up their mouths to get a better whiff—an act the staff at Big Cat Rescue call "stinky face." "Opening their mouth helps them smell it better than just out of their nose," Bass says.

All images courtesy of iStock.