The Fishing Cat is a beautiful and familiar looking cat, with some amazing features that make it an expert in and around water. Known scientifically as ‘Prionailurus viverrinus‘, this intriguing feline is the sole member of its species, and sits within the taxonomical genus of ‘Prionailurus‘. It is the largest of the cats in this genus, and together, these cats exist within the subfamily ‘felinae‘ which comprises smaller members of the ‘felidae‘ cat family. There aren’t any subspecies of the Fishing Cat, making it truly unique.
They are around twice the size of a domestic cat, and live in wetlands across South and Southeast Asia. The fishing cat is also the state animal of West Bengal and is estimated to have diverged from its ancient ancestor as a new species between 0.2 and 4 million years ago!
Appearance & Characteristics of the Fishing Cat
The fishing cat is a robust and stocky feline, slightly larger, up to around double the size of the domestic cat you might have lounging around your house. Adult Fishing Cats tip the scales between 11 to 37 lbs (5 to 17 kg) from the smallest females to the largest males. They are sexually dimorphic with males the larger of the two sexes. The averages weight for each of the sexes individually, are:
- Males – 18 to 37 lbs (8 to 17 kg)
- Females – 11 to 20 lbs (5 to 9 kg)
The average length of head and body is 22 to 31 inches (57 to 78 cm), with a tail that adds an extra 9 to 16 inches (24 to 40 cm). Males tend to be longer than females, but both can stand up to 14 inches (35 cm) tall at shoulders.
They have a beautiful coat, mixing and olive-grey base with dark, mysterious spots and stripes. Their legs are short which gives them their stocky appearance, but is also perfect for navigating though their wetland adventures. Their tails are thick, ringed, and act as rudders when they swim. But here’s the showstopper: they have webbed paws which makes them exceptional swimmers in their wetland habitats.
Distribution – Location and Habitat
The Fishing Cat is a true wetland wanderer, found throughout areas in South and Southeast Asia. They can be spotted frolicking in the waters and marshes of India, and all throughout the subcontinent, including Pakistan and Bangladesh. They can also be found in Myanmar and Cambodia, through to the vibrant ecosystems of Thailand in the East. At the southern extremes of their range are Java and Sri Lanka.
They prefer swamps brimming with life, and mangroves or marshes filled with ample avian and aquatic prey, but they can also be found alongside riverbanks, streams and oxbow lakes where they will swim freely and hunt for fish, when they are not roaming in the cover of thick vegetation, avoiding predators or stalking prey.
The Lifestyle & Behaviour of the Fishing Cat
The Fishing Cat is a creature of many interesting facets, each behaviour reflecting its adaptation to its unique environment.
Most felines use a variety of vocal cues to communicate, and the Fishing Cat has many. These sounds range from short chitters, often used to express curiosity or alertness, to more prolonged and intense chuckles, which might indicate a state of agitation or excitement. These vocal cues all have an important role across different situations and interactions, especially during mating seasons or territorial disputes.
While some cats like Lions and social, most are not and Fishing Cats are amongst the majority here. They live mostly solitary lives – only really coming together for mating – and are known to establish and defend territories. These territories are marked using scent markings, and any intrusion by other Fishing Cats is usually met with hostility.
The Fishing Cat is nocturnal, with the cover of darkness offers several advantages, including reduced visibility to potential predators and prey and cooler temperatures, which are conducive for hunting.
The most distinctive behaviour of the Fishing Cat however, is its affinity for water. They love the water, and use their tails like a rudder to help them steer, and webbed paws to give them thrust. While some sources exaggerate the webbing on their paws as a major feature, in reality they are no more webbed than those of the leopard cat or bobcat.
Regardless, the webbing gives them an advantage in the water and certainly adds to their proficiency in the water. They have even been observed diving into water bodies to catch fish, displaying an exceptional mastery over their aquatic domain.
Diet & Nutrition of the Fishing Cat
The Fishing Cat doesn’t get it’s name for nothing you know. They are very skilful at catching fish and have some unique techniques to help them do this. Probably the most interesting is that they will tap the water’s surface, to mimic the movements of insects. This lures unsuspecting fish closer, and in a flash, they snatch their prey. The other, is that they will dive in once they have spotted their prey, and catch the fish in their mouth.
