Flat-headed Cat (Prionailurus planiceps)

The flat-headed cat (Prionailurus planiceps) is a small wild cat patchily distributed in the Thai-Malay Peninsula, Borneo and Sumatra. Since 2008, it has been listed as Endangered by the IUCN due to destruction of wetlands in their habitat. It is suspected that the effective population size could be fewer than 2,500 mature individuals, with no subpopulation having an effective population size larger than 250 adult individuals. Like some other small cats, it was originally placed in the genus Felis, but is now considered one of the five species in Prionailurus. Flat-headed cats are very rare in captivity, with less than 10 individuals, all kept in Malaysian and Thai zoos as recorded by ISIS.


The flat-headed cat is distinguished at once by the extreme depression of the skull, which extends along the nose to the extremity of the muzzle, the sides of which are laterally distended. The general habit of body is slender, and the extremities are delicate and lengthened. The head itself is more lengthened and cylindrical than in the domestic cat. The distance between the eyes and the ears is comparatively great. The cylindrical form and lateral contraction of the head is contrasted by an unusual length of the teeth. The canine teeth are nearly as long as in an individual of double its size. The thick fur is reddish-brown on top of the head, dark roan brown on the body, and mottled white on the underbelly. The face is lighter in colour than the body, and the muzzle and chin are white. Two prominent buff whitish streaks run on either side of the nose between the eyes. The ears are rounded. The eyes are unusually far forward and close together, compared with other cats, giving the felid improved stereoscopic vision. The teeth are adapted for gripping onto slippery prey, and the jaws are relatively powerful. These features help the flat-headed cat to catch and retain aquatic prey, to which it is at least as well adapted as the fishing cat. Legs are fairly short. Claws are retractable, but the covering sheaths are so reduced in size that about two-thirds of the claws are left protruding. The anterior upper premolars are larger and sharper relative to other cats. The inter-digital webs on its paws help the cat gain better traction in muddy environments and water, and are even more pronounced on this cat than those on the paws of the fishing cat. It has a head-and-body length of 41 to 50 cm (16 to 20 in) and a short tail of 13 to 15 cm (5.1 to 5.9 in).[4] It weighs 1.5 to 2.5 kg (3.3 to 5.5 lb).


Flat-headed cats are presumably solitary, and probably maintain their home ranges by scent marking. In captivity, both females and males spray urine by walking forward in a crouching position, leaving a trail on the ground. Anecdotal historical accounts report that flat-headed cats are nocturnal, but an adult captive female was crepuscular and most active between 8:00 and 11:30 and between 18:00 and 22:00 hours. Very little is known about this species, with only a handful of observations and camera trap records. Available information suggest that, like its close relative the fishing cat, the flat-headed cat is strongly associated with wetlands and preys primarily on fish. Stomach contents of two dead animals contained mostly fish, and also shrimp shells. They may also take birds and small rodents, and have been reported to prey on domestic poultry (Nowell and Jackson 1996). Most records for the Flat-headed Cat are from swampy areas, lakes and streams, and riverine forest (Nowell and Jackson 1996, Yasuda et al. 2007). They also occur in peat-swamp forest (Bezuijen 2000), and have been observed in secondary forest (Bezuijen 2000, Bezuijen 2003, Meijaard et al. 2005, Mohamed et al. 2009). All published observations of live animals have taken place at night or early morning, near water (Nowell and Jackson 1996, Bezuijen 2000, Bezuijen 2003, Meijaard et al. 2005, Yasuda et al. 2007). Over 80% of the records gathered by Wilting et al. (2010) were from elevations below 100 m asl, and over 70 % were recorded within a distance of 3 km to larger water sources.  The Flat-headed Cat takes its name from its unusually long, sloping snout and flattened skull roof, with small ears set well down the sides of its head. It has large, close-set eyes, and relatively longer and sharper teeth than its close relatives. Its claws do not fully retract into their shortened sheaths, and its toes are more completely webbed than the fishing cat's, with long narrow foot pads. Muul and Lim (1970), commenting on the cat's feet and other features, termed it the ecological counterpart of a semi-aquatic mustelid.
Systems: Terrestrial; Freshwater
The stomach contents of an adult shot on a Malaysian riverbank consisted only of fish. They have been observed to wash objects, raccoon-style. Live fish are readily taken, with full submergence of the head, and the fish were usually carried at least two meters away, suggesting a feeding strategy to avoid letting aquatic prey escape back into water. Captive specimens show much greater interest in potential prey in the water than on dry land, suggesting a strong preference for riverine hunting in their natural habitat. Their morphological specialization suggest that their diet is mostly composed of fish, but they are reported to hunt for frogs, and are thought to catch crustaceans. They also catch rats and chicken. Vocalizations of a flat-headed cat kitten resembled those of a domestic cat. The vocal repertoire of adults has not been analyzed completely, but they purr and give other short-ranged vocalizations. Their gestation period lasts about 56 days. Of three litters recorded in captivity one consisted of two kittens, the other two were singletons. Two captive individuals have lived for fourteen years.

