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40 African Civet Facts: Body Features, Life, and Behavior

Linda Crampton is a writer and teacher with an honors degree in biology. She loves to study nature and write about living things.

An Interesting Mammal

The African civet in a medium-sized and generally solitary mammal with some intriguing features. It’s a common animal in Africa south of the Sahara Desert and lives in forests and on the savanna. Unfortunately, in some areas it's kept in captivity so that the musk that it produces can be collected and sold. The animal belongs to the carnivore family known as the Viverridae and has the scientific name Civettictis civetta. It's sometimes referred to as an African civet cat, but it's not a member of the cat family (the Felidae).

In this article, I list forty facts about the African civet that may surprise you. There are probably many more facts about the animal to be discovered. Since it's generally nocturnal, it's hard to study the civet in its natural habitat. Even so, what is already known about the animal is very interesting.

Range, Habitat, and Physical Features

1. African civets are found in the sub-Saharan part of Africa. They avoid the desert countries in Northern Africa and the dry ones in the southern tip.

2. The animals live primarily in forested areas. The only time that they are seen in arid places is when they are travelling beside a river.

3. A particular African civet looks different from every other member of its species (as far as we know). Each animal has its own combination of black or dark brown stripes, spots, and blotches on a white, cream, light brown, or grey background. The fur is short and dense.

4. All members of the species have a black mask next to and below their eyes that resembles that of a raccoon. They also have a pale muzzle and black lower legs. The tail has incomplete white, cream, or light brown rings.

5. The body fur of a civet is thick and dense. The hair on its tail is longer.

6. When an animal feels threatened or excited, it fluffs up its fur and erects the black hair of the crest along its spine, which makes it look bigger. The hair of the crest is sometimes known as a mane.

7. The attractive coat of the civet provides camouflage. The varied colors and shapes on the coat help to disguise the animal by breaking up its appearance as it hides in the grass of the savanna or in a forest dappled by moonlight.

8. The animal has a pointed face, small ears, an elongated body with a bulky rear half, and a long tail. Its head is generally held low.

9. The feet each have five claws. These are non-retractable, like a dog's claws.

Diet

10. An African civet has forty teeth—ten in each quadrant of its mouth.

11. Though the animal is classified in the order Carnivora, it follows an omnivorous diet. It eats fruit and other plant parts, carrion, and prey such as insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds and their eggs, and rodents. It occasionally eats other animals, such as the young of bigger mammals.

12. It often pounces on its prey and shakes it in order to kill it.

13. The animals are good swimmers. If there is a suitable area of water in their habitat, they will catch and eat crabs and fish.

14. Like some other African mammals, African civets are said to eat the fruit of the Strychnos tree. Some sources say that they can withstand the strychnine in the fruit, but this may be due to confusion over the plant's identity.

15. Strychnos spinosa grows in the tropical regions of Africa. It's related to Strychnos nux-vomica, an Asian species. The seeds of the Asian tree contain strychnine, a deadly toxin. The seeds of the African species may or may not be toxic or may be toxic to only a limited degree. (If people decide to eat the fruit, they should make sure that they avoid the seeds due to their possible toxicity.)

A nineteenth-century illustration of the civet

A nineteenth-century illustration of the civet

Life of an African Civet

16. The African civet is mainly nocturnal but is sometimes seen during the day, especially when the sky is cloudy. It generally becomes active shortly before sunset.

17. The civet is solitary for most of the year but meets other members of its species at times, especially during the mating season.

18. The animal produces several types of vocalizations, including growls, screams, and a sound that is described as a cough-spit. It sometimes emits a sound that is said to resemble "ha ha ha", apparently as a contact call.

19. Civets often deposit their dung in specific areas known as civetrines. These are located in clearings or beside trails. The dung isn't buried and is scent-marked by secretions from glands around the anus.

20. The dung is thought to mark a territorial boundary or to send a message to other civets during mating. A civet also scent-marks other items in its territory.

21. Males and females without cubs curl up on the ground in thick vegetation during the day in order to sleep. In captivity, the civets are often active during the day.

