sand cat

threat-categories-lc

  • HB Length: 39-52 cm (15-20″)
  • Tail Length: 23-31 cm (9-12″)
  • Height: 24-30 cm (10-12″)
  • Weight: 1.3-3.4 kg (3-7.5 lbs)
  • Pop. Trend: Unknown

The Sand Cat Felis margarita is a true desert dweller and are the only felid to occur exclusively in desert habitat. They have numerous adaptations to an arid life and colouring that blends in with their environment.

The coat is soft and dense, mostly pale sandy brown to light grey, slightly darker on the back and whitish on the belly. A reddish streak runs across each cheek from the outer corner of the eyes; the lower half of the face and chest is whitish to pale yellow. The tawny reddish ears are black tipped, as is the tail, which also has a few narrow black rings near the tip. The broad head has large eyes placed greatly forward, and low set, large, tapered ears which provide keen hearing for habitat where prey is scarce.

There are pale cross stripes running down the flanks, almost invisible until the legs are stretched out, and indistinct bars on the limbs. Another desert adaptation is the long, dense, hairs covering the soles of the feet, providing insulation from the hot sands and helping them move across shifting surfaces. They have evolved a thick coat which insulates them from the alternating intense heat and cold of a desert environment.

Distribution

sand cat range map
(Click for larger image)

Sand cats occur across the Sahara Desert, from Morocco in the west to as far as Egypt and the Sudan in the east. In Asia, they have been recorded in Syria, Iran, east of the Caspian Sea in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Their presence in Pakistan is unknown. Sand Cats show a scattered distribution across the Arabian Peninsula but their status and distribution are not well known.

The global distribution of the Sand Cat appears to be markedly patchy. It is not clear whether the gaps in known range are due to a lack of records or truly reflect species absence.

As true desert specialists, they occupy areas that receive less than 20 mm of rainfall a year. They inhabit a variety of sandy and stony desert habitats with some cover, and arid shrub-covered steppes.

The first radio telemetry study on these little cats (1993) was in Israel, where biologists discovered they were extremely difficult to track. The fur on the soles of their feet that prevents them from sinking in soft sand also makes their tracks almost invisible. When a light is trained on them, they crouch low, closing their eyes so that no reflection is visible. This behaviour, along with their excellent protective colouring, compounds the problem. The cats also buried all their feces, making it impossible to gather data about their diet.

Home range sizes likely vary according to ecological conditions and vegetation cover available for prey animals. In a study along a dirt road in southern Morocco, initial home ranges of two males and one female followed during four to six days were 35.3 km², 21.8 km² and 13.4 km², respectively. A radio telemetry study in Israel suggests large home ranges, with one male using an area of 16 km².  Seven annual ranges in Saudi Arabia, were estimated at 19.6-50.7 km² .

Sand Cats have been recorded to move long distances in a single night. In Morocco, one male travelled more than 14 km in a straight line in less than 30 hours.

Ecology

Sand Cats are prolific diggers. Digging is necessary to construct and improve burrows, and dig rodents out of the sand. Their claws do not fully retract and are not very sharp, as there is little opportunity to sharpen them in the desert and they are likely blunted by digging.

When crossing open spaces they keep low, skulking on bent legs. The low set ears enable stalking among rocks with a minimum of exposure. Because the hot dry air of the desert absorbs sound, large ears are required to pick up the faint squeaks of their prey. Their prey provides most of their moisture requirements, as they inhabit generally waterless regions. They will drink water if it is available but can survive on the moisture received from their prey. Enemies include venomous snakes, jackals and large owls.

In the Sahara they are known as ‘the cat that digs holes.’ Among Saharan nomads, Sand Cats have a reputation for being snake hunters, particularly of horned and sand vipers, which they stun with rapid blows to the head before dispatching with a neck bite.  They also cover large kills with sand and return later to feed.

Primarily a nocturnal animal, they spend the hot daylight hours in a shallow burrow dug into a dune or beneath a shrub. They use and enlarge burrows of other species, as well as digging their own. They have occasionally been observed above ground in daylight near their burrows, lying on their backs in a posture to shed internal heat. Dens are used by different individuals, but not at the same time. At nightfall, they take up a lookout position at their den opening, and survey the surrounding area for about 15 minutes before leaving. They are active throughout the night, hunting and travelling 5-10 km. Before retiring below ground at dawn, the same lookout position is adopted at the mouth of the burrow.

Sand Cats are solitary animals with a very low population, and make use of a loud mating call, much like the barking of a small dog. The loud barking, combined with excellent hearing, enables these cats to find each other over great distances. Other vocalizations include mewling, growling, spitting, hissing, screaming and purring much as in domestic cats. Grooming and defense behaviour is also similar to domestic felines.

Reproduction

Breeding in the wild is seasonal with births born January-April. After a 60 – 67 day gestation, one to eight – usually 3-4 – kittens are born annually in a burrow or among rocks. Weight at birth is 50 – 60 grams. At two weeks their eyes open, they first venture outside at three to four weeks, and eat their first solid food at five weeks. They become independent at three to four months, and sexual maturity is reached at about 9 – 14 months. They have lived to 18 years of age in captivity.

Conservation

Habitat degradation and loss are considered to be the major threats to the Sand Cat. Vulnerable arid ecosystems are being rapidly converted by human settlement and activity, especially degraded through livestock grazing.  Additional threats are the introduction of feral and domestic dogs and cats, creating direct competition for prey, predation and disease transmission. This applies particularly along roads through suitable habitat.

