Flat-headed cat (2022)

The flat-headed cat’s scientific name is Prionailurus planiceps, which is based on genetic testing. There are no subspecies.

It is related to the Asian leopard cat. However, it is said to resemble a mustelid1 as it has short legs and tail and very small ears on a long head. I think this is a slight exaggeration. This means that it does not look so much like a cat as the Asian leopard cat1. Mustelids are the weasel family.

Description

As can be seen from the photograph, above, by Jim Sanderson PhD, this cat has an outstanding brown ticked coat, with a wonderfully marked head of white stripes including what a cat breeder might term headlights (white around the eyes – see Toyger). The head is browner than the grey/brown body which has a lighter belly. As mentioned, the ears are relatively small (compared, for example, with the Serval, a cat that depends very much on hearing to locate small prey in the grass at some distance). The cat’s weight puts it at the lower end of the domestic cat weight range, being approximately between 3.5 to 5.5 lbs (1.5 to 2.5 kgs) (see Domestic Cat Size). The Sunquists in their book Wild Cats Of The World quote: 1.5 to 2.2 kgs. Head and body length has been measured to be from 446 mm to 521 mm1. This equates to a length of about 16-20 inches excluding a noticeably short tail of about 5 inches, which is clearly visible in the photograph.

The name indicates a flat head, which is not readily apparent from the picture but it does have a long slopping head down to the snout. The toes are webbed like those of the Fishing Cat. And the face resembles the larger fishing cat.

The claws do not fully retract as for the Fishing Cat, the Cheetah and Iriomote Cat. However, for the sake of complete accuracy the claws of the flat-headed cat do retract but the sheaths that cover the claws are reduced in size leaving the claw exposed. The feet are long and narrow.

For the Cheetah this gives added purchase for speed. I think it reasonable to surmise that for cats that fish this has evolved to aid fishing by snagging fish with the claws (cats fish).

The flat-headed cat’s reddish-brown fur is soft and thick. Although the underbelly is mottled white. The individual hairs are tipped with white or grey. This appears to be a tabby cat coat.

This cat’s eyes are closer together and set further forward than other cats. This allows for better stereoscopic vision. This should result in better judgment of distance and aid hunting.

Unusually, all the teeth of this cat are pointed. This makes the teeth very efficient, when combined with strong biting power, at seizing and gripping prey that is slippery, namely fish, which are a large part of its diet. This cat is probably as good a fishing cat as the Asian fishing cat. See a large format version of the above picture and more.

Habitat and Ecology

riverine-forest-landscape

The wildcats with long tails such as the Clouded Leopard use their tails for balance when climbing trees so I would presume that this cat is not ideally built for tree climbing. This is supported by the little that is known about this cat, namely that the flat-headed cat’s habitat is wetlands, swamps and riverine forest where it lives off fish, frogs, shrimp (crustaceans), rodents, birds and villagers’ livestock (poultry). The flat-headed cat prefers to hunt in the water dragging prey out to the bank to prevent escape in the water4.

They have also said to inhabit oil palm plantations2. This is probably an adaptation to the loss of their natural habitat3.

Another Asian cat which lives in a similar habitat is the Asian Leopard Cat from which the domestic wildcat hybrid, the Bengal cat was created. The Bengal is well known to like water as does the Savannah cat, another wildcat hybrid (Serval/domestic).

Camera traps have photographed activity at night and dawn indicating a crepuscular nature (mainly active at twilight – dawn and dusk). Although there are reports that they are also nocturnal.

Kittens vocalise like the domestic cat and they do purr. Also like a domestic cat they kill mice etc. by the classic nape bite. As it lives in oil palm plantations it hunts rats that populate these plantations.

However, not a great deal is known about this species of cat, with few observations and camera trap photographs of the cat in the wild. The picture heading the page was taken, it seems, in a reserve or zoo.

