Fishing Cat:ProfileEcologyIn zoosQuestions


The Fishing Cat is listed as Endangered in the IUCN Red List 2010, and is a unique example of the great abilities and diversities of the exotic cat family. As this cat plays a significant role in controlling the complex food chain called tropic cascade its status in the wild is indicative of the health and functioning efficacy of the ecosystem it dwells in. However, very little is known about the behaviour, habitat, population and status of this elusive and nocturnal cat in situ.

Fishing CatIt was named Felis viverrinus by the English zoologist Edward T. Bennet in 1833 for its viverrine or civet–shaped appearance, resembling particularly the Large Indian Civet Viverra zibetha. In 1858, the Russian explorer Nikolai Severtzov separated the Fishing Cat along with some other cat species under the umbrella term Prionailurus, and it is interesting to note that members of this family are characterised by conspicuous stripes and spot patterns on the head, face and body.

The robust, deep–chested cat is the largest of this lineage, with the length of the body being 70 cm, standing over 35 cm at shoulder level. The adult male weighs 8 to 14 kg, whereas the female weighs about 5 to 9 kg.

Its coat is a camouflaging grizzled grey in colour and rather course in texture. The coat is soft and tinged with olive–brown and has distinctive spots and stripes. Six to eight black lines run from the forehead to the neck and break up into shorter lines and longitudinal spots on the shoulders. Its head resembles a broad modified wedge with rounded contours. It has vertical markings above eyes; horizontal white and black markings emerge from the edges of the eyes and extend up to the greyish white cheeks. The flattened nose leather is deep–brick in colour. Its short, low–set, muscular tail, marked with about six or seven incomplete dark bands, distinguishes it from the leopard cat. Its double coated fur has water–resistant ability that is important to keep the cat dry while it dives into the water to catch fish. Its legs are short with two distinct elbow bars in forelimbs and long phalanges and claws in the forepaws. It uses its long claws as fishing hooks. Its pugmarks are bigger than those of the other smaller cats residing in the same habitat.

Wetland degradation and destruction, march of human settlement, water pollution by constant use of pesticides, excessive fishing and deforestation have proven to be extremely detrimental to the Fishing Cat. Its frequent exposure to rampant persecution by man has led to rapid dwindling of its population.

Text by Tiasa Adhya, May 2011. Photo by courtesy of Decin Zoo.


King of the marshes

Fishing Cats live near water in thick cover in habitats such as mangroves, marshes, and densely vegetated areas along watercourses. They are very much at home in the water and can swim long distances, even under water. In the Terai grasslands of southern Nepal radio-collared Fishing Cats spent most of their time in dense tall and short grasslands and were active only at night.

Fishing CatGiven their powerful build and strong swimming abilities, it is not surprising to find that Fishing Cats take a wide range of prey. They swim under water to catch coots and ducks, and have been observed crouching on rocks and sandbanks along rivers, using their paw to scoop out fish.

Their teeth are not specially adapted for catching fish or crushing mollusks but suited for killing any mammal, bird, or reptile. They are reported to be formidable hunters, and historical accounts mention Fishing Cats killing chital fawns, dogs, and even calves.

Captive Fishing Cats bite hens and ducks first in the shoulder area, and then use both paws to draw the prey close enough to deliver a killing bite to the head. Birds larger than a blackbird are plucked before being eaten.

There is little information on their social organisation or mating behaviour in the wild. They appear to be solitary hunters and seem to follow the usual cat land tenure pattern, in which a male’s range overlaps the smaller ranges of several females. In Nepal’s Chitwan National Park, radio-collared females used areas of 4–6 sq km, while a male’s range was much larger, about 16–22 sq km.

The scent marking patterns and vocal repertoire of Fishing Cats is poorly known. Both sexes scent-mark by cheek and head rubbing, and spraying urine. Males and females utter a chuckling call, and are likely to gurgle. Kittens have been heard to mew and give birdlike “chirrups”.

Photo and video by courtesy of Neville Buck.

Text by Angie Appel, with kind permission by Mel Sunquist to use excerpts of:

  1. Sunquist, M. and Sunquist, F. 2002. Wild Cats of the World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Pp. 241–245.

In zoos

Captive Breeding Programmes

As the wild Fishing Cat population is rapidly decreasing, captive breeding programmes were established to ensure a back-up population exists. These programmes are run by the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) and the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums. All the fishing cats kept in zoos around the world are listed in the International Studbook of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Each programme is managed by a coordinator who is responsible for maintaining the studbook including all the information about births, deaths, transfers, and current status of Fishing Cats kept in institutions participating in captive breeding programmes. Based on demographic and genetic data the coordinator gives recommendations to each institution regarding breeding and transfers. The coordinator and the species committee are also responsible for developing husbandry guidelines for captive care.

European Endangered Species Programme

The EAZA manages breeding programmes in three levels. The Fishing Cat Programme is under the highest level of management – the European Endangered species Programme (EEP).

The Fishing Cat EEP population started with 12 founders of wild unrelated origin, and to date has five potential founders. In order to maintain a healthy population and avoid inbreeding, we need to keep more individuals, and are still looking for new participants.

The captive population listed in EEP is slightly increasing. In 2006, only one kitten was born. In 2007, three kittens survived. In 2008, eighteen kittens survived, sixteen in 2009, and fourteen in 2010. At the end of 2010, there were 86 Fishing Cats in 31 institutions.

Captive Fishing Cats usually breed for the first time at the age of 3–4 years. The oldest breeding animals are around 15 years. Fishing cats can live up to 17 years in captivity.

Text by Milada Reháková (Petrů), June 2011. Photo by courtesy of Martin van Wees.



Tommi P. Laiho asked:

I am interested to have a Fishing Cat as a pet. I would like to know how to get a legal permission to get such a cat. Please let me know what kind of papers are needed. What qualities are needed from the owner of Fishing Cat as a pet? How much Fishing Cat costs if bought as a pet? My motives are give a loving home for a cat like this and therefore help to maintain to recover this noble cat species.

Fishing Cat are wild animals. They are not for sale as pets. To keep a Fishing Cat, you need to own an officially recognized zoo and provide a large heated enclosure. Your zoo also needs to join the European Endangered Species Programme or the North-American Species Survival Plan. However, the best home for Fishing Cats is their natural habitat in subtropical and tropical wetlands of South and Southeast Asia.