Cat Glossary

Learn about all things cats with this list of cat terminology.

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

– A –

Ailurophobia: a fear of cats.

Ailurophilia: a love of cats.

Alter: To surgically remove the ability of domestic cat to reproduce. Also known as neuter. A cat that has not been altered is unfixed.

Awn hair: Cat fur found immediately underneath the outer coat of a cat.

– C –

Calico: a tri-color coat pattern. As the genetic determination of calico cats is linked to the X chromosome, almost all calico cats are female.

Catnip: A short-lived perennial herb (Nepeta cataria) that about two-thirds of cats will react pleasantly towards. More: Why Do Some Cats Love Catnip?

Carnivore: Animals that eat meat as their source of nutrition.

Carpal whiskers: whiskers found on the back of the forelegs of cats.

Castrate: To remove the testicles of a male cat in order to prevent the cat from being able to impregnate unfixed female cats.

Caterwaul: The shrill and loud crying of cat as a response to being unhappy. Unaltered female cats will also caterwaul when they are in heat to alert males in the area.

Clowder: A group of three or more cats.

Colony: A group of stray and/or feral cats that coexist around a food source for protection. Colonies tend to be mostly made up of female cats.

Community cat: A stray or feral cat that lives outside and is provided with food and shelter by a human caretaker. These cats are also sometimes called garden cats.

– D –

Desex: To neuter or alter a cat.

Dewclaw: The fifth claw on the front paws. Somewhat similar to a thumb on a person, the declaw is in an elevated position from the bottom four claws on the front paws of a cat. The declaw grows on the inside of the front paws.

Digitigrade: Animals that walk on their toes. Cats are digitigrade animals.

Domestic cat: A house cat. The domestic cat is the only domesticated species in the family Felidae.

Down fur: the third and innermost layer of cat fur. Down fur serves as a insulating layer to keep the cat warm.

– E –

Estrus: The fertile part of a female cat’s reproductive cycle. Also known as being “in heat”.

– F –

Feline: A cat or something relating to or affecting cats.

Feral cat: A domestic cat that has never been handled or acclimatized towards humans. Feral cats have never lived inside a house and are wild. Feral cats avoid human contact.

Free-roaming: Domestic cats that are not confined to a house. Also known as outdoor or indoor/outdoor cats.

– G –

Gaping: Similar to the Flehmen response seen in other large mammals, cats will draw scents deeper in a scent organ located on the roof of their mouth. While the cat may look like they are reacting negatively to a smell, this behavior allows the cat to essentially smell deeper and be able to distinguish between similar smelling scents.

A cat smelling a flower.
Gaping happens when your cat opens up their vomeronasal organ to more deeply smell.

Gib: a neutered male cat.

Guard hairs: Guard hairs are long, coarse hairs that form the outer coat of the cat. These are the hairs that stand up when a cat is scared.

A young scared kitten, European Shorthair, arches his back and hissing, the cat has wild staring eyes, pinned-back ears and puffed up his fur.
When cats are scared, their guard hair raises along their back and tail. Photo: © kathomenden / stock.adobe.com.

– H –

Hairball: A hairball is an elongated clump of hair formed when swallowed fur gathers undigested in the cat’s stomach. Cats will vomit this clump of fur back up.

Hiss: The snake-like sound that a can makes when a force of air is passed over the curled tongue. Cats typically hiss when scared or angry.

A black and white cat hissing at the camera.
Cats will roll their tongues to create a narrow channel over which to force air to create the hissing sound. Photo: © Mary Swift / stock.adobe.com.

– I –

In Heat: The fertile period of a female cat’s reproductive cycle. Females cats who have been spayed do not go into heat. Also known as estrus.

Intact: A cat that has not been altered.

– J –

Jowls: Thickening of the skin of the cheeks of unaltered male cats that form as the result of testosterone.

A gray cat with jowls sitting in a tree.
An intact young male cat with jowls. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

– K –

Kindle: A group of kittens.

Kitten: a juvenile cat, typically under the age of six months.

Knead: Kneading is an action by cats in which they relax and push out and pull in their front paws, frequently alternating between the right and left limbs. More: Why Do Cats Knead?

– L –

Litter: a group of kittens born at the same time from the same mother.