Range – distribution

This cat is found only in:

  • Sumatra
  • Borneo
  • Malayan peninsula (Malaysia and extreme southern Thailand)
Flat-headed cat known distribution 2022 as per IUCN Red List
Flat-headed cat known distribution 2022 as per IUCN Red List

Its range overlaps with the Bornean Bay Cat (Indonesia). The map of the range below is based on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ map. The map above is more recent and more detailed and shows how fragmented the distribution has become.


View Flat-headed cat in a larger map

Population, Threats and Conservation

As stated above, sadly, little is known about the flat-headed cat. However, we do know where they live and we also know that the activities of people are disturbing these areas and thus this cat is classified as Endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ .

IUCN-Endangered

There is rapid deforestation on the island of Borneo, which also endangers the Bornean bay cat as well as this cat:

deforestation-borneo

This map is from this webpage. Author credit is: Hugo Ahlenius, UNEP/GRID-Arendal. The source of the information for the creation of the map is: Radday, M, WWF Germany. 2007. ‘Borneo Maps’. January 24, 2007, personal e-mail (January 24, 2007). This map is also on the Bornean Cat page.

Specifically, causes of habitat destruction are:

  • people settling in the flat-headed cat’s habitat (human population growth)
  • draining wetlands for agriculture
  • hunting
  • wood cutting
  • over fishing (lessening prey)
  • clearance of mangroves
  • expansion of palm oil plantations
  • trapping, snaring, poisoning
  • trapping to protect domestic fowl
  • skins are prized (seen in longhouses)

All the threats are human generated.

As to conservation, one can only feel that despite the efforts of conservationists, the battle is being lost. The flat-headed cat is listed under Appendix I of CITES. Appendix I “lists species that are the most endangered among CITES-listed animals and plants” (src: CITES). See CITES in relation to cats.

Hunting and trade are prohibited in:

  • Indonesia
  • Malaysia
  • Thailand

But is it being enforced? The enforcement of rules, that often are more like public relations exercises, is a perennial problem worldwide in relation to endangered species. On the ground, in Asia, there seems to be inadequate commitment to enforcing legislation. Surely this is a factor in assessing survivability but I don’t think it is one of the criteria used by IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™.

As to national parks, the Flat-headed Cat is found in the following:

  • Berbak
  • Batang Gadis (Sumatra)
  • Way Kambas (Sumatra)
  • Kerinci Seblat National Parks (Sumatra)
  • Danum Valley (Sabah)
  • Tabin (Sabah)
  • Wildlife Reserves and Kinabatangang Willdlife Sanctuary (Sabah)
  • Bukit Sarang Conservation Area (Sarawak)
  • Kutai and Kayan Mentarang National Parks (Thailand)
  • Bukit Suharto Protection Forest in Kalimantan (Thailand)
  • Phru Tao Dang Peat Swamp Forest (Thailand)
  • Malaysia – no protected areas
  • Brunei – Tasek Merimbun Heritage Park

What is needed to conserve this species:

  • A stop to habitat loss
  • Education as to its endangerment amongst the people of the area

Flat-headed cat – sources:

Notes:

1. Wild Cats of the World by the Sunquists – page 234.

2. Cat News referred to in Wild Cats Of The World.

3. Michael Broad

4. Muul I and Lim BL Ecological and morphological observations of Felis planiceps

From Flat-headed Cat to Wild Cat Species

Photograph of riverine forest published under a Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs creative commons License  — this site is for charitable purposes in funding cat rescue.

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What biome does the flat-headed cat live in?

A “biome” is a large area which has commonality in respect of climate, vegetation, wildlife et cetera. At 2002 the distribution of the flat-headed cat was southern Thailand, Malaysia, Sumatra and Borneo. At 2021 I’m told that this small cat species lives in South and Southeast Asia; specifically, Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. The sort of habitat that this cat lives in includes forest and wetlands (inland). That information comes from the Red List. The wild cat conservation organisation tells us that the flat-headed cat lives in riverine forest, peat-swamp forest, streams, lakes, marshes, swampy areas and tropical lowland rainforests. You can see that the flat-headed cat likes water. Its morphological specialisations (shape and structure) tell us that it is a cat whose diet is composed largely of fish which is why its distribution is closely associated with water.

