The fishing cat's coat is a camouflaged, grizzled-gray 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 grayish white cheeks. The flattened nose leather is pink or deep‐brick in color. 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 is water‐resistant which 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 the forelimbs and long phalanges and claws in the forepaws. Its footprints are bigger than those of the other smaller cats residing in the same habitat.
The robust, deep‐chested fishing cat has a body measuring 28 inches (70 centimeters) long and standing over 14 inches (35 centimeters) at shoulder level. The adult male weighs 18 to 31 pounds (8 to 14 kilograms), whereas the female weighs about 11 to 20 pounds (5 to 9 kilograms).
Fishing cats live in south Asia, from India to South China and the Sunda shelf region, including peninsular Malaysia and Sumatra. They are generally found within 9 miles (15 km) of wetland areas, such as rivers, lakes, ponds and marshes.
A solitary male will be attracted to a solitary female by her chorus of barks, yowls and screeches when she is cycling.
Fishing cats eat predominantly fish and shellfish; they use their long claws as fishing hooks. They will also hunt other small prey, such as birds, lizards, small mammals and amphibians. Fishing cats have been known to take down fawns and wild pigs and will also prey on livestock and domestic animals such as dogs, sheep, and calves. In 1987, a fishing cat was observed eating a dead cow, demonstrating that like other carnivores, they will eat carrion.
The Smithsonian's National Zoo's fishing cats are fed a zoo carnivore diet called Natural Balance, which is ground beef that has been specially formulated to provide the proper nutrients such as calcium and taurine. The also receive Feline Maintenance dry diet (kibble) daily. They are given frozen-thawed smelt daily as well as frozen-thawed rabbits once a week. They also receive bones for chewing twice a week. They have live goldfish provided daily for enrichment in their pools outside and inside. Here and elsewhere in human care, fishing cats have been observed taking their food to the water and dropping it in, retrieving it, and then eating it. This same washing behavior was mimicked when fishing cats were offered live prey.
Kittens are born in groups from one to four after a gestation of about 65 days. Birthing occurs in the warmest part of the year. Kittens are born blind and are nursed by their mother until they are about 6 months old. They will reach adult size at about 8.5 months old and usually leave their mother when they are about 10 months old. They become sexually mature around 18 months. In human care, females exposed to natural daylight are reproductively active all year and tend to cycle monthly. Some will go through a pseudo-pregnancy period where their hormones mimic a pregnancy and they will not cycle for approximately two months.
Spontaneous ovulation in the females occurs about 57 percent of the time, making artificial insemination difficult. Fishing cats are sexually mature at 1.5 to 2 years old and have been known to bear young until 10 to 11 years old.
Unfortunately, the fishing cat breeding population has had little success in the past several years. This population is at a critical low and there is a lack of understanding as to why pairs are not breeding. Currently, the zoo population contains only 30 viable individuals. Breeding success in human care is difficult due to many issues, including: limited genetic diversity; low founder numbers; and behavioral incompatibility among pairs. Specifically, there is a lack of knowledge pertaining to the reproductive behavior of these cats. There have been only three surviving litters born in Association of Zoos and Aquariums institutions since 2009 (including our litter born in 2012).
Fishing cats can live into their late teens in human care. Life span in the wild is unknown but is presumably much shorter.
The fishing cat was originally 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 cats along with some other cat species under the umbrella term Prionailurus. While this phylogenetic division was based purely on physical characteristics (stripes and spot patterns on head, face and body), this categorization was supported by research published in 2006 that took DNA into consideration. The current belief is that fishing cats are most closely related to Pallas cats, rusty-spotted cats, leopard cats and flat-headed cats.
The fishing cat is considered a species vulnerable to extinction. Their greatest threats are destruction and pollution of wetlands, resulting in local extinction and isolated populations. Forty-five percent of protected wetlands and 94 percent of significant wetlands in Southeast Asia are considered threatened. Some of the major reasons for the destruction of fishing cat habitat include settlement, cattle grazing, drainage for agriculture, and excessive hunting, woodcutting and fishing. Melaleuca (paper bark) forest, in particular, is being cleared. Villagers dump litter in the forest, which pollutes the environment. Water pollution threatens fishing cats by decreasing the number of fish available for prey. Bioaccumulation, the accumulation of toxins in prey, such as fish, is also a result of water pollution and can affect prey availability.
In addition to the loss of habitat, the population of the fishing cat is in danger due to destructive fishing practices that greatly reduce the fish stock. The fishing cat is also a victim of poaching for their fur and incidental poisoning. They are often hunted for medicine, various body parts, or food and sold for about five U.S. dollars per kilogram of meat. There is no legal protection of these cats in Malaysia, Vietnam or Bhutan.
Fishing cats are considered an "indicator species," meaning their presence or absence indicates how a whole ecosystem is functioning. This is because the cats play such a significant role in controlling a complex food chain (called "tropic cascade") that is dependent on water sources.
Currently, the fishing cats on Asia Trail are part of a multi-institutional study examining the stresses involved in institutional transfers, as well as examining the effectiveness of various introduction techniques.
Ex situ research in AZA institutions is currently focusing on the viability of artificial insemination and a nutritional study in response to high levels of urinary bladder transitional-cell carcinoma that is prevalent in the zoo population of fishing cats. In situ research is currently focused on camera trapping throughout the fishing cat range (specifically in India, Nepal, Thailand, and Java) to confirm their presence. Most conservationists in the field continue to focus on outreach and education with the local communities.
A male fishing cat named Lek lives on Asia trail.