The Feline Skeletal Anatomy

Anatomy is always discussed in the context of internal systems and physical characteristics. With felines, it is the same way. Though there are many differences within the Felidae family, there are many similarities that define and classify these species to belong where they are. Their lithe, muscular, flexible bodies are well-adapted for stalking, leaping, running, and climbing.

Ask Einstein the Cat: My Mouth Hurts — Do I Have Dental Issues? @Catster

The specialized morphological characteristics shared with all felines are associated with being a hypercarnivore. A hypercarnivore is an animal that has a diet that majority consists of meat (<70%). Species in the Felidae family do not need the crushing or grinding function of their teeth to consume plant material but need the lacerating and tearing ability to consume meat. Their teeth reflect this need. Compared to other species in the order Carnivora, felines have an increase in the relative length of shearing edges of dentition in their teeth.

Furthermore, the tongue is also postulated to provide a better ability to grip and position the meat within the mouth. The shortened muzzle is also presumed to aid in a higher bite force necessary for a lone individual to successfully capture prey. Felines are known for their hearing skills, specialized to hear prey, and night vision, suited for dawn and dusk hunting. With large ears, cats can hear extremely high frequencies.

Trait phylogeny
Based on phylogeny from Johnson et al. (2006)

There are other synapomorphies, specialized characteristics that derived from a common ancestor and defines a clade (a group of organisms). Small body size, rounded ears, and long tails are most likely ancestral characteristics in the Felidae family.

It is important to note that the homoplastic traits that define specific genuses likely arose later down the genetic line. The large body size of the big cats likely arose within the genus Panthera once the subfamilies spilt. The pointed ears of the caracal, lynx, domestic and wildcats are not found elsewhere on the feline family tree. Similarly, the short tails of the caracal, lynx, and bobcat are within their respective genuses. 


The skeleton of a cat can be

divided into the following parts:

Axial Skeleton

  • Skull
  • Vertebral column or spine,
    • Cervical Vertebrae (7)
    • Thoracic Vertebrae (13)
    • Lumbar Vertebrae (7)
    • Sacral Vertebrae (3)
    • Caudal Vertebrae (22-23)
  • Ribs (13 pairs)
  • Sternum or Breastbone
    • Manubrium
    • Sternebrae (6)
    • Xiphoid Process
Appendicular Skeleton

  • Anterior Pectoral Girdle
    • Dorsal Scapula (shoulder)
    • Clavicle or Collarbone
  • Posterior Pelvic Girdle or Ossa Coxae
    • Dorsal Ilium
    • Anterior and Ventral Pubis
    • Posterior and Ventral Ischium
  • Anterior or Forelimbs
    • Humerus, Radius, Ulna
    • Carpals, Metacarpals (wrists)
    • Phalanges (digit Bones)
  • Posterior or Hind Limbs
    • Femur, Tibia, Fibula
    • Tarsals, Metatarsals (ankles)
    • Phalanges (digit Bones)
feline skeleton
Adapted from: An Atlas of Cat Anatomy. Field – Taylor

Cats have seven cervical vertebrae located in the neck like most mammals, thirteen thoracic vertebrae (humans have twelve) located between the cervical and lumbar vertebrae, seven lumbar vertebrae (humans have five) located between the rib cage and pelvis bone, three sacral vertebrae (humans have five) fused in the pelvis bone, and 22 or 23 caudal vertebrae (humans have three to five), with the exception of short-tailed felines, located in the tail.

The extra lumbar and thoracic vertebrae allow cats to have the familiar spinal mobility and flexibility. The bones have slightly looser joints that most animals, which enables cats to twist while falling and land with all four feet.

Another specialized bone that allows for the famous feline flexibility is the clavicle bone. Unlike human arms, cat forelimbs are attached to the shoulder by a free-floating clavicle. This allows to feline to pass their body through any space as long as their heads can fit.

Feline Anatomy Pictures @Pictures of Cats and Kittens

Check back next Tuesday for an in-depth discussion about the skeletal similarities and differences in the Pantherinae subfamily!

But wait! Why wait five days for the next post? Come back on Saturday and Sunday for a conservation update and a new animal spotlight!


Featured Image: Mammalian Anatomy: published in 1898 by Horace Jayne

References + For More Reading

Earthlife: Cats

Felidae Phylogeny

Feline Anatomy

Zoo Lab: Cat Skeleton

Anatomy of the Cat – Skeleton

Cat Bone Structure


2 thoughts on “The Feline Skeletal Anatomy

  1. Pingback: Pantherinae Skull and Larynx Comparison – Animal Almanac

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