The smallest cats in the world are rusty-spotted cats, closely followed by black-footed cats.
Both look similar to the domestic cat (Felis catus), being closely related.
However, they are part of a different genus of cat, so are somewhat different to domestic cats, as explained below.
Introduction: The family Felidae
Big cats of the genus Panthera (lions, tigers, leopards, Jaguars, and cheetahs) and their small-to-medium-sized cousins of the genus Felis are the best known groups of cats in the world.
Genus Felis includes the domestic cat Felis catus and closely related wild species.
However, several members of the cat family do not fall into either of these genera.
We mention the fact here to avoid confusion because some of the species that top the list of the smallest in the world do not fall into the familiar genera Panthera and Felis.
Zoologists assign all cats to the family Felidae. However, Panthera and Felis represent only two genera under Felidae.
There are several other genera assigned to the family.
The two smallest cats in the world
Two known species of the family Felidae that wildlife experts consider the top contenders for the title of the smallest are two wild species: Prionailurus rubiginosus (rusty-spotted cat) and Felis nigripes (black-footed cat).
The competition between the two species is close. But experts awarded the title to the rusty-spotted cat.
While there is an overlap in body size between individuals of both species, the average rusty-spotted cat is significantly smaller than the black-footed cat.
Rusty-spotted cat (Prionailurus rubiginosus)
The rusty-spotted cat is a member of the genus Prionailurus represented by multiple species native to Asia.
Prionailurus rubiginosus is native to India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka.
Individuals vary in coat color and distribution of markings. But the typical individual has brownish to ginger-colored fur overlaying an undergrowth of white.
They also have spots that are a darker shade of brown or ginger.
There are prominent patches of white on the chest regions and underside. Vertical dark brown to black stripes run down the top of the skull to the eyes, with shorter horizontal lines on the muzzle near the whiskers.
The dark lines appear as prominent bands running across the neck, chest, and limbs.
Experts rank them the smallest wild species in the world. Individuals range in weight between (2.2-3.5 lbs) and about 13 to 19 inches in length, excluding the tail.
Black-footed cat (Felis nigripes)
The black-footed or small-spotted cat (Felis nigripes) is native to Africa.
Experts consider it slightly bigger than the rusty-spotted, but it is the smallest known wild species in Africa.
The typical individual has light brown to tawny fur with black spots or bands (stripes). It derives its name from the dark-colored soles of its paws.
Male individuals range in body length from 14 to 17 inches, excluding the tail which ranges from 6 to 8 inches long. They also range in weight from 2.4 lb. to 4.2 lb.
Other species of small cats
Other small species include:
- The kodkod or Guiña (Leopardus guigna) is the smallest in the Americas.
- The flat-headed cat (Prionailurus planiceps) is native to the lowland jungles of southern Thailand, Malaysia, Sumatra, and Borneo.
- Oncilla (Leopardus tigrinus) is also known as tigrillo, the little spotted cat or northern tiger. It is native to the Amazon basin.