Objectives: This paper, the first in a series of three on ‘feline leprosy’, provides a detailed description of disease referable to Candidatus ‘Mycobacterium tarwinense’, the most common cause of feline leprosy in Victoria, Australia. Methods: Cases were sourced retrospectively and prospectively for this observational study, describing clinical, geographical and molecular microbiological data for cats definitively diagnosed with Candidatus ‘M tarwinense’ infection. Results: A total of 145 cases of feline leprosy were scrutinised; 114 ‘new’ cases were sourced from the Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory records, veterinary pathology laboratories or veterinarians, and 31 cases were derived from six published studies. Forty-two cats were definitively diagnosed with Candidatus ‘M tarwinense’ infection. Typically, cats were between 3 and 11 years of age, with no gender predilection, and were generally systemically well. All had outdoor access. Most cats underwent surgical resection of lesions with adjunctive medical therapy, often utilising a combination of oral clarithromycin and rifampicin for at least 3 months. Prognosis for recovery was generally good. Resolution of lesions was not observed in the absence of treatment, but a number of untreated cats continued to enjoy an acceptable quality of life despite persistence of the disease, which extended locally but did not appear to disseminate to internal organs. Preliminary results of draft genome sequencing confirmed that the species is a member of the Mycobacterium simiae complex. Conclusions and relevance: Candidatus ‘M tarwinense’, a fastidious member of the M simiae complex, is capable of causing feline leprosy with a tendency to produce lesions on the head, particularly involving the eyes and periocular skin. The disease has an indolent clinical course and generally responds favourably to therapy despite lesions often containing large numbers of organisms. Detailed genomic analysis may yield clues as to the environmental niche and culture requirement of this elusive organism. Prospective treatment trials and/or drug susceptibility testing in specialised systems would further inform treatment recommendations.