Flat-headed cat
An endangered flat-headed cat (Prionailurus planiceps) at the Taiping Zoo. Photo: Joel Sartore – National Geographic photographer and speaker. You can see the flattened head shape from which its name is derived. Click the image for a large version.

Specimens have been collected along rivers and streams and in flooded areas. They might live in oil palm plantations in Malaysia. They say the cat is nocturnal. Under a spotlight at 11 PM along the Merang River in south-eastern Sumatra, a couple of flat-headed cats were on opposite banks and 100 m apart. This species of small wild cat has been seen on mud banks and along rivers where they were hunting.

They have a great affinity for water. When captive kittens were given a large bowl of water they immediately jumped in and began to play. In addition to fish they feed on rats and mice including amphibians such as frogs and sometimes crustaceans. They are a rare and elusive species and as at 2012 there were only two zoos which had successfully bred the flat-headed cat.

Source: Wild Cats of the World referencing inter alia: Guggisberg CA Wild cats of the world and Schaffer N and others in a report funded by the Institute of Museum Services, Special Conservation Project. Also, the IUCN Red List.

SOME MORE ON THE FLAT-HEADED CAT:

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Do wild cats eat fish?

Some wild cats eat fish. For some species, fish are part of their diet because they like to live near water.

bobcat caught salmon from stream
Bobcat caught this salmon from a stream. See video below.

For example, a small but powerful wild cat which eats fish is the fishing cat. This cat is an excellent swimmer (in fact all wild cats are at least capable swimmers). It has been seen to crouch on rocks and sandbanks along rivers and scoop fish out of the water. These cats dive into the water and catch aquatic prey. It’s teeth are not adopted to catching fish. It preys on a wide range of animals.

Fishing cat
Fishing cat

Leopard cats occasionally catch fish to eat. Fish make up approximately 6% of the leopard cat’s diet on Tsushima Island, Japan.

Flat-headed cats love water. They have been seen along rivers where they hunt. The stomach of one fishing cat contained the remains of fish. They eat a wide range of prey items including rats and mice.

The jungle cat eats fish caught in drying ponds. Also the jungle cat has been observed diving into water and “seizing fish in its mouth”.

Fish make up a small part of the diet of the African-Asian wildcat living in southeast Kazakhstan. Once again this small wild cat eats a wide range of prey items. It is about what is available in the place where the cat lives and this species has a huge geographic distribution.

There is a report of a jaguarundi “feeding on fish trapped in a temporary pond”. Like nearly all wild cats they are opportunistic predators which means they catch and eat what they can when they can.

Jaguars eat fish. Take a look at this video:

Jaguars also eat caiman and other aquatic animals such as turtles. They kill caiman by crushing their skulls in their jaws!

In the Manu National Park, ocelots occasionally eat fish. Fish made up around 1 percent of their diet. Ocelots in general feed on fish when available but their diet mainly includes mammals such as mice and opossums.

Bobcats can catch fish from streams and eat them (see video). If bobcats do this it quite reasonable to presume that Canada and Eurasian lynx also eat fish from time to time.

Technically the true feral cat is wild. They eat fish. You’ll see them living in colonies on quaysides scavenging on fish caught by fishermen.

These are all small wild cats. You can read about them in detail on this website. The quote comes from the book: Wild Cats of the World.

And finally, the lion is highly opportunistic in eating prey. So lions will eat fish if the opportunity presents itself. Tigers are excellent swimmers and will consume fish when appropriate.




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Could I Feed My Cat Goldfish?

Someone seriously asked this question and the answers were serious too. One of the answers was to not feed your cats goldfish bought from Wal-Mart because the goldfish may have been supplied by China, in which case they could be full of melamine or some other toxic substance.  Buy them somewhere else, he said.

