Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Ring-Tailed Cats, or Miner's Cats: Pioneer Pest Control

Welcome to the A to Z Bloggers Challenge! Yes, I'm still hanging in there! 
Today I thought we should take a break from the fighting and the struggles of the pioneers and talk about something fun. Today we are discussing the Ringtail Cat, or Bassariscus astutus. R is for Ring-Tailed!

If you've ever wondered if pioneers, miners and settlers had pets the answer is yes. They had dogs, and perhaps even house cats, but in the Southwest, they had a special kind of pet, a pet that resembles a combination of cat and raccoon, and I've had the privilege of sharing my backyard and roof with one of these wonderful creatures, so I will begin with my story.
Ring-tailed Cat, or Bassariscus astutus.

My husband and I were living in Texas a little over a year when we first realized we had a rather unique friend visiting our house at night. We lived in a round house with mostly glass walls for windows and glass doors--I often felt like a goldfish and the wildlife watched me as I moved through my home. I loved to climb onto the roof and photograph the sunset, but I always felt as if I was watched. 

Our son told us he often heard noises in the garage at dusk and swore he saw what looked like a raccoon tail hanging down in front of the small garage window. Our house was on a mountainside and the garage backed to a slope, so it seemed logical that a raccoon might be climbing onto our roof, but why? They had free access to the squirrel and bird food on our bedroom patio, so they would not be seeking food. The raccoon theory didn't seem to fit. Still, it was a clue--a feeling of being watched and a raccoon tail.
Ring-Tailed Cat sprawling on a rock in Arizona. This is how the Ring-Tailed Cat 
looked at us from the tree branch in our backyard. Photo by RobertBody.

The clues all came together one night around sunset when my husband realized he left the water hose running in the back yard. Suddenly I heard him calling my name. I ran to the garage and out into the yard and found him standing by the fence beneath a tree. Directly above his head was one of the strangest creatures I've ever seen--a Ring-Tailed Cat. 

Ring-Tailed Cats are curious little creatures. Their heads resemble chihuahuas with pointy ears and large eyes. They have the body of a limber, athletic house cat and a long, striped tail like a raccoon. This little creature was sprawled out on a tree branch watching my husband as if he lived in the house and my husband was a visitor. It was a fascinating moment. He seemed perfectly comfortable with us and I suddenly realized why I often felt I was watched while on the roof in the evenings--because I was being watched!

A few nights later we were watching television in bed when we heard noises on the bedroom patio. This was not an isolated event. We were often visited by families of raccoons and an o'possum. On this night, though, it was the return of the ring-tailed cat. He raided the sunflower seeds in the squirrel dish then walked over to the door and stared inside at us for awhile before moving on. 
The seven-foot Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake that often visited our backyard, only at sunset, though, which gave us time to secure all of our pets and people inside the house. 
Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

In the five years we lived in the house the Ring-Tailed Cat often came by for a visit. Sadly, I never managed to photograph him. Nevertheless, we thought of him as a family friend, like the female toad, Mrs. Toady, who slept in my garden shoe during the hot summer afternoons, and the seven foot rattlesnake who slithered through our backyard at night to drink water from our pond. 

Ring-Tailed Cats as Beneficial Pets

Of course, I studied the little creature so I could write articles about him on my animal blog, Blessed Little Creatures, and that's when I learned that although the Ring-Tailed Cat is often described as a solitary, nocturnal, and rather timid creature, it also has a reputation as a beneficial pet. In fact, Ring-Tailed Cats played an important role in the taming of the American West by helping to eliminate disease-spreading rodents like rats and mice. 

They were favorites of miners and pioneers who cut holes in boxes and placed the boxes near the stove in the cabin or home to keep the animal warm during the day. At night, the ring-tailed cats would sneak out of their boxes to feed on the mice and rats that dared to enter the homes. This is how the ring-tailed cat earned its second name as the "Miner's Cat."

A Southwestern Native

The Ring-Tailed Cat is most often seen in the Southwest, in states such as Texas, New Mexico, and north and central Mexico. They are also seen in California, Colorado, Oklahoma, Oregon, Arizona, Nevada and Utah. Their location is understandable considering they prefer to make their homes in rocky, desert places, but they can also be found in the hollows of dead trees or in abandoned buildings.
Ring-tailed Cat at Phantom Ranch, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. 
Photographed by Pixelfugue.

To protect themselves from predators, they frequently move their dens, rarely spending more than one night in the same place. They are amazingly agile and flexible, and can rotate 180 degrees. They have also been seen performing cartwheels and using their agile bodies to ricochet between walls!

A Rather Unique-Looking Cat!

The ring-tailed cat (Bassariscus astutus) can be tan or dark brown with a lighter underbelly. It has pointed ears and large, purple eyes surrounded by tufts of light-colored fur. It is smaller than a house cat, generally measuring about 16 inches long with a weight of 3 to 4 pounds. 

Ring-Tailed Cat in Arizona. This photo may help you understand why I think they look like my chihuahua! Photo by RobertBody.

