Ringtail Cat: The Cutest Member of the Racoon Family

Ringtail cat Bassariscus astutus with tree rock and plants

Fluffy cats are well-admired for their plumed tails. However, they aren’t the only animals with eye-catching fluff. Despite not being a close feline relative, the ringtail cat is also known for its lovely and captivating tail.

Because of their name and looks, ringtail cats are often mistaken as cats or foxes. The resemblance is quite strong, but these small mammals have their own identifying features. Once you see one of these fuzzy creatures, you’ll be begging to own one.

The first step in admiring a ringtail cat is knowing every bit of detail about it. If you’re up for the challenge, I can tell you everything you need to know about ringtail cats in this article. Let’s begin!

What Is a Ringtail Cat?

Adult ringtail cat on a rock

A ringtail cat is a type of mammal that belongs to the raccoon family. Its scientific name, Bassariscus astutus, comes from the Greek terms “bassar” meaning fox, “isc” which means little, and “astut” which translates to cunning. Many people refer to them as miner’s cat, civet cat, and cacomistle.

The name cacomistle is actually an Aztec term meaning half mountain lion. Like raccoons and coatis, ringtail cats all belong to the Procyonidae family.

From a historical perspective, gold miners once lured ringtails with food to make them stay in their cabins as pet mousers. However, these animals also faced a tragic fate at the hands of cruel humans.

Due to their beautiful tails, ringtail cats were highly valued by hunters. They were often trapped by illegal poachers from Mexico and some areas in Oregon. 

After banning such unlawful acts, the ringtail cat was officially proclaimed as the state mammal of Arizona.

Ringtail Cat Characteristics: What Does a Ringtail Cat Look Like?

Ringtail cat turns its head walking on pink granite

Like what many people claim, the ringtail cat has a cat-like appearance. 

You will immediately observe its sleek and compact body, large rounded ears edged with white hair, whiskers, and of course, its black-and-white striped tail. 

Its body is also covered with dark brown to black hair, which is dense and soft to the touch.

The white rings of fur surrounding their large, round eyes give the ringtail cat a prominent mask. Their face also slopes down to a pointed muzzle which resembles a fox.

Their bushy tail is slightly longer or about the same length of the head and body combined, which is around 12 to 18 inches. 

In total, a ringtail cat measures between 24 and 32 inches and weighs less than three pounds which makes them smaller than a typical house cat.

Since the ring-tailed cat is famous for its elegant tail, you should also know it has around 14 to 16 black and white bands and a black tip. 

As a four-legged animal, it has five toes on each foot. For easy navigation and hunting, they are also equipped with sharp, curved, semi-retractable claws.

Being a predator of small animals, the ringtail cat has sharp carnassial teeth capable of tearing and slicing through the muscle.

Seeing a ringtail cat in person is a rare opportunity. In the meantime, watch this extremely delightful video of a ringtail cat called Toodles:

Toodles the Ringtail Loves Snacks

Ringtail Cat Range and Habitat: Where Do Ringtail Cats Live?

Ringtail cats have a wide distribution across the United States and northern Mexico. They are commonly found in southwest Oregon, northern California, eastern Kansas, Oklahoma, Arizona, southern Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Texas. 

A particular species called Bassariscus sumichrasti is known to exist in several countries in Central America.

Ringtails often live in rocky habitats like caves, riparian canyons, and mine shafts. Riparian areas in southwestern Oregon are also a favorite spot for ringtails where food and water are abundant. 

Sometimes, they are also seen in semi-arid lands such as pygmy forests and oak woodlands. 

They usually make their den in rock crevices, tree hollows, other animals’ abandoned burrows, and even abandoned buildings. 

However, female ringtails prefer rocky areas like dens, while males choose either a tree hollow or brush pile. Both sexes also have individual home ranges.

Male ringtails have an average home range of 43 acres, while females have a smaller home range of 20 acres. While their territories don’t overlap, one or more males are exempted during the breeding season.

