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Fishing Cat

Fishing cat. Photo by David Clendenen, United States Fish and Wildlife ServiceFelis [=Prionailurus] viverrinus

Status: Vulnerable
Listed: IUCN Red List
Family: Felidae (Cats)
Description: Short, rough, light brown base coat covered with dark spots.
Habitat: Swamps, marshes, and forests.
Food: Fish, crustaceans, small mammals, birds, snakes, frogs, and insects.
Reproduction: One to four kittens after a gestation of about 63 days.
Threats: Habitat destruction, poisoning by people, hunting for its coat.
Range: Indochina, India, Indonesia (Java, Sumatra), China.


The adult fishing cat, Felis viverrinus, weighs between 12 and 26.5 pounds, with a head-and-body length between 22 and 33 inches and a tail length between 8 and 12.5 inches. It stands 15-16 inches high at the shoulder. It is heavily, powerfully built. Its coat is pale brown with numerous dark brown or black spots, with rings around the tail. Six to eight dark lines begin at the top of the nose, extend over the forehead and down the back of the neck, and two wavy lines mark each cheek. The back of each ear is pale to dark brown with a white spot in the middle. The hair is short and bristly.

The fishing cat's figure shows adaptations for living in and near water, as well as for fishing. Its paws have webbing, probably to aid in swimming (not all naturalists agree that the webbing is a significant adaptation). Its claws are not fully retractable and are suited to quick swipes-and-grabs in water to snag fish. Its head is large, sleek, somewhat flattened, elongated, and narrow, adaptations that allow it to dart its head into water and slip quickly toward underwater prey.

The fishing cat is also known as machbagral and tarai.


If acquainted with humans as kittens, fishing cats may be friendly with people they know. Otherwise, fishing cats are ferocious and dangerous. Even for Felidae, fishing cats are especially powerful and are known to be able to drive off a pack of dogs; one in captivity broke out of its enclosure into one holding a female leopard and killed the leopard, which was twice its size. They can do significant harm to humans or other large animals they deem threatening.

In captivity, males help females care for and rear their kittens, and it is likely that they do the same in the wild. Whether or not fishing cats mate for life is unclear at present. They seem able to mate and produce young year round. Gestation is about 63 days; litters consist of one to four kittens. The kittens' eyes open in two weeks; they are weaned in four months.

Fishing cats live near water, and their diet consists primarily of fish and underwater animals, such as snails. They are patient hunters and will crouch or sit next to a body of water, while carefully gazing into the water for signs of their prey. A fish that swims into range is scooped up quickly by one of the cat's forepaws and held close, then eaten. The cats also feed on crustaceans near the shore by scooping them up with their paws or dipping their heads into the water and grabbing the prey in their mouths. Fishing cats also swim after prey. When they do, they bite the fish and haul it to shore in their mouths. When hunting on land, they seem to stay on the ground and favor small prey.


A plentitude of freshwater is essential to the fishing cat's survival, and it is therefore found in watery areas or areas with large rivers or lakes, such as highland forests. Most of their habitat consists of marshes and swamps. They are found in mangrove swamps in particular, as well as reed forests.


The fishing cat once had a very large range that included Pakistan, India and its coastal islands, the southern Himalayas, most of southern China, all of the Southeast Asian mainland, and Sumatra and Java in Indonesia. It no longer exists in Pakistan, but may be found in remote northeastern India near the coast. It has what may be a healthy population in southwestern India, and may still be found on Sri Lanka, near India's southern coast. Once a common sight in China, its present status in that nation is somewhat clouded, but it seems now to be rare. It lives in small, widely spread pockets in Indochina and Southeast Asia; it is likely that these pockets are disappearing as the cat's habitat is logged and its waters fouled. There is disagreement among authorities about the fishing cat's status on the Malay Peninsula, but it seems to be extirpated in that region. It is possible that Indonesia may harbor some of the cats on the island of Java, although deforestation of that island has left a very small range for the cat. The island of Sumatra offers better hope for the cat's survival in Indonesia because some large swampy areas are still preserved.


Because the fishing cat is very dependent on freshwater, pollution of rivers, lakes, marshes, and swamps can hurt it greatly; much of its habitat in China, India, and Southeast Asia has been poisoned. Logging of its forest ranges and the filling in of marshes and swamps to accommodate human communities and farms has shrunk much of its ancient range, so that it now lives in pockets scattered through southern Asia. Local people sometimes fear it and other times regard it as a pest that threatens their livestock (although this threat is unlikely, given its instinctive eating habits); they therefore kill fishing cats. Hunting for its valued fur has resulted in the cat's extirpation in most of its old territory. Only India seems to heave the potential for a secure population-although poaching threatens even the fishing cats in India's wildlife preserves.

Conservation and Recovery

The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service has not listed the fishing cat as endangered or threatened, but it is listed in CITES, Appendix I: Trade Prohibited, meaning that the animal is thought to be endangered worldwide. The IUCN lists the cat's status as Vulnerable. Based on geographic range and population densities, the number of fishing cats is estimated to be below 10,000 mature breeding individuals. The population appears to be declining due to the threats outlined above. The listing in CITES means that it is illegal in most nations to kill fishing cats or trade in their body parts, including their fur. Conservation efforts need to include identifying populations, providing them with enough habitat to support good-sized breeding populations, and stopping poaching. Indonesia, Malaysia, and India have moved toward taking these steps, although at present India appears to be the only nation that may have a good breeding population left. Only a few fishing cats are held in captivity-not enough for a successful breeding program. The cat is rare everywhere.

Source: Beacham's Guide to International Endangered Species, Gale Group. 1998.

Fishing cat photo by David Clendenen, United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

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