Species Facts: Leopard Cat

Not all wild cats are critically endangered. Asia’s most common little feline – the leopard cat – appears to be doing all right for itself. (Cat Specialist Group)

Scientists call it Prionailurus bengalensis, the Bengal cat.

“Bengal” is also the name of a hybrid leopard cat/domestic show cat.

A few people, especially in China, have skipped the domestic-cat middleman and tamed leopard cats as pets. (Cat Specialist Group)

But these individuals remain partly wild and their cubs must also be tamed.

Domestication doesn’t seem to “take” with leopard cats the way it did with house cats thousands of years ago.

What kind of cat is this?

Leopard cats aren’t closely related to leopards. Their spots and lithe, muscular build have earned them this name.

A leopard cat is about the size of a large domestic cat, but its legs are longer and its tail is only about half the length of its body. It always has spotted fur with a few stripes, but the leopard cat’s appearance varies across its wide range. (Cat Specialist Group; ISEC; Ross and others)

On the Japanese island of Iriomote, the little spotted cats look so different – smaller, darker, with short legs and a long body – that scientists first thought they belonged to a different species. (Cat Specialist Group; ISEC; Izawa and Doi)

Lab tests eventually proved that these Iriomote cats are leopard cats, too.  So are the ones on Japan’s Tsushima Island. (Cat Specialist Group; ISEC; Izawa and Doi)

How friendly/dangerous is it?

Most poultry owners don’t like the leopard cat, but many farmers tolerate it. When not stealing chickens and fowl, this small wild cat, which often lives near humans, it is a terrific mouser. (Cat Specialist Group; Ross and others)

This certainly sounds like the story of house cat domestication!

Indeed, some 5300 yers ago, Stone Age people in what is now northwest China had a rodent problem and lived with small cats for a while. (Hu and others)

Since the ancestors of the modern domestic cat lived on the other side of Asia, and no other species seems likely, these were probably leopard cats. (Vigne and others)

After a few hundred years of village life, all signs of the cats disappeared. The next friendly little feline in China was the domestic cat, which traders brought in about two thousand years ago. (Hu and others; Wastlhuber)

The Coolness Factor:

This small feline is so beautiful, even those it has harmed wish it well.

Here, the really cool factor is in that farmer.

Where can I find it?

Per Ross and others:

The Leopard Cat is a widespread species. It is found through parts of India, west into Pakistan and Afghanistan (Habibi 2003), through the Himalayan foothills, throughout most of China, and north to the Korean peninsula and into the Russian Far East (Nowell and Jackson 1996). Its range extends south throughout Southeast Asia, and includes the islands of Sumatra, Java, Borneo and Taiwan. The Leopard Cat is found on numerous small offshore islands of mainland Asia (Nowell and Jackson 1996, Sunquist and Sunquist 2002). It is the only wild felid in Japan, where it occurs on the small islands of Tsushima and Iriomote, and the Philippines, where it occurs on the islands of Palawan, Panay, Negros and Cebu, there are unconfirmed reports from Masbate but it is presumed to be extinct on Guimaras.

Why is it on the IUCN Red List?

The IUCN considers the leopard cat “least vulnerable” overall. Small island populations are those at risk, though India does consider its leopard cat endangered, too. (Cat Specialist Group)

Featured image: Bernard Dupont, CC BY-SA 2.0.


Cat Specialist Group: http://www.catsg.org/index.php?id=123 Last accessed September 8, 2017.

Hu, Y.; Hu, S.; Wang, W.; Wu, X.; and others. 2014. Earliest evidence for commensal processes of cat domestication. PNAS. 111(1):116-120.

International Society of Endangered Cats (ISEC): Leopard cat https://wildcatconservation.org/wild-cats/asia/leopard-cat/ and Iriomote https://wildcatconservation.org/wild-cats/asia/leopard-cat/iriomote-cat/ fact sheets. Last accessed September 8, 2017.

Izawa, M., and Doi, T. 2015. Prionailurus bengalensis ssp. iriomotensis. (errata version published in 2016) The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015:e.T1815A97215980.

Ross, J.; Brodie, J.; Cheyne, S., Hearn, A.; and others. 2015. Prionailurus bengalensis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015:e.T18146A50661611.

Vigne, J-D; Evin, A.; Cucchi, T.; Dai, L.; and others. 2016. Earliest “domestic” cats in China identified as leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis). PLoS ONE. 11:(1):e0147295.

Wastlhuber, J. 1991. History of domestic cats and cat breeds, in Feline Husbandry, ed. Pedersen, N. C., 1-59. Goleta, California: American Veterinary Publications.



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