22. Females with cubs sleep in a nest created in a hole created by another animal, a space surrounded by tree roots, or a hollow tree.

Perineal Glands and Musk

23. African civets have perineal glands located near their anus. The glands release an oily and odoriferous secretion known as musk or civet.

24. The males release more musk than the females. The musk is used to transmit a message, as described above.

25. Unfortunately, humans have found a use for civet musk. Though its smell is unpleasant when it's released from the perineal glands, it's attractive when the musk is diluted. This has led to its use in the perfume industry.

26. The civet may also have scent glands in its neck. As can be seen in the two videos above, it often rubs its neck enthusiastically against items that it encounters.

Human Use of Civet Musk

27. Today civet musk is used primarily as a fixing agent for other scents in perfumes. The main chemical that gives the musk its odor and its pleasant scent when the secretion is highly diluted is civetone.

28. Artificial forms of civetone are now available, which appears to be helping the situation. Sadly, the natural product is still preferred by some commercial companies.

29. It's important to check the ingredients in perfume. The term "natural ingredients" on a product label may sound nice. Technically, a product containing civet musk or civetone can be called "natural", however.

30. The animals in civet farms (which are generally males) are typically kept in small cages not much bigger than their body. This enables their perineal glands to be easily reached and musk to be removed by scraping a gland, which is almost certainly a painful process. The inhumane treatment of the animals is of great concern to some people.

31. Though it's tempting to support the idea of making civet farms illegal, some people are trying a different approach due to the economic importance of the farms. They want to find ways to make the process more humane.

32. One researcher has made a potentially helpful discovery. If metal bars of a specific size are placed in a civet's enclosure, the animal will rub its perineal glands over them, depositing musk. The musk can then be collected. Other researchers have suggested harvesting musk from places where civets often deposit the secretion.

Reproduction

33. In captivity, the female is reproductively mature at around the age of one. It's unknown whether this age is the same in the wild. Facts about reproduction have been discovered by observing captive animals.

34. The male reaches maturity two to three months before the female.

35. The females are polyestrous, which means they can have more than one litter in a year. A female may give birth to two to three litters in the same year.

36. Gestation lasts for sixty to seventy days.

37. A litter contains one to four cubs. The cubs have relatively mature features at birth compared to the young of many other mammals. They are completely furred, though they are mainly black in color. They are also able to crawl immediately after being born.

38. The female has six nipples.

39. The cubs feed entirely on their mother's milk for four to six weeks. They are fully weaned at around fourteen to sixteen weeks of age.

40. African civets can live for fifteen to twenty years in captivity. Some reports say they can live as long as twenty-eight years.

Questions That Need to Be Answered

Many facts about African civets need to be discovered or confirmed. For example, some sources say that the animals are good tree climbers while others say they are unable to climb trees. It's also said that the animals attack and eat venomous snakes without being harmed. It would be interesting to know the details about how the civet attacks the snake safely and whether this is a widespread practice.

Another problem is that some observations of wild civet behavior are quite old. That doesn't mean that they're wrong, but additional observations of the same behaviors would increase the likelihood that they are generally correct occurrences instead of only sometimes true. Learning more about the engaging African civet could be both useful and enjoyable.

References

  • The African civet entry from EOL (Encyclopedia of Life), which is hosted by the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History
  • Civettictis civetta entry from the Red List of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature)
  • Information about the African civet from Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology

Questions & Answers

Question: How many different kinds of civets are there?

Answer: This question is hard to answer, for two reasons. First, scientists disagree about whether certain animals in the civet group should be classified as separate species or as subspecies of the same species. Secondly, people disagree about which animals should be referred to by the common name “civet”. The word appears in the common name of members of at least eleven genera at the moment. That would make at least sixteen species with the word “civet” in their name according to the current classification method.

Question: Can African civets see in the dark?

