Any of a number of species of small mammals indigenous to Asia and Africa. Civets are of the family Viverridae and are closely related to genets. In the wild, civets are omnivorous, subsisting largely on fruit, berries and insects, as well as small birds, eggs and small reptiles or mammals.
Many civets are arboreal to some extent, but there are a few species which do not climb trees. Most civets have strong tails, and those species which climb or live in trees often use their tails to aid in climbing.
Most civets are light in coloration with dark bands or spots and dark mask, although a few species do not have distinct markings. The masks in many of the more common species are responsible for the confusion between civets and raccoons. The ringtailed cat, a North American animal, is sometimes called the civet cat, leading to further confusion.
Civets are closely related to cats and hyenas, with which they share a suborder, Feloidea.
There are about 19 species of civets (and several related animals) in three subfamilies. A few of the notable species are detailed below.
Subfamily Paradoxurinae (palm civets)
African Palm Civet Nandinia binotata –found in the central portion of the African continent. Small and dark grey, sometimes with darker spots and with rings on the tail.
Binturong (Bear Cat) Arctictis binturong–a very large animal which lives in dense forests throughout India, Thailand and south into Sumatra. Slow-moving and arboreal, bear cats are shaggy and dark in coloration, with reddish eyes and a prehensile tail.
Brown Palm Civet (Jerdon's Palm Civet) Paradoxurus jerdoni –this species has a tiny range on the west coast of India. Usually dark brown and lacking distinct spots or stripes, but the distal end (tip) of its tail is dark.
Celebes Palm Civet (Sulawesi Palm Civet) Macrogalidia musschenbroekii–found in forests on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. They are tan or tawny with lighter underside and some light spots.
Common Palm Civet Paradoxurus hermaphroditus–ranges throughout India, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and south to Indonesia. This small civet has light spots and black feet and ears and has no rings on its tail. The Palm Civet has two odd dietary habits. It eats the fermented sap of palm trees, which is called 'toddy,' leading to its unusual nickname, 'Toddy Cat.' Also, this animal (called luwak in Sumatra) eats the fruit of coffee plants. The coffee beans pass through its digestive tract and are gathered to make the exotic (and insanely expensive) coffee called kopi luwak.
Golden Palm Civet Paradoxurus zeylonensis–native to Sri Lanka and Southern India, largely in dense forested areas. Golden-brown with no notable markings.
Masked Palm Civet Paguma larvata–found in forests and brush throughout the subcontinental area all the way south to Indonesia. Brownish, tan or yellowish with a white stripe or blaze on the forehead, black stripes over the eyes and a plain coat lacking stripes or spots.
Small-Toothed Palm Civet Macrogalidia trivirgata–range is in the Eastern Himalaya and Burma region and out as far as Indonesia. This animal may be tawny to grey with some indistinct dark spots on the body and a white stripe on muzzle.
Subfamily Hemigalinae (banded palm civets)
Banded Palm Civet Hemigalus derbyanus –this tiny (as small as 2 pounds / almost a kg) civet lives in Borneo, Sumatra and a few surrounding areas. Tan without spots, but with a distinctive, dark stripe down the back and some striping on the face and tail.
Hose's palm civet Diplogale hosei–found in Borneo. Dark brown to black on top with light underparts, they feed mostly on small worms and insects.
Owston's Palm Civet/Owston's Banded Civet Chrotogale owstoni –found in southern China, Vietnam and Laos. They are grey with four very distinctive dark bands across the back and spots on the legs.
Otter Civet Cynogale bennettii–this species is native to Indonesia and Malaysia. Named for their otter-like appearance, they are greyish with very pronounced whiskers, tiny ears and slitted nostrils. While many, if not most, civets can swim, I believe otter civets are the only species which spends a great deal of time in the water.
Subfamily Viverrinae (true civets)
African Civet Civettictis civetta–native to the southern portion of the African continent. This is one of the biggest species, with weights up to 33 pounds (15 kg). Usual coloration is whitish or tan with distinct, dark markings and a dark mask.
Large Spotted Civet Viverra megaspila–this largish animal (recorded lengths up to 34 inches / .86 meter) inhabits lowland forests throughout Southeast Asia. It has a grey coat with largish dark spots, rings on tail and a longer, dark crest along spine.
Lesser/Small Indian Civet Viverricula indica–these civets' habitat is India and Himalayan area, South China and as far East as Thailand. A very small species, with weights no higher than six pounds (2.7 kg) recorded. Tawny to grey with rows of dark spots along body and a striped tail.
Malaysian Civet/Malay Civet Viverra tangalunga–these civets have a small range in the area of Sumatra and Borneo. They are grey with lines of dark spots, white and black markings on the face.
Commercial Musk Production
Civets are possessed of a small gland near the anus, similar to the musk glands of skunks and other mustalids, which produces an odorous substance. The name civet actually comes from the Arabic word zabaad which is a name for this oil, and the oil itself is often called civet. The oil of certain species, particularly the African Civet, but also a few other species as well, may be used in the production very fancy perfumes. Civetone is the name for the principal vector of the musky odor.
Civet oil has been a prized perfume component since at least the tenth century BCE, and probably much earlier. The oil also has some uses in dermatological medicines.
The substance can be extracted from live civets. The animal is kept in a narrow cage and prodded with a spoon-like instrument. This is not a particularly pleasant process for the animal and is considered cruel by a lot of animal lovers.
Threats to Civet Populations
Deforestation, hunting and extermination of the animals has taken its toll on all civets. Every species detailed above is officially listed on the IUCN list of threatened species. Many varieties of civets have been exteminated as pests. Most palm civets, for example, steal bananas, causing problems for humans who may live in the area. Civets are hunted for meat, fur or body parts, which are sometimes used in folk medicine. Many of these animals are exceptionally rare.
America Zoo Online -http://www.americazoo.com/goto/index/mammals/
Bridges, William, “Wild Animals of the World” (Garden City Books, Garden City, NY, 1948)
Bateman, Graham, ed., "All the World's Animals; Carnivores" (Equinox, Oxford, 1984).
Lioncrusher's Domain online www.lioncrusher.com
Cat Trust: Complete List of The Viverridae: http://members.aol.com/cattrust/civet.htm