Range Description:

The Flat-headed Cat has a restricted distribution, found only on Sumatra, Borneo and the Malayan peninsula (Malaysia and extreme southern Thailand). It is a lowland species strongly associated with wetlands (Nowell and Jackson 1996, Sunquist and Sunquist 2002). The map is adapted from Wilting et al. (2010); this online publication includes other more detailed maps as well.
Countries: Native:
Brunei Darussalam; Indonesia (Kalimantan, Sumatera); Malaysia (Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah, Sarawak); Thailand
Range Map: Click here to open the map viewer and explore range.


The Flat-headed Cat is closely associated with wetlands and lowland forests, habitats which are increasingly being occupied and modified by people (Wilting et al. 2010). It has never been studied, there are few records of the species, and it is generally considered rare, with a highly localized distribution around bodies of water (Nowell and Jackson 1996, Anon 1999, Bezuijen 2000, Sunquist and Sunquist 2002, Meijaard et al. 2005, Yasuda et al. 2007, Barita and Boeadi pers. comm. 2006, Mohamed et al. 2009). Although fishermen along the Merang river in south Sumatra (which has relatively intact peat forests) described it as common (Bezuijen 2000), they tend to use a single generic term for both flat-headed and leopard cats Prionailurus bengalensis, a more abundant species (Bezuijen 2003). Most of the recent records come from Sabah in north-eastern Borneo, where it can be frequently be observed along the Kinabatangan River (Wilting et al. 2010), and where it has been several times photographed by camera-traps in Deramakot Forest Reserve (Mohamed et al. 2009).
Population Trend: Decreasing

Major Threats

Wetland and lowland forest destruction and degradation is the primary threat faced by the species (Nowell and Jackson 1996, Wilting et al. 2010). Causes of this destruction include human settlement, forest transformation to plantations, draining for agriculture, pollution, and excessive hunting, wood-cutting and fishing. In addition, clearance of coastal mangroves over the past decade has been rapid in Tropical Asia. The depletion of fish stocks from over-fishing is prevalent in many Asian wetland environments and is likely to be a significant threat. Expansion of oil palm plantations is currently viewed as the most urgent threat (IUCN Cats Red List workshop assessment 2007). Trapping, snaring and poisoning are also threats: E. Bennett (in Sunquist and Sunquist 2002) reported that skins were frequently seen in longhouses in the interior of Sarawak, and Flat-headed Cats have been captured in traps set out to protect domestic fowl (Nowell and Jackson 1996).

 Conservation Actions:

Included on CITES Appendix I. The species is fully protected by national legislation over its range, with hunting and trade prohibited in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand (Nowell and Jackson 1996). It is known to occur in Berbak (Bezuijen 2000), Way Kambas (Anon 1996), Batang Gadis (Barita pers. comm.2006) and Kerinci Seblat National Parks (M. Linkie pers. comm. 2008) in Sumatra; the Danum Valley (Hearn et al. 2007), Tabin Wildlife Reserve (Yasuda et al. 2007), Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary in Sabah (Lackman-Ancrenaz and Ancrenaz 1997), Deramakot Forest Reserve (Mohamed et al. 2009), Tangkulap Forest Reserve and Maliau Basi (Wilting et al. 2010); Bukit Sarang Conservation Area (Giman pers. comm. 2006) and Loagan Bunut National Park (Wilting et al. 2010) in Sarawak; Kutai and Kayan Mentarang National Parks (Wulfraat and Samso 2000), Bukit Suharto Protection Forest and Sabangau Peat Swamp Forest (Cheyne et al. 2009) in Kalimantan; Selangor and Pahang Peat Swamp Forest in Peninsula Malaysia (Wilting et al. 2010) and the Phru Tao Dang Peat Swamp Forest protected area in Southernmost Thailand (Nowell and Jackson 1996). In Brunei it has been recorded from the Task Merimbun Heritage Park (Yasuda et al. 2007). Conservation of this species depends on adequate habitat protection, and better understanding of its ecology and status in the remaining lowland and wetland forests. Therefore species specific field surveys focusing on these wetland and lowland areas are needed.