Answer: The retina is the light-sensitive layer at the back of our eyeball. When cells in the retina are stimulated, they send a message to the brain along the optic nerve, enabling us to see. African civets are mammals, like us, and their eyes work in the same way as ours. Unlike us, however, African civets have a tapetum lucidum behind their retina. This reflects any light that reaches it back to the retina. This gives the retina a second chance to be stimulated and improves night vision. Since we don’t have a tapetum lucidum, the civet probably sees better at night than we do.

Question: How do you distinguish one African civet from another?

Answer: You would have to observe the animals that interest you and look at their coat pattern and color, their size, and perhaps their behavior. Careful observation would probably enable you to distinguish one animal from another.

Question: Are African Civets fast?

Answer: There is a lot that is unknown about the animals. In their daily life, they may not move fast. The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) web page for the African civet says that two radio-tracked individuals "moved at an average speed of 326 m/h (metres/hour) and traveled between 1.33 and 4.24 km each night". I've never seen a reliable statement about the maximum speed of the species. I doubt whether it's known.

© 2018 Linda Crampton

Comments

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 29, 2020:

Thank you very much, emge.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on August 29, 2020:

A lot of information and compiled in an interesting manner.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 29, 2020:

Hi, Denise. The idea that African civets attack and eat venomous snakes has been reported by some researchers, but others want confirmation of this behavior. The behavior seems to be classified as "maybe" at this point in time.

I appreciate your visit. Blessings to you, as well. I hope you're having a good weekend.

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on August 29, 2020:

They must be fast like the mongoose if they can attack venomous snakes. Do they eat them? This was all interesting.

Blessings,

Denise

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 06, 2020:

Hi, Asante. I'm not an expert in taking care of young civets. You need to contact someone with experience in caring for the youngsters. Good luck.

Asante Isaac on August 06, 2020:

I enjoyed everything...l have 4 youngest that am feeding them with cow milk... please is there anything else to do again to do to keep them safe

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 19, 2020:

Thank you, Thewayer.

Thewayer on March 19, 2020:

This is great research!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 01, 2019:

I'm very glad that your neighbour rescued the civets. I have no experience in taking care of the animals, though. You should do some research to find people or organizations in your country who can help you. Conservation and animal welfare institutions in various countries may be helpful as well. Good luck.

Madu Michael CHIBURUZOR on October 01, 2019:

my neighbour found a civet kitten on his farm and brought dem home, they are about two weeks old, how do I go about taking care of them.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 28, 2018:

Thank you for the comment, Devika. I agree with your last point. Learning never stops in biology!

DDE on July 28, 2018:

I have heard of the African Civet but you enlightened me of so much more. Interesting and learning never stops!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 22, 2018:

Thanks for the second comment, Manatita.

manatita44 from london on July 22, 2018:

The deer. My mistake.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 22, 2018:

Hi, Genna. It is interesting to observe the animals' behaviour in captivity when they are kept in good conditions and treated well. The youngsters are very appealing!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 22, 2018:

Hi, Dora. Yes, it would be great if people could gather the material without keeping the animals captive. I hope major changes are made with respect to obtaining and using civet musk.

Genna East on July 22, 2018:

I've never heard of this mammal before this. Thanks for sharing such interesting info on this curious little critter. The video shows them as playful and affectionate -- rather like cats -- when treated well in captivity.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on July 22, 2018:

Amazing! So many interesting facts and still not fully observed. Wish there was a way to get the benefit of the musk without holding them captive.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 21, 2018:

Hi, Peggy. I agree that the process should be outlawed, at the very least in its current form. I appreciate your visit.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on July 21, 2018:

It was so interesting learning more about this animal. I truly wish that there was no cruelty involved in harvesting musk from them for the perfume industry. That should be outlawed in my opinion.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 21, 2018:

Thanks for the visit and the interesting comment, Manatita. I've never read anything about musk production in the European hare. That would be an interesting topic to investigate. I hope you have a great weekend.

manatita44 from london on July 21, 2018:

An enjoyable read of this rather unusual creature. Sad about the things we humans do. I believe the hare has musks no? Have a pleasant weekend.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 20, 2018:

Thank you very much for the comment and for sharing the information, Cynthia. I think I would definitely have had difficulty breathing around the person that you describe!

