Today, there are some 41 living species of cats, ranging from the domestic housecat to the much larger and more impressive lions and tigers, known as “big cats”.
These animals are all remarkably similar except for size, and scientifically constitute a “clade” or a group of very similar and closely related mammals.
All cats are carnivorous, have the same bone structure and shape, have roughly the same body proportions, and even have the same types of claws in all but a few species.
Almost no other clade of mammals shows so much similarity across so many different species and genera. That makes cats pretty special and unique.
At the same time, there are plenty of other carnivores that look like cats, but actually, they aren’t.
Scientific name: Cryptoprocta ferox
Summary: Fossas are large and cat-like and if you saw one in a tree, you’d probably mistake it for a cougar.
Fossas are cat-like carnivores, endemic (native only to) the island of Madagascar.
The animal is also the largest mammalian predator in Madagascar, and extremely similar to big cats like the cougar. However, fossas are only distantly related.
Instead, they’re most similar to the Malagasy civet, which also closely resembles a cat. However, Fossa aren’t true cats.
The heads are smaller and their claws are only partially retractable. On the other hand, they share almost all other traits with cats. These include climbing and living in trees, walking on toes when in trees, and remaining mostly solitary.
They also hunt at night, and like cats, their eyes reflect light.
Fossas are normally just under 2 feet in length. Most also weigh 12-19 lbs. However, males are heavier than females.
Scientific name (family): Hyaenidae
Summary: Hyenas look like dogs but behave like cats, thanks to ancestry that places them closer to a civet than a dog.
Most people think of dogs when they say hyena, but these carnivores are much more closely related to cats.
In fact, all four modern hyenas (aardwolf, striped hyena, spotted hyena, and brown hyena) behave like cats. This includes grooming, how they mark territory, how they live together, and how they hunt.
Hyenas also used to be more like dogs. Most used to be similar to jackals, but were eventually outcompeted by actual dogs.
Hyenas develop powerful jaws, capable of crushing bones in carrion, allowing them to feed on scraps left by other predators.
Today, hyenas are all relatively similar, with spotted or striped coats. All of them are native to Sub-Saharan and South Africa, except for the striped hyena, which is found in North and East Africa, Central Asia, and the Indian subcontinent.
They also vary significantly in size, with the striped hyena sometimes weighing more than 120 lbs, and the aardwolf normally weighing less than 30.
Scientific name (genus): Genetta
Summary: Genets remarkably resemble elongated cats, although some species will make you think of a mongoose instead.
The genet includes 17 species of carnivores mostly native to the African continent. However, the common genet can be found in Europe, including in Italy and France. However, it was introduced, after it was imported as a pet.
Genets are all arboreal, meaning they live in trees. Almost all of them have a striped or ringed tail (like the American ringtail).
They also normally have spotted bodies, similar to a leopard. However, all genet species have a dark stripe along the spine – although it varies in size and pattern by species.
In addition, genets can stand on their hind legs. Here, they look similar to meerkats, and will normally stand for guarding or eating. In addition, genets are more omnivorous than most cats, and will commonly eat plants and fruit.
In addition, some genets don’t look too much like cats. If you were to see the giant forest genet, you’d probably think you were looking at a large mongoose.
However, the crested servaline genet or the pardine genet can be difficult to tell apart from cats without taking a closer look.
Scientific name (genus): Poiana
Summary: Linsang or oyan includes four species of cat-like carnivores noted for being the most similar to cats in physical appearance.
Linsangs or oyans are a species of carnivore native to the African continent, the Indian Subcontinent, and South Asia. All four species remarkably resemble cats, with the Asiatic linsang being the closest living relative of cats.
However, if you look at a linsang, there are noticeable differences between them and cats.
For example, the muzzle and mouth are longer, more like that of a dog. The body is also longer and closer to the ground, especially for African linsangs.
Still, these tree-dwelling carnivores are otherwise extremely similar to cats. They’re usually a little smaller than a foot, although tails are twice that.
Most also have stripes, blotches, and spots. And, some like the banded linsang actually look like a cross between a lemur and a cat.
Scientific name (genus): Eupleres
Summary: Falanoucs are cat-like predators native to Madagascar, and depending on the angle you see it from, look like a cat or a mongoose.
Falanoucs are endemic to Madagascar, like several other animals on this list.
In addition, they closely resemble cats in their body and tail. However, the head is normally smaller and more elongated, much more like a mongoose or ferret.
Falanoucs are also uniform in color. Almost all of them are brown with no markings, although some are darker along the spine. That makes them stand out compared to cats and mongooses.
In addition, falanoucs have different teeth than almost any other mammal. The canines point backwards, allowing them to trap and snare insects and earthworms more easily.
Unlike cats, falanoucs don’t have retractable claws. However, they do climb and spend much of their time in trees.
Scientific name (family): Viverridae
Summary: Civets normally look like a cross between a cat and a dog, or a cat and a raccoon – but are remarkably similar to cats in many ways.
Civets include over a dozen species of loosely related, cat-like animals.
All civets share characteristics like long tails, cat-like builds, and semi-retractable claws. However, they’re also closer to raccoons and skunks in that they produce musk.
In fact, that musk is one of the primary threats to civets in the wild, as people still hunt them to use them to make perfume. They’re also popular for fur and for meat, which has led to population decline.
All civets are native to tropical forests, mostly in the African and Asian continents. Like cats, they spend much of their time in trees, hunt small mammals and fish, and live relatively solitary lives.
Scientific name: Arctictis binturong
Summary: The binturong or bearcat is a heavy, cat-like carnivore that lives in tall trees, hunting small mammals much like cats.
Binturongs are medium-sized carnivores native to South and Southeast Asia. The animal resembles a cross between a bear and a cat, leading to the common name “bearcat”.
In addition, while there’s only a single species of the binturong, there are nine subspecies, with two distinct types of binturong.
All binturongs feature a bushy tail, long fur, and non-retractable claws. However, they spend a significant amount of time climbing. Like cats, binturongs also have whiskers, which allow them to sense vibrations.
Most binturongs weigh between 30 and 75 lbs and most stand about 2 feet high and are about 2.5 feet in length, including the tail. About half of that length is the tail.
Like cats, binturongs also hunt during the day and night. That makes them more like cats than most things on this list.
Scientific name (family): Herpestidae
Summary: Mongooses are visually dissimilar from cats but share characteristics including claws, tails, and eating habits.
Mongooses are a diverse group of 34 species native to Europe, Africa, and Asia.
Here, some closely resemble cats and others look significantly more like ferrets or weasels. Still, they’re extremely similar to cats in behavior, including eating, hunting, social behavior, and diet.
However, unlike cats, mongooses uniformly hunt animals in their holes.
In fact, all of them are longer and thinner than they are tall, with short front and hind legs, allowing them to easily tunnel into animal burrows to catch their prey. For this reason, it’s unlikely you’d mistake most mongooses for cats.
Still, some like the dwarf mongoose and banded mongoose can look remarkably similar, especially at a distance.
Mongooses are also uniquely evolved to hunt snakes, as one of just four groups of mammals that aren’t affected by a compound found in snake venom.
None of these animals are cats. However, they all look, hunt, and behave pretty similarly. Most are a bit more omnivorous than cats. And, none of them have the same retractable claws as cats. However, they still have similar teeth, social behavior, and hunting habits. And, if you were to see one in the dark, chances are, you’d assume it was a cat before you got a closer look.