One of its most distinctive features is its long tail. The ring-tailed cat has a tail that is about 14 inches long, fuzzy, and lined with dark rings similar to that of a raccoon. As it is most active in the evening hours, it is easily mistaken for a raccoon in the dark.

Eating and Breeding Habits

Ring-Tailed Cats eat fruit, insects, rodents, and small birds. Their preference for small rodents makes them a beneficial creature. They mate in spring with a gestation period of 45-50 days, calling to their mates with a loud bark. The male hunts food for the pregnant and nursing female, who generally produces between two and four cubs. Baby ring-tailed cats are hunting on their own by four months and breeding at ten months.
It's not likely that my pet dog, Chewy the Chewchewcabra, would have threatened 
the Ring-Tailed Cat, but you can see why I compared their appearance to a chihuahua! 

Ring-Tailed Cats live to around seven years in the wild, but they often fall victim to raccoons, coyotes, owls, foxes, bobcats, mountain lions, and even pet dogs. Surprisingly, one of the ring-tailed cat's greatest threats is humans. Farmers often kill the creatures to protect fruit crops. In spite of the large number of predators, they are not considered an endangered species.

Pioneer Pest Control

In the American Southwest, where people rarely had fruit crops to protect, Ring-Tailed Cats were often seen in mining towns and pioneer settlements because the little creatures did not feel threatened. Their presence was accepted in much the same way towns once accepted the presence of dogs and cats wandering through town, and welcomed because they controlled the population of rats and mice.

So the next time you read about the American Old West, the townspeople and the miners and how they kept their homes free of pests, remember the Ring-Tailed Cat--pest control for the pioneers! 


  • Goldberg, Jeffrey. "Bassariscus astutus: Ringtail." Animal Diversity Web. Retrieved April 30, 2013. 
  • Poglayen-Neuwall, Ivo and Toweill, Dale E. "Bassariscus astutus." Mammalian Species. The American Society of Mammologists. No. 327, pp. 1-8. Retrieved April 7, 2011.
  • Williams, David B. "Ringtail Cat." DesertUSA. Retrieved April 7, 2012.


Dr.M said...

I have never heard of this animal before, or if I have I just thought they were talking about a coati or a serval or something. Super cool!

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Dr.M, that is perfectly understandable! In the sources I read--and I only listed the ones I used directly for the article--quite a few mentioned that people often see these animals and mistake them for Coati. If you compare the pictures, they look very similar, but when you see one close up as I did in Texas, you realize immediately it is a completely different animal. I am so thrilled that I was able to watch this animal in action as it ate, climbed trees, moved from branch to branch. When I move to Colorado I hope to be able to see one again. I have not seen one in New Mexico, but we currently live in the desert--sand and cactus--and Ring-Tailed Cats prefer trees, but they are in Colorado and I would love to have one living close to my home once more. I hope you are able to see one some day, too, and to watch it climb and swing from branch to branch. They are fascinating!

Crystal Wells said...

Watching a ring tail cat for the last few nights here in Amarillo. Comes out around 11 to chase crickets attracted by the parks lights. It's just adorable and very illusive except doesn't seem to be bothered by all the campers. Very cool.

Crystal Wells said...

I have been watching one of these at the camp park in Amarillo, Texas for the last few nights. It's very cool. Comes out to chase crickets and mice around 11pm when most everyone is sleeping. Seems to be consistent about it's habitat. Just loving the rarity of the opportunity.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Oh you are so blessed! They are shy creatures, but wonderful, and although they are shy, I think they want to be friendly. I think a better word would be "cautious." They have many predators, including humans, but they are so sweet and adorable. I will never forget the night my husband called me out to watch the ring tail in the tree. It seemed to REALLY like my husband! It was watching him, flipping its tail, sprawled out on the branch on its belly like squirrels like to do when it's hot and just as comfortable as could be listening to my husband talk. I don't know how long he was out there talking to that cat, but the ring tail seemed to be loving all the attention. Wonderful animals. I'm so glad you had the chance to see one! That is cool!

Anonymous said...

Hi! I read your post here after looking for some information about ringtail/domestic cat interactions. We have a resident ringtail, I don't see here that often, but she is regular. Tonite, I heard something scuffling outside our bedroom window, then the most bizarre sound; a fairly loud, rhythmical noise like a cross between a bark & a duck quack, very panicked sounding. When I went outside to look, before I even got to where the noise was coming from, I saw a cat..I mean, a regular cat, black & white. Mind you, we live out in the middle of nowhere, southern AZ, nearest neighbor is miles away. I was shocked, to say the least. The cat ran away and I went round to where I could here our poor little ringtail & saw her done in a rock pile. I can only think she had a run in with this mysterious cat. Anyway, very strange & surreal! Thanks for you post, very informative!

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Hi! Thanks for reading! That's such a sad story. I don't think Ring-Tails are as capable as other animals of defending themselves. The one that lived at our house almost reminded us of a rabbit--innocent, a bit too friendly, not particularly capable of self-defense. They sure are adorable, though. I do miss them.