Cynthia Zirkwitz from Vancouver Island, Canada on July 20, 2018:

Hi Linda,

Your article about the Afrcan civets, and accompanying videos, was utterly fascinating! I knew little about the civets, just about their musk being used in the perfume business. Shocking in this age of 'scent restrictions' in public buildings, but I once worked in a hospital with a woman who wore a very strong perfume that took my breath away with its musky undertones. She said it was an "expensive" fragrance that her friend had bought in a duty-free store at the airport. I had trouble breathing in her vicinity and can only imagine how difficult it must have been for patients with serious respiratory issues. Perhaps the offending scent wasn't civet musk but an artificial additive, but her emphasis on how pricey it was makes me believe that it was likely the "real" civet musk.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 20, 2018:

Hi, Peg. It is a fascinating creature. Not all perfumes contain civet or its artificial equivalent, but it seems that a lot do. It's a shame that the natural ingredient is still used.

Peg Cole from Northeast of Dallas, Texas on July 20, 2018:

This is a fascinating creature and you've identified so many of its interesting characteristics. What a shame that cruelty is involved in the production of perfume. Glad that I no longer wear it.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 19, 2018:

The cubs' method of feeding is certainly interesting! Thanks for the visit, Jackie.

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on July 19, 2018:

Beautiful and interesting. Wonder if they ever learn to drink milk? So funny!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 19, 2018:

Hi, Bede. Thanks for the comment. The North American animal belongs to the raccoon family instead of the African civet one, but it does have some similarities, as you say. It's another interesting animal.

Bede from Minnesota on July 19, 2018:

I enjoyed learning about the African civet, Linda. Let’s hope that greater awareness of their plight will lead to better treatment. North America has a similar type of animal, the ring-tailed civet cat- are they related to the African civet? In any case, they have a number of similarities.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 19, 2018:

I appreciate your visit and comment, Liz.

Liz Westwood from UK on July 19, 2018:

I hadn't heard of the African civet until I read this article. I've learned a lot.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 19, 2018:

That's a sad fate for any animal. I hope it doesn't happen. Thanks for the visit, Bill.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on July 19, 2018:

Fascinating...beautiful....I sure hope man doesn't find a way to eliminate this animal along with all the others we have erased.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 18, 2018:

I think they're cute, too, Flourish! My favourite video is actually the first one. African civets are very interesting animals.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 18, 2018:

Hi, John. I doubt whether the process can be stopped completely, too, at least in the near feature. It's economically important in some places. I hope very much that a compromise can be reached. A much better life for the civets that still provides a significant income for people would be good for now. I hope that eventually another source of income can be found for the people who collect musk. Thank you for the visit.

FlourishAnyway from USA on July 18, 2018:

That video of them sharing the same water bowl was cue. They look a like raccoons. Absolutely adorable.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on July 18, 2018:

Linda, these were 30 facts I definitely didn't know as I knew nothing about the African Civet until I read this. I found this very interesting and educational. What a wonderful animal. With the popularity of musk, I doubt the extraction from civets can be stopped completely but I do hope a much more humane way is adopted. Wonderful article, thank you.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 18, 2018:

Nor will I, Mary. I don't actually wear perfume, but I make sure that any other scented products that I buy don't contain civet products. The situation for the captive animals is often horrible. Ideally, the animals wouldn't be kept in captivity. If their release can't be arranged, they need to live in much better conditions and be treated well.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on July 18, 2018:

I have not seen a civet but I am pained by what is done to them just to take musk for perfume. I certainly will not use perfumes that have this.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 18, 2018:

Thank you very much for such a kind comment, Leland. The civets are very interesting animals, though it's probably not a good idea to get one as a pet, as you say. It's enjoyable to watch them in videos, though!

Leland Johnson from Midland MI on July 18, 2018:

Linda- wonderful article! I want a civet for a pet! Probably not a good idea? I love how you bullet your points and I really enjoyed the first video (haven't watched the other 2 yet). I have never seen or heard of this animal. I bet you're an excellent teacher based on how well you communicate in your articles. I loved it. Great job.

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