Prionailurus planicepsflat-headed cat

Geographic Range

Flat-headed cat (Prionailurus planiceps) sporadically occur throughout the southern Malay Peninsula (Malaysia and extreme southern Thailand), Sumatra, and Borneo. (Lekagul and McNeely, 1988; Payne and Francis, 1994; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002; Wilting, et al., 2010a)


Flat-headed cats occupy lowland tropical forests and freshwater habitats. Specimens have been collected in disturbed primary and secondary forests, along rivers and streams, and in flooded areas. In Malaysia, they also live in oil palm plantations, and in Sumatra, they have been sighted in secondary lowland forest. (Bezuijen, 2000; Lekagul and McNeely, 1988; Nowell and Jackson, 1996; Payne and Francis, 1994; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002; Wilting, et al., 2010b)

Physical Description

Flat-headed cats are small, about the size of a domestic cat. The tail is short, measuring only a quarter to a third of the head and body length. They have small, rounded ears that set widely apart and lower than the apex of the skull. They have long fur that is thick and soft. The pelage is reddish brown on top of the head, dark brown on the dorsum, and mottled white on the venter. Individual hairs have white, buff, or gray tips, giving them a grizzled appearance. The face is paler than the body and the muzzle, chin, and chest are white. Their eyelids and the inner side of each eye are whitish but do not form a complete eye-ring, and two dark stripes run along each side of the head, one from the corner of the eye to below the ear and the other from below the eye to below the ear. The lower vibrissae are completely white, whereas the upper vibrissae are black at the base and white at the tips. The head is distinctly elongated and flattened relative to other cats. Hair between the ears is quite short; this, combined with the low setting of the ears, gives the cat a flat-headed appearance. The legs are short relative to other cats, and the feet are long and narrow. The claws, as in the fishing cat and the cheetah, cannot be fully retracted. The nasals are short and narrow, placing the eyes farther forward and closer together than those of other cats. A long and narrow rostrum, nearly parallel tooth rows and well developed first and second upper premolars all specialize the cat for seizing and gripping slippery prey with the anterior portion of its mouth. Meanwhile, the sagittal crest is well developed and the zygomatic arches are robust, indicating great biting power. Flat-headed cats are sexually dimorphic, as males are slightly larger than females. Male head-and-body length ranges from 42 to 50 cm, tail length from 13 to 20 cm, and weight from 1.5 to 2.75 kg; female head-and-body length ranges from 33 to 37 cm, tail length from 15 to 17cm, and weight averages 1.5 kg. ("CSG Species Accounts: Flat-headed cat (Prionailurus planiceps)", 1996; "Prionailurus planiceps", 2010; Lekagul and McNeely, 1988; Muul and Lim, 1970; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • Range mass
    1.5 to 2.75 kg
    3.30 to 6.06 lb
  • Range length
    48 to 70 cm
    18.90 to 27.56 in


As flat-headed cats are extremely rare and elusive, information about their mating system is not available. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)

Only limited information is available on the general reproductive behavior of flat-headed cats. Gestation lasts for approximately 56 days; however, this estimate was based on a single individual. More information is available on other, more common Prionailurus species. For exmple, fishing cats have no fixed breeding season, though mating is most common between January and February. Leopard cats mate at any time of year in the southern part of their range, where they overlap with flat-headed cats. Both closely related species produce 2 to 4 kittens after a gestation period of 60 to 70 days. Fishing cats begin weaning at 2 months and are completely weaned by 6 months, and sexual maturity is reached by 15 months. The leopard cat begins weaning at 1 month and reaches sexual maturity by 18 months. ("CSG Species Accounts: Flat-headed cat (Prionailurus planiceps)", 1996; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)

  • Average gestation period
    56 days

Information on parental care in flat-headed cats is lacking. However, like all mammals, mothers nurse cubs until weaning is complete. Young are likely altricial, as with most other felids. Other Prionailurus species care for their offspring in secluded dens until they are able to accompany her on foraging trips. Once young learn to hunt, they disperse shortly thereafter. (Muul and Lim, 1970; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female


No information is available on the lifespan of Prionailurus planiceps in the wild, though a single captive specimen reportedly lived for 14 years. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: captivity
    14 (high) years


According to anecdotal historical accounts, flat-headed cats are nocturnal. However, a captive adult female was observed to be crepuscular. In captivity, individuals are fond of water and play in pools or tubs for hours. Flat-headed cats are presumed to be solitary, similar to other felids. (Lekagul and McNeely, 1988; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)

Home Range

Flat-headed cats are very rare and elusive, and information regarding its home range is lacking. However, males of closely related fishing cats maintain home ranges of 16 to 22 square kilometers, while females range over 4 to 6 square kilometers. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)

Communication and Perception

The position of the eyes, farther forward on the head and closer together than those of other cats, maximizes binocular vision, optimizing flat-headed cats for finding and catching food in water. Like other felids, flat-headed cats probably maintain territories by scent-marking. In captivity, both males and females spray urine in a manner that is unusual among felids. Most cats point their rear ends at a tree or bush, raise their tails to an upward position, and spray. Flat-headed cats raise their tails to half-mast, crouch with their hind legs, and walk forward while leaving a trail of urine. The calls of a flat-headed cat cubs are often compared to the vibration made by pulling a thumb along the teeth of a comb, though these vocalizations were also reported to resemble those of the domestic cat. Adults purr and produce other short-range vocalizations. The vocalizations of flat-headed cats have yet to be thoroughly investigated. (Leyhausen, 1979; Muul and Lim, 1970; Peters and Tonkin-Leyhausen, 1999; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)