Ringtail Cat Diet and Eating Habits: What Do Ringtail Cats Eat?

The ringtail cat is omnivorous, which means it enjoys a hefty diet of fruits and small animals. Berries, persimmon, pear, and flowering plants are among their favorites. However, in some cases, they also feed on animal matter.

In a study, it was found that ringtail cats eat according to what’s abundant in each season. 

During the winter, they rely heavily on birds, rodents, rabbits, ground squirrels, snakes, frogs, and lizards as their primary food source. Meanwhile, during the spring, they can survive with a lighter diet of fruits and insects.

After feeding, ringtail cats often groom themselves like a cat. They lick their forepaws and use them to clean their cheeks, muzzle, and ears.

Ringtail Cat Ecology and Behavior: How Do Ringtail Cats Behave?

Rare sighting of ringtail cat in the wild

As nocturnal animals, ringtail cats show aversion to daylight at an early age. 

They mainly hunt for prey and carry out their activities during the night when they are less exposed to larger predators. Their superior hearing and eyesight also help them adapt to dark environments.

To communicate, ringtails emit raccoon-like sounds, including clicks and chatters. Their call is deafening, almost like an explosive bark. 

They are also very independent mammals and are known to live in solitary once they reach adulthood. Just after four months, a cub is expected to forage for food on its own.

Ringtail cats are excellent climbers. They are capable of going up vertical walls, cliffs, trees, and even cacti. 

They can rotate their hind feet at 180 degrees which is a huge advantage in negotiating narrow ledges and getting an excellent grip to descend swiftly from high elevations.

Their long tail is more than an ornament for ringtail cats. Without their tails, they won’t have the balance to ascend narrow passages. 

This can be done through stemming, a mechanism of pressing both right feet on one wall and both left feet on the other.

Aside from their hind foot rotation ability, ringtail cats have another useful trick. They can quickly reverse directions when moving. Indeed, they are quite the acrobats.

Ringtail cats are also reported to mark or define their territory by excreting waste. The same behavior is shown when attracting potential mates.

When around humans, ringtail cats are usually shy. They will most likely run away or hide in their den. Unlike their raccoon cousins, you won’t often see them around.

Ringtail Cat Reproduction: How Often Do Ringtail Cats Have Litter?

For ringtail cats, the mating season comes in spring. Females only mate from February to May since they only have a single estrous or reproductive cycle. This means that they only have a litter of two to four cubs per year.

The mating window for ringtail cats is between February and May. Females are usually in heat for only 24 to 36 hours, so the males should have no time to waste. 

After mating successfully, the gestation period starts and takes around 45 to 50 days. During this time, the male provides food for the female ringtail cat. 

After gestation, the female is ready to give birth around May or June. Their den can either be in rock crevices or tree hollows. 

When born, a baby ringtail will weigh almost an ounce. After 30 to 40 days, the youngling can eat solid food aside from its mother’s milk.

The female ringtail cat is chiefly responsible for all her cubs. At two months old, she will start guiding them to hunt for food. The male can sometimes be around to play with them. At ten months old, the cubs will already reach sexual maturity.

Ringtail Cat Lifespan: How Long Do Ringtail Cats Live?

The ringtail cat’s lifespan in the wild is about 6 to 9 years. However, they are known to live longer in captivity because of less predatory and environmental threats. A female ringtail was recorded to live for around 16 years in captivity.

Like all other wildlife, ringtails are susceptible to certain diseases and infections. Some of these illnesses are contagious and can lead to the early death of an infected ringtail cat.

Ringtail Cat Threats and Causes of Death: What Are Ringtail Cat‘s Biggest Threats?

Ringtail cat looking sad inside a cage

As small mammals, ringtail cats are often victims of larger predators, including bobcats, coyotes, mountain lions, great horned owls, and red-tailed hawks. In the face of danger, there is very little they can do to escape their fate.

