The current theory of felid coat pattern evolution proposes that the primitive pattern is one of relatively large spots that break down into smaller spots (here denoted flecks) and rosettes while at the same time leading to various striped patterns as sidelines. We have coded the coat patterns of felids into uniform, flecks, rosettes, vertical stripes, small blotches and blotches and show by mapping these character states onto phylogenies of the family that the current theory is flawed. Instead, the primitive pattern appears to be flecks and it is from this type that nearly all other types have developed. The robustness of this hypothesis is shown by the fact that it remains unchanged regardless of which of several quite different, competing phylogenies of the family is used. The pattern of transformations reconstructed is not predicted by current theories of pattern formation and we suggest that modellers pay closer attention to the phylogenetic histories of the features that they model.