Food Habits

Flat-headed cats have been seen on mud-banks and along rivers, where they were probably hunting for frogs, fish, or crustaceans. Stomach content analysis shows a primary diet of fish. Flat-headed cats can submerge their head up to 12 centimeters under water to seize prey, and in studies with captive individuals, they preyed upon live frogs but ignored sparrows placed in their cages. Individuals often 'wash' objects in water, similar to raccoons. When offered food, captive individuals pounce on it while snarling, and always carry it at least 2 meters away from where it was presented -- a behavior that may keep fish and frogs from escaping back into the water. Furthermore, captive adult animals were observed groping along the bottom of a pool with their forepaws spread wide, also like raccoons. A mouse in a bathtub excited captive cats more than a mouse on dry land, as the cats stood either in the water or next to the tub and attempted to fish out the mouse with their mouth or paws. In captivity, adult flat-headed cats kill rats and mice with a bite to the nape but quickly toss the rodent between bites, repeating the action again and again. (Leyhausen, 1979; Muul and Lim, 1970; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)

  • Animal Foods
  • mammals
  • amphibians
  • fish


No information regarding potential predators of Prionailurus planiceps is available. Their nocturnal behavior and coloration likely helps reduce risk of predation.

Ecosystem Roles

Because flat-headed cats are so rare, their role as a predator likely has little impact on the population dynamics of prey species. Its behavioral and morphological adaptations, as well as the niche that it fills, render it similar to a semi-aquatic mustelid, unique among cats. Flat headed-cats are host to flatworms and roundworms. (Cameron, 1928; Muul and Lim, 1970)

Commensal/Parasitic Species

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

TThere are no known positive effects of flat-headed cats on humans. Skins were frequently observed hanging in longhouses in Sarawak, Malaysia, but these are of doubtful economic importance. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)

  • Positive Impacts
  • body parts are source of valuable material

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no known adverse effects of flat-headed cats on humans. Animals have been captured in traps set out to protect poultry, and an individual was reported to have been shot while chasing chickens; however, fowl is not the preferred prey item of this species, and these observations are debated in the literature. ("CSG Species Accounts: Flat-headed cat (Prionailurus planiceps)", 1996; Nowell and Jackson, 1996)

Conservation Status

Flat-headed cats are classified as "endangered" on the IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species. Although little is known of this species, its patchy distribution appears to be closely tied to watercourses, and riparian habitats, which are often the first to come under human development or exploitation. They may be more adaptable than its morphological specializations would indicate, as suggested by reports of increased sightings near Malaysian oil palm plantations and in secondary lowland Sumatran forests; however, these claims have been disputed. A recent distribution model predicted that over 70% of its historically suitable habitat has been transformed to unsuitable habitat, likely due to anthropogenic influences. (Bezuijen, 2000; Nowell and Jackson, 1996; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002; Wilting, et al., 2010b; Wilting, et al., 2010a)


Mairin Balisi (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Phil Myers (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, John Berini (editor), Animal Diversity Web Staff.



uses sound to communicate


living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.


young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


active at dawn and dusk


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


active during the night


found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.

World Map


chemicals released into air or water that are detected by and responded to by other animals of the same species


an animal that mainly eats fish


Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

scent marks

communicates by producing scents from special gland(s) and placing them on a surface whether others can smell or taste them


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


lives alone


uses touch to communicate


Living on the ground.


the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.


uses sight to communicate


reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.


1996. "CSG Species Accounts: Flat-headed cat (Prionailurus planiceps)" (On-line). IUCN / Species Survival Commission (SSC) Cat Specialist Group (CSG). Accessed April 17, 2011 at

2010. "Prionailurus planiceps" (On-line). ARKive. Accessed April 17, 2011 at

Bezuijen, M. 2000. The occurrence of the flat-headed cat Prionailurus planiceps in south-east Sumatra. Oryx, 34/3: 222-226.

Cameron, T. 1928. On Some Parasites of the Rusty Tiger Cat (Felis planiceps). Journal of Helminthology, 6/2: 87-98.

Lekagul, B., J. McNeely. 1988. Mammals of Thailand. Bangkok: Association for the Conservation of Wildlife.

Leyhausen, P. 1979. Cat Behavior: the Predatory and Social Behavior of Domestic and Wild Cats. New York: Garland STPM Press.

Muul, I., B. Lim. 1970. Ecological and morphological observations of Felis planiceps. Journal of Mammalogy, 51/4: 806-808.

Nowell, K., P. Jackson. 1996. "Wild Cats: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan" (On-line pdf). IUCN - Species Survival Commission (SSC) Species Action Plans. Accessed April 17, 2011 at

Payne, J., C. Francis. 1994. A Field Guide to the Mammals of Borneo. Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia: Sabah Society.

Peters, G., B. Tonkin-Leyhausen. 1999. Evolution of acoustic communication signals of mammals: friendly close-range vocalizations in Felidae (Carnivora). Journal of Mammalian Evolution, 6/2: 129-159.

Sunquist, M., F. Sunquist. 2002. Wild Cats of the World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wilting, A., A. Cord, A. Hearn, D. Hesse, A. Mohamed, C. Traeholdt, S. Cheyne, S. Sunarto, M. Jayasilan, J. Ross, A. Shapiro, A. Sebastian, S. Dech, C. Breitenmoser, J. Sanderson, J. Duckworth, H. Hofer. 2010. Modelling the species distribution of flat-headed cats (Prionailurus planiceps), an endangered South-East Asian small felid. PLoS ONE, 5/3: 1-18.

Wilting, A., A. Hearn, J. Sanderson, J. Ross, S. Sunarto. 2010. "Prionailurus planiceps" (On-line). IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Accessed April 17, 2011 at