The fishing cat is a medium sized "small" cat with a stocky build, short legs, and tail, and a round but elongated face. Their scientific name, in fact, comes from their viverrine or civet-like appearance rather than any morphological adaptations for fishing. Their coat is olive gray with rows of parallel solid black spots tat often form stripes along the back. Males average 25 pounds (11.35 kilograms.); females average 15 pounds (6.8 kilgrams.). Like the equally aquatic flat-headed cat, Prionailurus planiceps, they have shortened claw sheaths so that the claws are not completely enveloped when retracted. The fishing cat is said to have partially webbed toes to help it catch aquatic food. However, it has been shown that the webbing beneath the toes is not more developed than that of a bobcat, Lynx rufus.
Fishing cats live in separate populations across Southeast Asia, including Sri Lanka and portions of Pakistan, western India to southern China, Sumatra, and Java. While rare in Sri Lanka and much of India, they may be abundant in other parts of their range wherever there is suitable river habitat. Although found on both mainland and island areas within this range, there are only two currently recognized subspecies. The population on Java, Prionailurus viverrinus rizophoreus is distinguished from all others because it is smaller. The Javan population is restricted to small numbers in isolated coastal wetlands. There are no records during recent surveys further inland than 9.3 miles (15 km). See range map
This species strongly prefers wetlands, and most commonly lives in swamps and marshy areas, oxbow lakes, reed beds, tidal creeks, and mangrove areas. They have been recorded at elevations up to 5,000 feet (1,525 meters) in the Himalayas where they frequent dense vegetation near rivers and streams. Although fishing cats live in a wide variety of habitat types, their occurrence tends to be highly localized.
Fishing cats eat rodents and birds like most other small felids. Because of their aquatic tendencies, they eat more frogs, fish, and other aquatic species in their diet than most other cats. They are very good swimmers, they have been observed diving into water after fish as well as scooping them out with their paws. In Pakistan, fishing cats have even been spotted catching waterfowl by swimming up to them underwater and seizing their legs from beneath.
Scientists don’t known much about their social structure in the wild but like other small felids, fishing cats are presumed to be solitary. Litters consist of two to three young, born after a gestation of 63 to 70 days.
Beyond anecdotal comments in the literature, little is known about their status in the wild. Their biggest threat is from habitat loss to human settlements, draining for agriculture, pollution, excessive logging and fishing, and persecution by farmers for being a real or perceived threat to livestock. Fishing cats have not been involved in the fur or pet trade, although individuals are commonly seen for sale in the markets of Ho Chi Minh City, Djakarta, and other large Asian cities.
The Javan subspecies is considered critically endangered. That population numbers fewer than 200 individuals because of human encroachment for agriculture and aquaculture, and pollution by pesticides.
The 2008 IUCN Red List lists fishing cats as endangered. CITES Appendix II regulates trade in fishing cats. They are not protected under the US Endangered Species Act. While officially protected in most of its range, no legal protection is offered in Bhutan, Malaysia, and Vietnam. No information is available for Cambodia.
An international studbook is supported by Riverbanks Zoological Park, Columbia, South Carolina, and the SSP chair is supported by the Cincinnati Zoo. The target population for the captive population is 100 individuals. Captive populations in Europe are managed under an EEP (Species Survival Plan).