The Fishing Cat: A Threatened Animal of Asia
A Feline With Unusual Behaviour
The fishing cat is a wild species that has some interesting methods for catching its prey. The animal dives into water to catch fish and scoops prey out of the water with its paws. The fishing cat feeds on land animals as well as aquatic ones, but its ease in water is the feature that has most impressed observers. It's definitely a cat that is not afraid of water.
The scientific name of the fishing cat is Prionailurus viverrinus. It's found in South and Southeast Asia and lives in wetland areas. Unfortunately, many of these wetlands are either disappearing or being degraded, primarily due to human activity. The cat's population is classified as Vulnerable on the Red List established by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature).
Fishing cats belong to the family Felidae, like the house cat and other felines. The word "cat" is sometimes used to refer to the animals in the family, including the fishing cat. The animal belongs to a different genus and species than the house cat, however.
The Coat of a Fishing Cat
Fishing cats have an attractive olive-grey or brown coat. They have black stripes on their face, back of their head, and upper neck and black spots on their back and sides. Sometimes the black stripes extend from the neck along the cat's spine. The backs of the ears have black hair with a white spot in the middle and the tail has incomplete black rings. The animal's chest and belly are grey-white and spotted.
The fishing cat's striped head looks rather like that of a very large tabby cat, while the spotted body is more reminiscent of a leopard's body. The animal is about twice as big as a domestic cat.
The coat is made of two layers of hair. The hairs next to the skin are short and arranged in a very dense layer that waterproofs the body and helps to keep it warm. Extending through this layer are the longer guard hairs. These produce the coat's pattern and help to camouflage the cat.
Fishing Cat Kittens
Fishing cats are medium-sized felines. They weigh between eleven and thirty-five pounds, with males generally being much heavier than females. Their body is muscular and stocky. The animals have an elongated face, small ears that are positioned far back on their head, short legs, and a short tail. The tail is used as a rudder during swimming.
The fishing cat has partially webbed feet. This feature was once thought to be an adaptation for swimming. Researchers now say that the feet of some other cats that don't enter water have just as much webbing as a fishing cat's feet.
The paws of fishing cats have another interesting feature. The claws are retractable, like the claws of other cats. When a fishing cat's claws are retracted they don't go all the way into their sheaths, however, so they are always visible.
The fishing cat population is widely distributed but discontinuous. At the present time, the animals can be found in Sri Lanka, parts of India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Java and—possibly in very low numbers—in Thailand. Their presence in Cambodia was confirmed in 2008, but their current status in that country is unknown.
One problem that has arisen in confirming the existence of fishing cats in a country is that other medium or small-sized wild cats, such as the leopard cat, are sometimes misidentified as fishing cats (and vice versa). Unlike the fishing cat, the leopard cat isn't endangered.
Fishing cats may live in other parts of Asia, but this needs to be confirmed. Not so long ago they lived in Malaysia, Pakistan, and additional parts of India, for example, and they once lived in Vietnam. There are no recent records to indicate that the animals still survive in these areas, however.
Map of South and Southeast Asia: Fishing Cat Range
"Mangrove" is a general name for a tropical tree or shrub which lives in the intertidal zone and is regularly exposed to sea water. The word mangrove also refers to the habitat in which the plants are growing. Fishing cats are found in the habitat. Mangrove plants often have a tangle of prop roots that look like stilts.
Habitat and Territory
The fishing cat is one of the lesser known wild cats. Some are kept in captivity and can be observed by the public, but there is a lot that is unknown about the life of the animal in the wild.
Researchers do know that the cats spend most of their time travelling beside watercourses, especially those that are slow moving. Marshes, mangrove swamps, tidal creeks, reed beds, sluggish rivers, streams, and lakes are favoured habitats. The animals have occasionally been seen on grasslands some distance from water, however.
A fishing cat is generally a solitary animal and maintains a territory. It marks this territory by rubbing its cheeks or chin over an area, releasing a secretion from scent glands as it does so. It also sprays odiferous urine to mark the territory. In one study, a male fishing cat was found to have a large territory that overlapped the smaller territories of several females.
A New Fishing Cat at the Smithsonian Zoo
The Life of a Fishing Cat
Fishing cats are thought to be mainly nocturnal, although they are sometimes seen during the day. Although wild fishing cats seem to be solitary animals, in captivity some live peacefully in groups.
The cat's chief prey is fish. According to a stool analysis, fish forms about seventy-five percent of its diet. Fishing cats also eat amphibians, reptiles, birds, small rodents, molluscs, and insects. When the opportunity arises, they will feed on the dead bodies of domestic cattle. They are capable of catching goats and pigs and sometimes do so.