For instance, when a great horned owl attacks a ringtail cat, it usually lets out a high-pitched screech and leaves a foul-smelling secretion from its anal glands to scare the predator away.

Aside from being the victims of natural predators, ringtail cats are also inclined to suffer from several health issues. 

Like all warm-blooded mammals, they can experience the following:

  • Rabies: This is a viral disease common to mammals like raccoons, foxes, bats, and skunks. It’s been found that more than 90 percent of rabies occurs in the wildlife regions of the United States. Rabies-infected ringtails will often show excessive drooling, frequent biting, problems in swallowing, difficulty in moving, and even paralyzation. 
  • Panleukopenia: This is a highly contagious disease caused by the feline parvovirus. It is often characterized by fever, vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, anorexia, and depression. Panleukopenia is often transferred to ringtail cats through contact with bodily fluids and feces of the infected animal.
  • Parasites: Parasitic worms can easily infect a ringtail cat since they feed on animal matter. It’s very common for those infected to experience weight loss, diarrhea, vomiting, and coughing. This can even be passed on to humans.

Predators, natural causes, diseases, and even accidents play a huge part in the mortality of ringtail cats. However, they also face a bigger enemy that threatens this species’s population — illegal poaching and destruction of natural habitat.

Ringtail Cat Conservation: What Are the Conservation Efforts for Ringtail Cats?

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the ringtail Bassariscus astutus is classified under the “least concern” conservation status. 

This means that their population is widespread and abundant in nature, even in inhabited or disturbed areas.

However, due to their nocturnal lifestyle and habitat, there is only limited information about the population densities across the ringtail species range. This makes the evaluation of conservation needs challenging to be put accurately.

Further research is needed to understand the ringtail cat’s population trends and decide the necessary conservation actions. 

Despite prohibitions, it remains a fact that ringtail cats are trapped and sold in the illegal pet trade industry.

Ringtail Cats as Pets: Do Ringtail Cats Make Good Pets?

Despite looking adorable, ringtail cats are still wild animals. Sure, they can be tamed, but they are still not recommended as house pets. They always need to be preoccupied, especially during the night.

They will most likely be making noise from dusk to dawn, trying to hunt for insects and lizards. Aside from making you pull an all-nighter, it’s impossible to potty train these free-thinking animals.

Unless you can provide a large enclosure, keeping a ringtail cat inside your house will be a challenge. 

If you are ready for the chaos, you should check the restrictions of owning one in your state or area.

Even though they were kept as miner’s pets back in the day, it is illegal to own a ringtail in most states. However, in Oregon, you are allowed to keep one as a pet if you can present a special permit.

Frequently Asked Questions

Ringtail cat looking for beetles in gravel

Are Ringtail Cats Aggressive?

Ringtail cats are not domesticated animals. Due to their wild instincts, you can expect them to display aggressive behavior, especially when threatened. If you ever come across a ringtail, it’s best to keep your distance.

Are Ringtail Cats Rare?

Ringtails are widely found in western and southern parts of the United States. However, because they only mate once a year, their population density is still considered low. Due to this fact, they are considered rare in nature.

Do Ringtail Cats Hibernate?

Ringtail cats are only known to be nocturnal animals. They sleep soundly in their dens during the daytime and begin their activities at night. There has been no record of hibernation from these species.

Final Thoughts

A ringtail cat is the cutest member of the raccoon family, with the combined features of a cat and a fox. 

Like all wild animals, they have their own behavior and habits. You can’t expect them to have the temperament of domesticated pets like cats or dogs.

If you wish to own a ringtail cat, you might have difficulty bringing them home. First, you need to ensure that your state government allows them as pets. If they do, you probably need to secure a special permit which takes a ton of paperwork.

Also, keep in mind that they have special needs in terms of food and environment. If you have no prior experience in handling exotic pets, it’s best to watch them at a zoo or conservation facility from afar.

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