6 Pets That Look Like Cats but Aren’t

Updated on June 20, 2020
Melissa A Smith profile image

Melissa cares for a variety of exotic animals and has completed a certificate in veterinary assisting and a bachelor's degree in biology.

Domesticated cats are one of the most popular pets in the world for a good reason: They can be affectionate at times but also keep to themselves often, providing their owners time alone without the extra attention and daily walks that dogs require. People are also drawn to cats because their flat faces, pointed ears, and almond-shaped eyes are universally considered to be cute as well as alluring.

Also found in a very limited number of human homes are other mammals that look like cats but are actually not in the Felidae family. Alone, these animals can look similar to cats thanks to convergent evolution (the process of which some animals that have evolved independently share similar physical traits), but side-by-side, the differences are quite apparent.

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1. Spotted Genet

Genets are slender carnivores that are indigenous to Africa, although the common genet, or small-spotted genet, expanded their range to parts of Europe due to human influence [8]. They are viverrids, not felids. There are 38 species of genet, including the large spotted genet (Genetta tigrina), hausa genet (Genetta thierryi), and rusty-spotted genet (Genetta maculata). While they are mostly carnivorous, feeding on smaller prey such as mice, insects, and lizards, they are also said to be omnivorous and will consume plant material and fruit [8][14].

These interesting animals loosely resemble felines with their spots, tails, and small paws (although they have claws that are semi-retractable [8]), but there is one obvious difference, which is their pointed face, which looks more weasel-like.

Genets do have a lot of similarities to domesticated cats; they hunt opportunistically on small rodent prey, are semi-nocturnal, they are good climbers, but also hunt on the ground, and some owners who keep them as pets even report that they purr. However, compared to regular house cats, genets can be extremely skittish, are less cuddly, and re-home poorly, therefore genets are pets for those who understand and accept them as they are. Genets look like another member of the Viverridae family called the linsang [6], but these are rare and not kept as pets.

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2. Binturong

Also called bear cats, these large carnivores are famous for their popcorn-like smell when they are kept in captivity. Also feliforms (not felines) and in the same family as genets, Viverridae, of which they are the largest species [11], they have a somewhat cat-like appearance, but also resemble a hybrid between a feline and a sloth bear. These strange creatures are one of the only carnivores that have a prehensile tail [11]. Mostly nocturnal, binturongs climb, swim, spend some time on the ground, and are primarily solitary [11].

These unique animals are costly and not common to see in captivity, but the few individuals who’ve owned them as pets, which are mostly animal exhibitors, report that they are calmer and relaxed around people when raised by them from an early age (around 4 weeks old) [12], hence why they are frequently used as animal ambassadors.

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3. Ring-Tailed Cats

The ring-tailed cat, also known as just a ringtail, looks like a hybrid of a feline and a ring-tailed lemur, and while it bears a striking resemblance to the aforementioned genet, it is actually in the procyonid family, making it more closely related to raccoons. This striking creature can be found throughout the Southwestern United State, northern Mexico, and even parts of Oregon [4]. They are nocturnal, although sometimes they are active at dusk. Like genets, they are preferentially carnivorous, although they can have some omnivorous tendencies, feeding on small mammals, birds, reptiles, berries, and even carrion [4].

As of current, they are very rare in the pet trade, although they used to be available more often. Native wildlife laws would make them illegal in their native range as well as most states.

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4. Asian Palm Civet

This fascinating animal, while less common in the pet trade today due to very low captive breeding populations (they are rarely, if ever available in the U.S. now) was actually declared by researchers to be one of the more suitable exotic animals to be domestic pets (along with sitka deer and wallabies) [7]. They are also famously known as the 'cat' responsible for the expensive coffee Kopi luwak, which is made from their droppings when they consume specific coffee cherries [10]. Civets have a flexible diet, consuming small mammals, eggs, reptiles, insects, and flowers, although they are mostly frugivorous and also prefer fruits, seeds, and sap [10].

Asian palm civets are reported to enjoy the company of humans when socialized from a young age [7]. They have cat-like features, but also resemble a mixture of other species, like raccoons, of which they have a similar ecological role to [10]. They are also, unfortunately, illegal to import into the United States as pets due to their potential role in the past SARS pandemic, although this likely originated from a live food market [13]. Like genets and binturongs, they are in the Viverridae family.

5. Fossa

This very strange mammal, previously unknown by most until the animated movie Madagascar debuted, has the look of a small and slender cougar. The fossa, which is indigenous to the island of Madagascar, is rather rare in captivity and very uncommonly kept as a pet, however, imported animals used to be available more often in the past.

Fossas are extremely unique, as they are the only carnivore that specializes in hunting primates. They are excellent climbers but also hunt on the ground. They were once endangered, but are now listed as vulnerable as of 2019. However, keeping fossas in specialized breeding programs in captivity is beneficial for the species, both for educational purposes, as little is known about them, and to increase their populations for possible release in the future [1][9].

6. American and European Pine Marten

As their names suggest, there are two species of marten that can be found in North America and Europe. Both are small (about the size of a house cat), semi-arboreal, and nocturnal carnivores that are primarily solitary [2][3]. Martens are mustelids, in the same family as ferrets and weasels. They will also sometimes consume fruit and carrion.

These species are hunted for their pelts and are uncommonly kept as pets, although the American marten can be found in private captivity. While they can be expected to have natural aggression, hand-raised martens that have been well-socialized can have a decent disposition [5].

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Works Cited

  1. Dickie, Lesley Alexandra. The behaviour and reproductive physiology of the fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox) in captivity. Diss. Queen Mary, University of London, 2005.
  2. Ellis, E. 1999. "Martes americana" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed June 11, 2020 at https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Martes_americana/
  3. Forder, Victoria. “Mating Behavior in Captive Pine Martens Martes Martes”. Wildwood Trust. August 2006.
  4. Goldberg, J. 2003. "Bassariscus astutus" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed June 11, 2020 at https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Bassariscus_astutus/
  5. Jackson, Hartley Harrad Thompson. Mammals of Wisconsin. Univ of Wisconsin Press, 1961.
  6. Kepner, B. 2003. "Prionodon pardicolor" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed June 11, 2020 at https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Prionodon_pardicolor/
  7. Koene, Paul, Rudi M. de Mol, and Bert Ipema. "Behavioral ecology of captive species: Using bibliographic information to assess pet suitability of mammal species." Frontiers in veterinary science 3 (2016): 35.
  8. Lundrigan, B. and M. Conley 2000. "Genetta genetta" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed June 11, 2020 at https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Genetta_genetta/
  9. Lundrigan, B. and T. Zachariah 2000. "Cryptoprocta ferox" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed May 14, 2020 at https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Cryptoprocta_ferox/
  10. Nelson, J. 2013. "Paradoxurus hermaphroditus" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed June 11, 2020 at https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Paradoxurus_hermaphroditus/
  11. Schleif, M. 2013. "Arctictis binturong" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed June 11, 2020 at https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Arctictis_binturong/
  12. Stinner, Mindy. "The Binturong Information Sheet"
  13. Wang, L-F., and Bryan T. Eaton. "Bats, civets and the emergence of SARS." Wildlife and emerging zoonotic diseases: the biology, circumstances and consequences of cross-species transmission. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg, 2007. 325-344.
  14. Wemmer, Christen M. "Comparative ethology of the large-spotted genet (Genetta tigrina) and some related viverrids." Smithsonian contributions to zoology (1977).

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

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