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The Rusty-spotted Cat Is a Teeny-tiny Wild Cat

rusty-spotted cat
Two rusty-spotted cats (Prionailurus rubiginosus), born at the Parc des Felins, a wildlife park dedicated to the preservation of endangered cats, located in Nesles, outside Paris. CATHERINE GUGELMANN/AFP/Getty Images

Taking its rightful place alongside some of the many other adorable and cuddly species in the animal kingdom — think the koala, panda, polar fox, meerkat and many more — is the rusty-spotted cat (Prionailurus rubiginosus), which just happens to be known as the world's smallest wild cat.

"It competes for the title with the black-footed cat and kodkod," Nicole Ellis, a certified professional dog trainer with Rover, says in an email interview. Ellis has has worked with everything from bears and tigers and horses to cats and dogs for more than 15 years. "Nicknamed 'the hummingbird of the cat family,' this kitten-looking feline can fit in the palm of your hand."

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So, What Do They Look Like?

"Many describe the rusty-spotted cat as a smaller version of a leopard, with short legs and rounded, smaller ears," says Ellis. "It got its name from the many rusty brown spots all along its beautiful reddish-gray coat."

A duo of dark streaks run along each cheek, while four stripes extend above the cat's eyes, back between the ears and along the shoulders before tapering off into elongated spots. These elongated spots also can be found on the flanks in the form of faint, rusty-brown spots and blotches. The throat, chest and belly, meanwhile, are white, but with large black spots and bars (like a leopard). The rusty-spotted cat also has small rounded ears, black soled feet and a tail that's a little more than half its body length.

As for this feline's miniature makeup, "they are about half the size of a normal house cat," says Sara Ochoa, a veterinary consultant for doglab.com, via an email interview. Adds Ellis: "Rusty-spotted cats are between 2 and 4 pounds (0.9 and 1.8 kilograms) fully grown, with a body that ranges from about a foot to 20 inches (30 to 50 centimeters). Their tails are generally another 6 inches (15 centimeters) to a foot long."

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Where Are They Found Today?

Although the species was believed to be restricted to India and Sri Lanka, photo evidence shows rusty-spotted cats in Bardia National Park in Nepal.

In addition, while rusty-spotted cats were once thought only to inhabit moist forests, they've also been found in dry and bamboo forests, wooded grasslands, arid scrublands and rocky hill slopes. They've also been discovered living in abandoned houses — probably on the prowl for rats and mice.

Although you might think that such a tiny cat would be quite meek, it tends to be just the opposite. These nocturnal creatures have a reputation for being fierce hunters. In fact, 19th-century naturalist T.C. Jerdon owned one as a pet, and it would hunt tree squirrels in the rafters of his house. When introduced to young gazelle, the cat immediately seized it by the nape of the neck, and had to be pulled off before it would let go.

Aiding in the cat's hunting prowess? Eyes almost six times more sensitive to movement than a human's — which helps it quickly pick up on potential danger or prey — and highly sensitive ears that come in handy for surveying an area. "They live on a diet of small animals, like rodents and birds," says Ellis. "They are capable climbers and will hunt in the trees, as well. Known as very fierce for their size, they will occasionally attack larger prey."

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How Do They Mate?

The reproductive behavior of rusty-spotted cats is similar to the domestic cat, with mating lasting anywhere from one to five minutes, and then often repeated numerous times a day. In captivity, they mate throughout the year, and mating activities begin anywhere between one and 72 days after two new individuals are introduced to each other. Gestation lasts between 67 to 71 days. Each litter contains one to three kittens weighing about 1.6 ounces (46 grams) each.

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How Many Are Left in the World Today?

Only 40 to 50 rusty-spotted cats are known to exist in captivity, with about 10,000 said to exist in the wild. That small number — traced mostly to loss of natural habitat due to the continually growing populations of India and Sri Lanka, coupled with hunters seeking their pelts — has earned the rare feline a "Vulnerable" status with the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

According to Nevada wildlife researcher Danielle Miles, who has studied carnivores and animal behavior (including the rusty-spotted cat), there currently is a focus on preserving the cat's natural habitat and protecting more space from development. "Protections for unaltered landscapes would not only benefit the rusty-spotted cat into the future," she said in a January 2020 interview for an article for Bored Panda, "but would provide habitat for all species in those ecosystems, some of which have surely not yet been discovered."

So, how long do they live? "In captivity, they live 10 to 12 years," says Ochoa. "In the wild, it is very hard to tell, as these animals are not see very commonly due to their small size and very shy personality."

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Can You Own One?

Wondering if it's possible to domesticate this cute little critter? In short, no. While people might want to own a rusty-spotted cat because it is cute and intelligent, and their size makes them seem manageable and less dangerous, the truth of the matter is that these situations usually don't work out and the animals wind up being euthanized or placed in a rescue like Lemur Island.

"It is probably not the best pet to own," says Ochoa. "Depending on what state you live in, it may be illegal or take a lot of paperwork to be able to own one. Most are only owned by zoos."

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