Little Spotted cat, Little Tiger cat, Tiger cat, Tigrillo, Cunaguaro

Leopardus tigrinus
Population size
Life Span
17 yrs
1.5-3 kg
38-59 cm

Oncillas are amongst the smallest of South America’s wild cats. They have short, thick light brown to gray fur, spotted with dark brown rosettes with a black outline. Their eyes range in color from light through to dark brown. These animals are often mistaken for margays or ocelots. Although oncillas are smaller, they otherwise look very similar to these species, oncillas being more slender and having larger ears and a narrower muzzle. Furthermore, their eyes have a more lateral location than those of the margay, and their tails is longer than an ocelot’s.


Oncillas are mainly found in South America, though small populations also live intermittently in Central America. Oncillas live as far northwards as Costa Rica and in the south as far as the very north of Argentina. They favor forest habitats and inhabit a wide range of forest ecosystems, including cloud forests, dense tropical forests, humid montane forests and humid premontane forests. They seem to be expanding into deciduous and subtropical forests, and they have successfully populated semiarid thorny scrub and savannas in Brazil. They are also found in eucalyptus monocultures and plantations.

Oncilla habitat map

Habits and Lifestyle

Oncillas are mainly nocturnal but in areas like Caatinga, where their diet primarily consists of diurnal lizards, these animals are more prone to be active in the daytime. During the breeding season pairs are sometimes seen, but they are considered as highly solitary animals. Although they are primarily terrestrial, they can climb well. Females have a range that is 0.9 to 2.3 sq. km, while that of males is 4.8 to 17 sq. km, larger than usual for cats of such size. Males in the wild can be very aggressive towards females. Not much is known about communication between oncillas. Young kittens purr, while adults make a short and rhythmic "gurgle" sound.

Seasonal behavior

Diet and Nutrition

Oncillas mainly eat small mammals, lizards, and birds. Occasionally Oncillas can prey animals larger than themselves.

Mating Habits

early spring
75 days
1-3 kittens
4 months

Nothing is known about the wild oncilla’s mating system; however, captive animals of this species appear to stay with the same mate for life. Mating takes place in early spring and the gestation period is about 75 days. Oncillas usually bear 1 kitten in each breeding cycle, but they can have as many as 3. Kittens start to eat solid food at 5 to 7 weeks of age, and by 3 months old they are usually weaned. Teeth start to grow after 21 days, later than for most cats; however, their teeth tend to emerge all at the same time, within a few hours. At 4 months old kittens are completely independent and by 11 months they are full grown. Females are sexually mature at 2 years old, and males at 18 months.


Population threats

Decades ago the oncilla was heavily hunted for the fur trade, subsequent to the decline of the trading of ocelots. Although international trade stopped, there is still some illegal hunting, most often for the local market. Current threats to the oncilla include habitat loss and fragmentation, roads, illegal trade for pets and pelts, and killing as a result of the animal preying on poultry. Populations are extremely fragmented and are being further drastically reduced by the conversion of habitat to pasture and plantations. Any change in the predator/competitor dynamics of native species could be another threat that has previously been undetected.

Population number

According to the IUCN Red List, oncillas are rare everywhere throughout their habitat with expected total population size ranges from 8,932 to 10,208 adult individuals. This species’ numbers are decreasing and it is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the List of Threatened Species.

Fun Facts for Kids

  • One fifth of oncillas are totally black. These ones usually inhabit the denser parts of the forests.
  • Kittens open their eyes when they are 7 to 18 days old.
  • Unlike many species of cat, oncillas are good swimmers.
  • Hearing is important for a cat. Their ears can move independently and are controlled by more than 20 muscles control each ear. One ear can be pointed forward, with the other one pointed backwards. The ears can turn quickly to pick up sounds from all directions, including from behind the animal. Cats can hear ultrasonic noises made by small prey, such as rodents, which humans are not able to hear.
  • Cats also have very sensitive whiskers, or “vibrissae”, on their lips, chin, cheeks, eyebrows, and forelegs, giving the animal information about its environment. These whiskers are deep within the skin and the nerve endings they are connected to transmit information to their brain, so a cat is feeling its way as it is moving about. When capturing prey, its whiskers on its face all point forward, just like a net, to work out exactly where its prey is and also where it might go.
  • A cats walks on its toes. They have retractable claws which do not come into contact with the ground.


1. Oncilla Wikipedia article - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oncilla
2. Oncilla on The IUCN Red List site - http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/54012637/0

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