– M –

Moggy (or moggie): a non-pedigree cat of mixed or unknown ancestry. These cats are sometimes referred to as domestic shorthaired or domestic longhaired cats depending on the coat length.

Molly: a neutered female cat.

– N –

Neuter: To remove the ability of a cat to reproduce by surgical means. Also know as to alter. A cat that has not been neutered is unfixed.

Nictitating membrane: A transparent inner eyelid that can be draw across the eye to protect the cat from debris and dust.

– O –

Obligate carnivore: Cats are obligate carnivores and therefore depend only on meat for survival.

– P –

Papillae: spines that cover a cat’s tongue. Papillae serves as barbs that help to pull liquid into the cats mouth and remove dirt and hair when grooming.

A closeup of a cat's tongue protruding from the mouth with the upper teeth visible.
A closeup of a cat’s tongue showing the papillae. Photo: © Todorean Gabriel/stock.adobe.com.

Petting aggression: Petting aggressiveness is a reflexive response of biting or clawing by cats who dislike being pet. More: Why Do Some Cats Bite When You Pet Them?

Pheromones: chemicals that a cat secretes that triggers a social response in other cats. More: What are Cat Pheromones, and Do They Work to Calm Cats?

Piloerection: the upright raising of hair along the back as a response to fear by a cat.

A young scared kitten, European Shorthair, arches his back and hissing, the cat has wild staring eyes, pinned-back ears and puffed up his fur.
When cats are scared, their guard hair raises along their back and tail. Photo: © kathomenden / stock.adobe.com.

Polydactyl: To have more than five toes on one or more paws. More: Facts About Polydactyl Cats

Primordial pouch: Loose fur on the belly that provides jumping flexibility and protects the cat’s organs during fights. More: Why Do Some Cats Have Loose Skin?

Purr: A vibrating sound cats produce in their throats that can indicate happiness, a demand for food, or fear. More: How Cats Communicate Through Purring

– Q –

Queen: An unspayed female cat.

Queening: The process of a female cat getting ready to give birth. Also known as ‘kittening’.

– R –

Retractable claws: Domestic cats have claws that are sheathed and can retract and therefore partially hide inside the paw. This retraction protects the claw from wear and tear and allows the cat to walk silently when pursuing prey.

– S –

Shedding: The process of a cat losing individual hairs. Cats will shed on a daily basis but shedding will become more frequent and intense as the cat grows out their winter fur.

Spay: To alter or neuter a female cat.

Stray: A formerly owned domestic cat that is now living in the wild. Strays can be friendly towards humans or avoid human contact. More: Facts About Feral and Stray Cats

Stray cats at the São Jorge Castle in Lisbon, Portugal. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.
Stray cats at the São Jorge Castle in Lisbon, Portugal. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Stropping: The act of a cat sharpening their claws.

Superfecundation: Kittens in the same litter can have different fathers. This is known as superfecundation.

– T –

Tabby: Distinctive types of coat patterns on some cats that evolved for camouflage. More: What are Tabby Cats?

An orange tabby in a crouching position on a lawn.
An orange tabby with a classic tabby coat pattern.

Tomcat: An unfixed male cat. Also known as a tom. Tomcats, unlike male cats which were neutered before the onset of puberty, have jowls. Tomcat jowls are fleshy regions that form in the cheeks of unaltered male cats as a result of testosterone’s effects.

Tortoiseshell: Cats with a patchwork combination of two colors other than white. Also known as torties.

Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR): The process of trapping feral cats, neutering them, and then returning them back to where they were caught.

– V –

Vacuum effect: The repopulation of an area by other feral cats after the capture and removal of the existing cat population. The incoming cats move in to take advantage of the existing food source.

Vellus hair: The fine, downy hair found on hairless cats.

Vibrissae: Stiff, functional hair also known as whiskers. Vibrissae are used by cats to sense their environments.

– W –

Whisker fatigue: Overstimulation of whiskers which can cause pain in cats. Whisker fatigue is commonly caused when the whiskers of a cat brush against the sides of too small feed and water bowls.

Whiskers: Stiff, functional hair used to sense a cat’s environment. Also known as Vibrissae. More: Where Do Cats Have Whiskers?

Closeup of a gray tabby cat's face.
Most whiskers on a cat are found on either side of the mouth.

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