While the do primarily eat fish, – which makes up around three quarters of their food intake – they are not solely piscivorous, and have a wider, carnivorous diet. They are known, when chance arises, to prey on frogs, molluscs and crustaceans and some birds too. They might also pick the bones of the carcass from carrion left by bigger hunters, and small rodents or snakes depending on their availability.
Predators & Threats to the Fishing Cat
It’s unclear if there are many natural predators of the fishing cat, but they do share territory with some much bigger apex predators, so it is likely that animals such as the Asian tiger or leopards do eat them from time to time. They don’t seem to be an important prey species in the food chain though. Rather, the biggest threat to these felines, is without a doubt humans, and the impact we have on the wetlands that the fishing cat calls home.
It is thought that the vast majority of the Asian wetlands are at risk, and this is mostly because of human activity. Pollution, commercial, agricultural and aquafarming expansion are all putting the wetland environments at risk, and depleting the availability of food for these cats too.
In areas where they come into contact with humans too, they are commonly killed to protect fish stocks, which are then over farmed by humans, further putting pressure on the environment and the fishing cat. They are also openly hunted in some areas for their meat and fur, despite their status, legal protection and their listing as a vulnerable species.
The Fishing Cat Reproduction
The reproductive journey for these cats in the wild is not very well researched, but it is known that mating season begins early in the year – January and February. When the female goes into heat she will start to call out to nearby males through a series of vocalizations and ‘flirty’ behaviours, letting them know of her availability.
Once a pair is formed, nature takes its course. In captivity, a gestation period of 63–70 days has been observed, and it is likely a similar period exists in the wild. After this period, the viviparous female will give birth to a litter of between one and four baby kittens. As they are not big cats, the young tend to be called baby kittens rather than with baby lions and baby cheetahs for example, that are called cubs.
These kittens are very vulnerable in the first few weeks, born blind and weighing only around weigh around 150 – 170 grams. They are fed, nurtured and protected by their mother and by the end of the first fortnight their eyes will start to function. By four weeks they will be moving around comfortably and by the end of their second month they will start to get comfortable in the water and introduce solid food to their diet.
They are not fully weaned until they reach around four to six months old, depending on their development. By eight to nine months, these young felines have honed their skills enough to venture independently, marking their transition from dependent kittens to young adults. They will be fully grown by the time they reach their first birthday, and sexually mature around three months after that.
While these cats are not known to be social outside of mating and raising kittens, in captivity, the males have been observed helping with parental duties. This is not something that is thought to happen in the wild, perhaps an indication of environmental influences on their social behaviours.
Lifespan of the Fishing Cat
In captivity, the fishing cat is known to live for around 10 to 12 years. They should be able to achieve the same in the wild, but environmental pressures and human hunting are likely to pull the average down. This lifespan is comparable to a male adult lion in the wild, but lower than average for most felines including domestic cats.
Population and Conservation
With declining numbers, mostly due to habitat devastation and human behaviour, the IUCN has labelled the Fishing Cat as a ‘Vulnerable’ species. The last assessment was in 2016, and the population was still in decline at that time.
The Fishing Cat is listed on the CITES II index, and there are lots of organizations involved in conservation of the species, including:
- Fishing Cat Conservation Alliance: This alliance is a collective of conservationists, researchers, and enthusiasts who are dedicated to ensuring a future for the Fishing Cat.
- Felidae Conservation Fund: This organization combines top-tier research with community engagement and education. Their goal is to help humans coexist harmoniously with wild cats.
- International Society for Endangered Cats: Their primary approach to conserving the Fishing Cat is habitat preservation.
- The Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund: This fund support various projects aimed at conserving the species.
- Fishing Cat Conservancy (FishCat): This organization is taking a unique approach by partnering with aquaculture farmers to halt deforestation and restore mangroves, which are crucial habitats for the Fishing Cat.
- WWF-India: They have recognized the rapid decline in Fishing Cat numbers due to habitat loss and are advocating for stronger conservation efforts to protect the species and its wetland habitats.
- Think Wildlife Foundation: This foundation emphasizes the importance of conserving habitats specific to the Fishing Cat.
5 Fun Fishing Cat Facts for Kids
- Their webbed paws and strong tails make them expert swimmers!
- They can hold their breath and dive to catch prey.
- Unlike most cats, they adore water and often take a dip.
- Their long whiskers can sense fish movements in the water.
- They have a unique tapping ‘water dance’ to lure fish closer.