Fishing Cat

  • Scientific name: Prionailurus viverrinus
  • English Name: Fishing Cat
  • Sinhala Name: හඳුන් දිවියා / Handun Diviya
  • Tamil Name: மீன்பிடிப் பூனை / Meenpitip Pūnei OR கொடுப்புலி / Kōduppuli
  • Average adult weight: 8-16kg
  • Size comparison: About the size of an adult cocker spaniel


Image by: Scott Kayser

The fishing cat is a stocky and powerfully built animal. Its short, coarse fur coat is a beautiful olive grey, tinged with brown and patterned with rows of parallel solid black, oblong spots along its flank. The cat can also be recognised by the four dark lines running along the length of its forehead and along its back, which eventually taper into spots.

The cat’s head is large, with a broad forehead, an elongated muzzle and two stripes that run from its yellowish green eyes, down along the side of its face. Its ears are small and round, and the backs of each ear is black with a prominent white spot in the middle – very much like a tigers. Its deep-chested body supports short muscular legs, with the forelegs having two distinct elbow bars, and a white underbelly with black spots and stripes. Unlike most other species, a fishing cat’s tail is less than half its body length, and is thick, with a series of incomplete rings and a solid black tip.

Ever heard of the saying cats hate water? Well, unlike most feline species, a fishing cat is well adapted for a semi-aquatic lifestyle.

Image by: Neville Buck

This is because of one incredible feature they have – the layered structure of their fur, which is an important adaptation to a life in and around water. Right above its skin lies a thick, dense layer of short hair that prevents water from penetrating through to its skin. Like polar bears, this layer of hair acts as snug-fitting thermal underwear, and keeps the animal both warm and dry even during the coldest of fishing expeditions. Sprouting through this dense coat is yet another layer of long guard hairs which gives the cat its gorgeous glossy pattern, and sheen.

Despite this cat’s well deserved reputation of being a master angler, it shows very little morphological adaptations for capturing or eating fish. Firstly, similar to the flat-headed cat (Prionailurus planiceps) the fishing cat’s claw sheaths are short, making its claws semi-retractable. Secondly, unlike the long and sharp second upper pre-molar of a flat-headed cat, which allows it to grab and hold onto slippery prey, the fishing cat’s tooth is much smaller and less developed. Finally, one of the most noted characteristics associated with a fishing cat is its webbed feet. But, although it was thought that the fishing cat’s webbed feet were unique, it has now been found that this webbing is not much more developed than that of a Bobcat.

Behaviour and Reproduction

There is little data on the social organisation or mating behaviour of this species in the wild. However, in captivity, the females are assumed to be polyeastrous (able to go into heat several times a year). Fishing cat dens are constructed in thick shrub, reeds, rocky crevices and tree hollows. Two kittens are usually born after a 63-70 day gestation period and weigh around 170 grams each. Kittens open their eyes by day 16 and in captivity, meat is introduced into their diet around day 53. The kittens are weaned when they are between 4-6 months old and become independent at 12-18 months. In captivity, fishing cats have been known to live up to 12 years of age. Their lifespan in the wild has not been identified as yet due to lack of research, but is work in progress.

Fishing cats are solitary animals, and seem to follow the typical felid occupancy pattern, in which several females’ home ranges are overlapped by one male. Currently, no studies have been done on scent marking patterns and vocal communication between individuals. However it has been observed that both sexes scent-mark by head and cheek rubbing, and spraying urine. Males and females have been heard making chucking calls and gurgling noises, whereas kittens mew and have birdlike chirrups.

Fishing cat kittens
Fishing cat call


The natural global distribution of the species is unclear due to many unauthenticated records throughout its range. Though the species is widely distributed in South and Southeast Asia, its patchy distribution throughout most of its range is most likely due to the species’ strong association with wetland habitats, which are few and far between in the region.

Fishing cats have been recorded in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Thailand.


Throughout their range, fishing cats are strongly associated with wetlands, marshlands and other habitats that have a good source of flowing water. Most known records of the species within its range are from lowlands. However, in Sri Lanka, fishing cats occur in wetlands in hilly areas as well.

The species is primarily nocturnal, and is a dietary generalist, consuming anything from rodents, to birds and fish. In India’s Howrah district of West Bengal, two species of rodents seem to be a favourite for fishing cats – Rattus rattus and Bandicota bengalensis – both of which are found in abundance in the rapidly urbanised zone. A dietary study conducted in the area suggests that an individual fishing cat eats between 365 and 730 rodents per year.

Image by: Sanjaya Adikari

A radio-telemetry study of four fishing cats in Chitwan National Park in Nepal in 2002, showed that the estimated home ranges of three females was 4-6 km², while a single male had an estimated home range of 16-22 km².


Fishing cats are at a high risk of extinction throughout their global range, and therefore have been thought to be one of the most vulnerable small wild cat species in South and Southeast Asia. Their global population has declined more than 30 percent over the past 15 years (three generations, when you consider their lifespan in the wild) due to fishing cats being killed by local people throughout their range, for various reasons.

The biggest threat faced by the species in South Asia is habitat loss and fragmentation caused by development (i.e. urbanization, agriculture and aquaculture). It has been estimated that within the next 15 years, there will be an irreversible loss of approximately 10 percent of prime fishing cat habitat in Sri Lanka at an alarming rate, 10 percent of savanna and grassland ecoregions along the Terai-Duar (picture the grasslands of Horton plains. Terai-Duar is somewhat similar) of India and Nepal, and 30 percent of wetland habitat along the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta (imagine the Muthurajawela Wetlands area which is currently under threat and multiply it by a factor of 30,000, which will give you a rough idea on its size).

In Southeast Asia, the species is threatened mainly by persecution. Conflict with humans is also a common occurrence when the species preys on livestock and poultry, and as a result, fishing cats are often poisoned, trapped and clubbed to death, across their range. Though not a common practice, fishing cats are also killed and consumed by locals in some areas of Southeast Asia.

All of the above-mentioned factors will most likely bring the global population of this species down by a further 30 percent by the year 2032.

Image by: Sebastian Kennerknecht / Urban Fishing Cat Conservation Project


Image by: Sethil Muhandiram

Fishing cats are often killed for consumption in India, and reports from the Howrah district also indicate that there is rampant killing of the species outside protected areas, particularly in human-dominated landscapes. Many of these killings are as a part of cultural practice, and most of these cases go unnoticed, or are ignored unless reported by non-governmental organisations or concerned people and educated communities.

There are few records of fishing cats being killed for consumption and trade in Sri Lanka. However, during 2020, there were several reports of fishing cat meat, fur and body parts being sold in the country.

In Cambodia and Thailand, the species is killed by local people for consumption and/or retaliation, such as when the cats damage fishing nets or kill livestock. Poaching is also a serious threat. There is also an opportunistic trade of fishing cat skins and body parts in Southeast Asia. There are reports of these cats been sold at Javan live animal markets for the exotic pet trade.


The species is listed under CITES Appendix II, and protected by national legislation throughout most of its range. Hunting fishing cats is prohibited in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam.

In Sri Lanka, the fishing cat is protected in the Fauna and Flora Protection (Amendment) Act, No. 22 of 2009, under Schedule ll, listing the species as a strictly protected mammal.

The species’ survival depends on the protection of the remaining wetland habitats in Asia, and the prevention of trapping, snaring and poisoning. Educating the public about the fishing cat is of paramount importance, as this species will not survive without the support of the people it interacts with.

To learn about the projects working towards protecting fishing cats within the species global range, visit the Fishing Cat Conservation Alliance website.

Image by: Rahal Dandeniya


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Image by: Dinal Samarasinghe