Fishing cats often enter the water to fish with their paws or to dive or swim underwater to catch their prey. They are strong swimmers. The cats sometimes tap the water with their paws instead of putting the paw directly into the water to swipe at fish. It's been suggested that they are mimicking the tap of an insect on the water's surface to attract their prey.
Zookeepers report that fishing cats are quite vocal animals. They communicate with hisses, meows, and staccato growls. The growl is unusual for a cat and sounds quite like a dog's bark. Lek the fishing cat can be heard "barking" in the video above. Fishing cats also make chittering sounds during courtship.
Fishing Cats at the Wildlife Heritage Foundation
Although some observations have been made in the wild, most of our knowledge of fishing cat reproduction comes from the study of captive animals.
Fishing cats breed once a year. After mating, the female builds a den in which to give birth. The den is constructed in a patch of dense shrubs or reeds, a tree hollow, or a rock crevice. Gestation lasts for sixty-three to seventy days.
The female gives birth to one to four kittens, with the usual number being two. The kittens begin to eat solid food at about two months of age and are usually completely weaned by the age of six months. When they are about eight months old they have reached their adult size. They are ready to live on their own when they are ten to fifteen months old. Fishing cats have lived for up to twelve years in captivity. Their typical lifespan in the wild is unknown, however.
The kittens generally enter water for the first time when they are around two months old. The water soon becomes a popular place to play and to hunt for living fish. Learning how to catch fish is an important skill for the youngsters to learn.
In captivity, some male fishing cats help the female care for her kittens. It's unknown if the males do this in the wild.
IUCN Red List Categories
LC: Least Concern
NT: Near Threatened
CR: Critically Endangered
EW: Extinct in the Wild
Vulnerable, Endangered, and Critically Endangered animals are said to be threatened.
Fishing cats are in trouble because their habitat is rapidly disappearing. Wetlands are endangered in many parts of Asia and in other parts of the world as well. From 2008 to 2016, fishing cats were classified as Endangered by the IUCN. During 2016, they were reclassified as Vulnerable. As the IUCN quote below says, the apparent improvement in status is due to better information rather than an increase in the number of animals.
Many wetland habitats are being drained and converted to agricultural land and oil palm plantations. In some areas the wetlands are being transformed into aquaculture ponds in order to farm shrimp or fish. This process drives way fishing cats and other animals that depend on the area for their survival. Humans are also damaging wetlands by pollution and excessive fishing, hunting, and woodcutting,
In some areas fishing cats have been killed for their pelts or for their meat. In addition, farmers have killed them to protect their animals. Wetland destruction is by far the biggest thread to fishing cats, however.
Unfortunately, when their usual habitat has been destroyed or has become unusable, some fishing cats have increased their predation on livestock. Others have obtained food from fish ponds that have been established in wetland areas. This puts the cats into conflict with humans.
The change in Red List category is a non-genuine change reflecting the very recent increase in information quality; it does not indicate an improved conservation status for the species since the last assessment.— IUCN
Young Fishing Cats: Part of a Species Survival Plan
National laws aim to protect the fishing cat in most of its range. Their existence is not enough to save the species, however. Laws are not always obeyed. In addition, they don't stop the destruction and degradation of wetlands. Stronger efforts are needed to preserve the animal in the wild.
Some people are trying to increase the number of fishing cats by means of captive breeding programs. These have been established in both Europe and North America. Zoos are keeping careful records of their animals and are exchanging cats to create breeding pairs.
A Species Survival Plan Program (SSP) is a cooperative management program between accredited zoos belonging to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, or AZA. This association is a nonprofit organization that works for animal conservation, scientific research, public education, and public recreation. The goal of the SSP program is to carefully manage and conserve endangered animals. At the moment there are more than 450 SSPs. One of them applies to the fishing cat.
Stronger conservation efforts are needed to reverse the rapidly declining numbers of the fishing cat due to loss of its preferred wetland habitats.— World Wildlife Fund (India)
Conservation of wild fishing cats is important, but zoos could play a significant role in the survival of the species. Zoos and wildlife parks certainly have their drawbacks, but they can have benefits, too. A zoo that cares for its animals well and provides them with as natural an environment as possible can be useful in both education of the public and in breeding endangered animals, such as the fishing cat.
Questions & Answers
Why is this animal important in nature?
Since there is a lot that is unknown about the life of the fishing cat in the wild, its role and importance in nature aren’t completely understood. The cat eats rats that are a nuisance to humans and that transmit disease. It appears to help control the rat population and decrease the incidence of disease.
Fishing cats probably have a range of behaviours that help to keep their ecosystem healthy, but more research is needed in order to demonstrate this. The decreasing population of the cat shows us that wetlands—an important habitat for living organisms and for the Earth—are disappearing.
© 2014 Linda Crampton