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Valley Wilds Article | The Elusive Ringtail Cat

May contain: animal, cat, mammal, and pet

By Ranger Seth Eddings

The ringtail (Bassariscus astutus) is a fantastic animal to admire, yet many people have never even heard of it, and even fewer have been seen in person. This mammal is highly elusive and is rarely seen by common hikers. Most of the reported sightings are by chance in semi-remote areas.

All About The Ringtail Cat

Ringtails are on the smaller side, weighing between 1 to 2 pounds, standing about 6 inches tall at the shoulder and 12 inches long in body length. The name "ringtail" comes from their 12 to 17-inch-long tail, with black and white striped rings of fur, similar to a raccoon. Their face features proportionately larger eyes and ears compared to their body size.

They have many nicknames, such as Miners Cats, Ringtail Raccoon, and most commonly, the Ringtail Cats. Ringtails are not cats at all; their proper name is simply Ringtails. They may have a similar resemblance to lemurs from Madagascar, but they are more related to raccoons and often mistaken for raccoons when spotted in the wild.

These animals are nocturnal and mostly come out at night, so most people don't see them. They have a life span of 6 to 9 years and are solitary creatures. Most of their interactions are during mating season and when the mother raises her young for 6 to 7 months before they move on to survive independently.

May contain: animal and mammal


Ringtails have a vast habitat throughout the Southwestern region of North America. Ringtails mostly live in parts of Mexico and various southern states, such as Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, and California. They may also loosely appear in Kansas, Louisiana, and Missouri. They live in a wide range of habitats, mainly thriving in desert regions with lots of foliage. They prefer to den in caverns and inside tree cavities.

Their paws are softly padded with sharp claws, making them perfect for quietly scaling surfaces. They are great climbers and love to hunt and hide in trees. Ringtails have been spotted climbing tall cacti without hurting themselves. Another reason these allusive creatures are often unseen could be that they spend most of their time living in the trees.

Ringtail Cat's Diet

The diet of a ringtail is incredibly extensive. Ringtails are opportunistic omnivores, meaning they will eat almost anything they can get a hold of. Their favorite meals are birds, including unhatched eggs and young birds still living in nests. They also enjoy other small rodents like mice, wood rats, and even squirrels. They like to hunt lizards, insects, and grubs on the ground. Their vegetarian options consist of different types of fruits and cactus flowers. Unfortunately, ringtails have been known to steal human food from campsites and picnics when people aren't looking, along with infiltrating garbage cans. This is why throwing away our trash and having animal-proof garbage cans is highly encouraged and vital in recreational areas. Although ringtails are exceptional hunters, they are not apex predators. Some animals known to hunt them include great horned owls, coyotes, and bobcats.

Ringtails left their mark on California's History

The Miners of California used to keep ringtails as pets in their miner's camps. The purpose was to help catch unwanted rodents within the camp. That is how they got the nickname Miners Cats. Various groups who have traveled throughout the mountains have had tricky encounters with ringtails. Some campers have put their limited food in bags hanging in the trees to hide from bears. The ringtails, however, found this to be easy. They sometimes climb onto the bags, chew through the sack, and help themselves to as much food as they want. The ringtails stealing food may cause visitors to leave their camping area empty-handed. 

Because ringtails are rarely seen, many people assume they are endangered. However, that claim is false as they have a healthy population with continuously thriving numbers. The IUCN Red List classifies ringtails under their "least concerning" category, meaning they aren't even close to becoming endangered.

So the next time you're hiking at sundown, keep an eye on the trees, and you might spot one of the elusive ringtails. 

Note from the Author:

Hi everyone, it's Ranger Seth here. I've spent my whole life in outdoor recreation, being very involved in camping, fishing, hunting, rock climbing, mountain biking, and hiking. I have been a Park Ranger for almost eight years and am just now learning about ringtails.

I had no idea they even existed, let alone that they reside here in California. I have only met a handful of people who knew about them, and only two said they'd seen a ringtail in person, yet only on a single occasion. While researching these animals, I learned how elusive and tricky they are, further developing my appreciation and interest in them.

My outdoor recreation career has many goals, but my newest goal is to observe the elusive ringtails in real life.

If you have ever seen a ringtail, please let me know. 

Thank you, 
Ranger Seth