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HomeAsian Leopard Cat

So What Is An Asian Leopard Cat?

by Pamela Knowles
Reprinted from The Bengal Bulletin, March 1995

As part of a U.S. team of wildlife biologists sent to Asia to train wildlife managers, I often wandered the streets of the various cities. I didn't know it at the time, but my first introduction to what would become a passion began during one of those wanderings in Bangkok, Thailand. There I stumbled on a back street market selling odds and ends, with one of the odds being a basket of leopard cat kittens. I lost my heart to their beauty and broke my heart over their plight. However, it wasn't until several years later that I actually heard about, met, and fell head over heels for, the Bengal.
Now, like most of you reading this, I can't imagine life without Bengals in my house. To combine my love for wild cats as a wildlife biologist specializing in predator ecology with my love of house cats as pets, well, it's just sheer heaven. And, like most breeders, I'm excited about the challenge of trying to breed for a house cat that looks like a leopard cat. However, to do this successfully I think it's necessary for breeders to know something about the species which we are trying to emulate. To this end, I'm hoping I can share some of the biological information that I've accumulated about the wild leopard cat in my professional life.

There are 37 species of wild cats in the world, 30 of which are considered small wild cats, with some of the more well-known species including the bobcat, lynx, margay, ocelot, and the wild cat (Felis sylvestris which is probably the ancestor of our house cat, Felis catus). There are also numerous species not so well known, including the sand cat, fishing cat, pampas cat, Geoffrey's cat, Pallas, cat, etc.

In 1974, an agreement called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which regulates the international trade of numerous species of plants and animals, was enacted, and nearly 100 countries currently subscribe to it. Because of the massive fur trade in cat skins, all cats were placed on the CITES Appendix I (species are endangered and ordinary commercial trade is not permitted) or Appendix ll (species are not currently endangered but could become so if trade is not regulated). The leopard cat has been placed on Appendix ll, with the exception of one subspecies which is on Appendix I. Of the small cats, the leopard cat (felis bengalensis) is probably one of the most common and widespread, occurring throughout much of southern and eastern Asia, including the Philippines and Indonesia (for years China alone has been able to sustain killing about 150,000 leopard cats annually for their skins) Most authorities do not consider the leopard cat in imminent danger of extinction but the destruction of habitat by rapidly expanding human population, forest clear cutting, slash and burn, farming, and soil erosion, remains a constant threat to wild cats as they are forced into smaller and smaller areas in which to live. In the US, there are approximately 27 leopard cats in zoos and an unknown number owned by private citizens.

The scientific literature describes leopard cats as "house cat size with somewhat longer legs" although size varies depending on the subspecies. Those in the Philippines weigh only 5 lbs., while in the northern part of their range the leopard cat weighs up to 15 lbs. Although they do not appear to be heavier in the wild than weights commonly attained in house cats, some leopard cats are much longer than house cats if measured from head to tail. The background color of the coat is highly variable depending on where the cat is from, and ranges from bright reddish to gray, golden, or tawny brown. The underparts are spotted on a white background, and the tail is ringed toward the tip. There are usually four longitudinal bands running from the forehead or inner eye corners to behind the neck that break into short bands and elongated spots over the shoulders, although sometimes one stripe runs the length of the body. The spots are rosetted in some of the cats, solid in others. The head is relatively small with a narrow muzzle and the ears are described in the literature as moderately long and narrow with rounded tips. There is a white spot on the back of the ear typical of spotted cat species. The eyes are large and amber to grey in color. Two narrow black cheek stripes run from the comers of the eye, enclosing a white area on the cheek.

In terms of understanding some of our Bengal's behaviors, it behooves us to look at the habitat of the leopard cat and some of its associated behaviors. Leopard cats are extremely variable in the types of areas in which they can live. They are found in a variety of forested habitats at both high and low elevations, as well as scrub, semidesert, and agricultural areas. Very few scientific studies have been conducted on this relatively common Asian cat, but it is believed to be highly arboreal in its jungle home (who hasn't had a Bengal leaping to the highest point in the house to peer down at the world below). Their hunting habits include catching rodents (as my children's hamster found, to his dismay), birds, reptiles, fish (which may explain the penchant of our Bengals for aquariums, open toilet bowls and bathtubs!), and insects (my Bengals can catch a fly out of the air with one paw and are dead serious about grasshoppers).
Probably one of the most misunderstood aspects of the leopard cat's behavior is its reputation for ferocity and its inability to be domesticated. As a wildlife biologist, I take exception to humans labeling species of animals that don't domesticate easily as "mean." The leopard cat has evolved as an efficient little predator that occupies a special niche wherein it lives and reproduces in what is often a hostile world. Just because it doesn't settle easily into our tame and domesticated world should not be a criteria with which we judge an animal "mean." That aside, there are in fact, examples of leopard cats living with and around humans in comparative peace. 

In Asia, some villagers are reported as keeping leopard cats around to hunt mice, and a wildlife biologist friend of mine reports seeing house cat/leopard cat hybrids in the streets of Bangkok. A leopard cat, kept by a biologist of the American Museum of Natural History, was reportedly very friendly and followed him everywhere. Dr. Petzsch of the Halle Zoo reportedly states that leopard cats can become as tame as domestic cats. However, there are certainly enough stories of leopard cats, bottle raised from birth, that revert to their wild and shy temperament upon maturity, to realize that they are not an easily domesticated animal. And perhaps that is as it should be.

Most people have neither the temperament nor the facilities to keep wild cats and most of these cats are better off in their wild homes. I believe that the Bengal is the perfect answer to satisfy the need in many of us to live with exotic spotted cats. And, for me an important extra, the Bengal is a perfect platform from which to teach the public about the fact that there are many other cat species in the world besides lions and tigers and house cats, many of them on the brink of extinction. Unfortunately, wild cats have become one of our world's most threatened major group of land animals. Although understanding the leopard cat and its behavior may go a long way to helping us understand our Bengals, maybe the reverse is also true. Perhaps in living with and understanding our Bengals, we will come to appreciate and care about the future of the leopard cat and its kind who are relying on our good will for their very survival in the lands they inhabit.