National News

‘Touch Not the Cat’

Posted November 12, 2018 3:14 p.m. EST

Q: I saw on the news that two rare Scottish wildcat kittens were rescued. How could the rescuers tell they were really wildcats?

A: The biggest threat to the Scottish wildcat, Felis silvestris, is widespread interbreeding with feral domestic cats. The wildcats are endangered; just 45 to 100 purebred specimens remain, mostly roaming remote parts of Scotland’s western Highlands.

The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland has developed a genetic test to distinguish wildcats from domestic cats and hybrids. But the elusive and fierce animals are seldom available for testing.

Research organizations like Wildcat Haven and Scottish Wildcat Action have developed what might be called a breed standard to identify wildcats, which may even help estimate the degree of hybridization in doubtful cases.

The male wildcat is bigger than the average house cat, although the females are about the same size. The wildcat’s fur is much thicker, and its stripes are all solid black and brown; spots, broken stripes or white fur are indications of hybridization.

The tail is thick and banded with complete rings, and purebred specimens have no stripe running down the back of the tail.

Conservation groups in Scotland are working to have feral cats neutered so they will not further dilute the rarer breed, which is the United Kingdom’s last native cat.