Cat and Exotic Fish
Cat and Exotic Fish. Photo by admiller

This little vignette of internet life got me thinking about fishing cats – domestic cats acting as if they were the wild cat species called the fishing cat.

Are domestic cats adept fishers if given the opportunity? There are quite a lot of complicated issues to discuss when answering the question:

  • Do cats like or dislike water? Answer: Yes and no. Some cats will like water a lot, some don’t mind it and some will dislike it.
  • Should cats eat raw fish? Answer: yes sometimes, perhaps, but not all the time.
  • Can domestic cats fish like the wild fishing cat? Answer: Not quite so good at it, but, yes they could fish, depending on the individual cat’s personality.
  • Does the African/Asian wildcat like water and fishing? Answer: The African wildcat is the direct wildcat ancestor of the domestic cat. Answer: African wildcats are generalist hunters. They live in a wide range of habitats depending on where they are. In Botswana they are seen near wetlands and rivers. They fish from time to time. So there is quite possibly some hard-wired desires and fishing skills within the humble domestic moggie.

Given the opportunity, a domestic cat, depending on its character, will fish and be good at it. There are some nice stories from long ago, which prove the point.

The Poacher’s Assistant

Donald, a poacher from the 1880s, went night fishing for trout in the river Tweed on the Scottish borders. At one point the river was very shallow. When he caught a fish his loyal lady cat companion, who was always by his side, would wade into the water and bring the fish back to him. She’d grab the fish in her claws. This is reminiscent of the fishing cat who will scoop fish out of the water. The flat-headed cat also fishes very expertly.

This loyal cat also accompanied Donald at work as a ferryman:

…no sooner did a bell at the opposite side of the stream give notice that a passenger was ready to voyage across, than down scampered puss to the boat, and leaping in, she journeyed with her master to the further side, and returned, gravely watching each stroke of the oar…

There was never a happier domestic cat.

The Sea Fishing Cat

This is a story from 1828. A cat living in Plymouth, England routinely dived into the sea. She brought up fish alive in her mouth and took them to a guardroom where there were soldiers to be fed. It was believed she learned her craft chasing water rats. Obviously, she was one of those cats who liked water or who had learned to like it or get along very well in it.

Going dramatically upscale, the tiger is known to be a sea swimming cat where necessary, being able to swim several miles.

Goldfish

How do you answer the bizarre question in the title? The straight answer is yes, you could feed your cat goldfish. However, it would be cruel to do so on the assumption we are writing about a live goldfish.  It would be unnatural and possibly unhealthy. Also your cat probably wouldn’t want to eat a live goldfish. Domestic cats are too used to commercial cat food to eat raw fish.

Cats Pawing at Water in Bowls

Sometimes cats paw at the water in their water bowl. Maine Coons appear to be fond of doing it. This may be an instinctive precursor to hunting for fish by disturbing the surface to attract fish or to smooth the surface to see more clearly into the water. Some cats then lick the water off their paws. Is this behavior all that is left of wild cat behavior when the cat scoops a fish out of the water?

Associated: Water Cats.

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The Webbed Feet of Domestic Cats

Sphynx cat showing webbed feet
Sphynx cat showing webbed feet and no claws as far as I can tell..

You don’t get the chance to notice the partially webbed feet of domestic cats unless the cat has no fur or if you feel between the toes of your cat. The space between a cat’s toes is not like the space between a human’s fingers. There is noticeable webbing akin to that found on a duck. Of course the webbing is not as complete as on a duck.

Incidentally, my observation of the Sphynx cat is that the breed has longer than average toes. This would make the webbing more apparent as does the fact that the cat is naked. It interesting to see that the Sphynx cat in the picture has almost totally webbed feet.

There seems to be the idea that some individual cats have webbed feet but most do not. Also, there might be a tendency to say that the Bengal cat has webbed feet as it is a wildcat hybrid.

