The answer is that most cats have 38 chromosomes (19 pairs). The reason that this is an interesting question is because some cat species in South America have only 36 chromosomes.
What is even more interesting is that some cat species have an unknown number of chromosomes due to the fact that the tests have never been done. Why haven't the tests been done? Because some very rare cats have barely been studied at all, let alone had a genetic analysis. The lack of research is due partly to the logistical difficulties of finding rare cats in remote and sometimes hostile habitats.
Another significant problem though is the shortage of funding for research on lesser known cats. Have you ever contributed to Andean Mountain Cat research? How about the Iriomote Cat? The Black-footed Cat? For most people the answer is 'no'.
The cats that have 36 chromosomes are those in the Ocelot lineage. They are the Ocelot, Oncilla, Geoffroy's Cat, Pampas Cat, Kodkod, Margay, and Andean Mountain Cat, although when I checked in to it, I was not able to confirm the Andean Mountain Cat. When a 36 breeds with a 38, you get a cat with 37 chromosomes. So there is some compatibility, but breeders say that the males with 37 tend to be sterile.
What are chromosomes?
From what I have been able to gather, it works like this: Chromosomes form to carry genetic instructions between cells during cell division. A cell nucleus contains loose material called chromatin, a mix of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) pieces and proteins. During cell division, the chromosomes assemble from the chromatin. Once formed, each chromosome is a single very long molecule of DNA, and the genetic instructions, (genes, among other things) are encoded along the DNA strand. Before cell division, the DNA pieces duplicate themselves so that when the chromosomes assemble, there are actually two complete sets. Then after cell division, each new cell ends up with a full set of chromosomes such that all of the genetic instructions have been passed on.
Humans, by the way, have 46 chromosomes (23 pairs). Before you start feeling all superior about having more chromosomes than a cat, I should tell you that I read about a fern species with over 1000 chromosomes (500+ pairs). What a show off.
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