The webbed feet of domestic cats
The webbed feet of domestic cats. Sphynx shows her webbed paws.

I say that all domestic cats have webbed feet as do wild cats but the amount of webbing varies. There are wild cat species that specialise in fishing; the fishing cat and the flat-headed cat come to mind. The toes of the fishing cat are described as being, “partially webbed’¹. This seems to be a slight understatement as all domestic cats have ‘partial webbing’. As a fishing cat is designed by nature to swim and catch fish I would have thought that the webbing would be more pronounced than average.

But other wild cat species are good swimmers (e.g tiger) and all can cope nicely in the water if they have to. The jaguarundi is another small wild cat species that likes water.

Picture of a domestic cat showing webbed feet
Picture of a domestic cat showing webbed feet. Picture in the public domain.

The African – Asian wildcat is the wild cat ancestor of the domestic cat. This small wild cat has a very wide distribution on the planet and therefore lives in a variety of habitats including wetlands and rivers (e.g in Botswana).

Nature gave all wild cats webbed feet because prey is often near water courses. The small wild cats need to get into water sometimes and catch prey. Webbing between the toes presents a larger surface against which the water is pushed. The general consensus is that domestic cats don’t like water but this is incorrect.

The domestic cats has distanced him/herself from his wild cat ancestor and so some cats aren’t that fond of getting wet but all domestic cats are decent if not good swimmers when called upon to swim. Wild cat hybrids usually like water.

A cat is able to negotiate and travel on dry land and water because it is part of surviving. Lots of prey live in and around water. It would be poor evolution if the cat lost the ability to negotiate water to catch prey species.

You don’t see references to a cat’s webbed feet very often but they are ‘standard’ and part of the domestic cat’s anatomy. Have a feel or look sometime and leave a comment…

Reference: 1. Wild Cats of the World page 242.

Associated page: The Cat Paw

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Flat-headed Cat Description

This cat more closely resembles a mustelid (weasel family) or an otter than cat, it is said. This is because of its long, flattened head, short legs, low-set small, rounded ears and short tail. Despite looking a bit weasel-like the flat-headed cat is related to the leopard cat. Incidentally, another cat that is weasel-like is the jaguarundi.

The feet are long and narrow. The cat’s claws are “nonrectractile” – this means partially retracted as 2/3rds of the claw is left protruding when not extended. This is the same as the cheetah and fishing cat.

The excellent photograph by Jim Sanderson Ph.D. shows the fur very clearly. The fur on the body is heavily ticked using cat fancy language (presence of agouti gene – the jaguarundi has a ticked coat too). It is long, soft and thick. The color is described as “roan brown” after the a roan horse. It is brown with a sprinkle of salt meaning that the top of the individual hair strands are white or gray. The undersides of the cat are mottled white.

In contrast to the body, the head and face is more high contrast and colorful. The fur on the head extending down the spine is rusty colored. This cat has “spectacles”, clean white fur around the eyes. The white extends to the chin and around the mouth. There are two light brown patches of fur to the left and right of the nose. There are symmetrical markings on the forehead and crown but no classic tabby “M” mark. The ear flaps have a white eye spot typical of a lot of wildcats.

As mentioned, the tail is short and measures one quarter the length of the head and body combined.

Flat-headed cat

The flat-headed cat has forward set eyes that are close together, which provide better binocular vision than some other wildcats.The teeth are specialized and unusual. They have evolved to seize and grip slippery prey, namely fish, the main diet of this cat. They are all sharp and pointed. The photograph of this cat in water is appropriate for that reason. This wildcat has a strong bite.The flat-headed cat’s scientific name is Prionailurus planiceps.Flat-headed cat description – reference – Wild Cats Of The World by Mel and Fiona Sunquist page 234, ISBN-13: 978-0-226-77999-7

From Flat-headed cat description to wild cat species

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