In Iran, Sand Cats are killed by shepherd dogs and trapped in snares set for other species. They also get stuck in fences and are vulnerable to indiscriminate trapping and poisoning of predators.

In the Arabian Peninsula, sand dune habitat continues to decline. Several of the areas have been affected by political strife, and war-like conditions that have accelerated habitat destruction i.e. Syria.

Locally, Sand Cats may be threatened by the pet trade. There are occasional reports of Sand Cats being shot in Saudi Arabia.

In Algeria, they are not considered a threat to poultry, or trapped to sell as pets. Toubou nomads living northwest of Lake Chad consider Sand Cats frequent chicken thieves which readily enter their camp in the evenings. They do not generally retaliate, due to traditional religious respect for these small cats as tradition holds that they were the companions of the Prophet Mohammed and his daughter.

The development of reliable survey methods is urgently needed to assess the population. Furthermore, studies on the behaviour and ecology of the Sand Cat are crucial to apply appropriate conservation measures.

Range Map IUCN Red List (2016)

Updated 2017

96 Responses

    • Pat Bumstead

      To find out how humans have a role in the decline of these cats, read the information under the heading Conservation on this fact sheet.

  1. Erica

    Hello. This is a very helpful website and escpecially for my research and children book. But i’ve looked at other websites and have seen that the sand cats are endangered. And if there aren’t I would like to see the source. It’s not that I doubt you, It’s just I want to be very sure. Thanks

    • Pat Bumstead

      We get a lot of comments telling us sand cats are endangered, and we have no idea where the various blogs and articles get that information. The World Conservation Union is the one that decides which species are endangered, threatened, vulnerable or least concern. Sand Cats are listed as Least Concern, which means their population is large enough, and spread out enough, to be healthy. You are correct in asking for the source though! If you go to http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/8541/0 this will take you to the Sand Cat Data Sheet, which is the ultimate source. And thank you for asking!

    • Erica

      Thank you so much! It was good to know that your sources are correct and that others aren’t as correct. I will make sure to spread the news about your site! Thank you so much that helps and thanks for getting back so quick

  2. Gone Wild!|Brookfield Animal Hospital

    […]  Another important similarity is their intense curiousity and urge to stray.  Interestingly, some breeds of African Wildcats almost never drink water.  Instead, nearly all of their water intake comes from the moisture they extract from their wild […]

  3. SC

    Hi there,

    I’m doing a project on these animals and I’m trying to find some basic information on the people who study these animals as well. Is it mainly zoologist and wildlife biologists or is there a certain title for the study of cats as well? Also what the average age and demographic of people in this field of work. I know this seems like a weird request since its not based on the cats themselves, but it is an important part of the concept for my project.

    • Pat Bumstead

      Field research projects on the cats are usually done by wildlife biologists. There is no separate title for the study of wild cats, as many of these same biologists may also study other types of wildlife. There is no possible way to know the demographics or average age of these researchers. Studies are done all over the world by men and women who either have obtained, or are working on, their wildlife biology degree. The variety of people is endless.

  4. rylee .B.

    hi I am doing a project on an endangered species and I chose the sand cat. My question for you is should ee save the or let them die. How do they help us and the environment?

    • Pat Bumstead

      Like all small cats, sand cats eat mice and other rodents. If there were no cats in the world, humans would be over run with mice, rats and other rodents.

  5. carlos

    this website is so cool. im doing a report on the animals and have one question. Why do other sites say there is not a lot left? my teacher even says they r going extinct.

    • Pat Bumstead

      I don’t know why other web sites say there are not a lot of sand cats left. The World Conservation Union says the sand cat population is large enough to be healthy. The cats live in the arid desert in so many different countries that there is no exact figure for them, but scientists do not think they are going extinct at this time.

  6. Renea

    How could the endangermen of these adorable creatures have been prevented? Is there anything there anything that can be done to prevent extinction?

    • Pat Bumstead

      Yes, there is. No matter which species you are talking about they need healthy habitat to live in. People need to stop plowing, burning, over grazing, building on and digging up wildlife’s natural habitat all over the world.

  7. Shelby

    why do other websites say they r going extinct and around what areas do they live in? i know these cats are sooo cute.

  8. M.I

    Are there any initiatives been successful? why? Are there any other initiatives that can be taken in order to preserve sand cat?

    • Pat Bumstead

      As sand cats are not endangered, there are no specific initiatives being taken to save them. They are classed as Least Concern because their population is spread across northern Africa and parts of the Middle East.

    • Pat Bumstead

      Sand cats are not currently listed as endangered. Their population is scattered over much North Africa and the Middle East, and this large range is thought to indicate a large, healthy population. They are listed as Least Concern by the World Conservation Union.

    • Pat Bumstead

      There are 37 different wild cat species, but no one has any idea exactly how many cats there are. It would be impossible to count them as they wander across thousands of miles.

    • Pat Bumstead

      Sand Cats are not classed as endangered. The problem with these small cats is that no one knows how many of them there are in the wild. Without knowing the size of the population, it is impossible to assign them to any classification. This is just one of the question scientists studying them are trying to answer.

  9. KassyKass

    I’m doing a project for school on Sand Cats. The only thing I can’t find is have their senses been altered in anyway (besides enhanced hearing)due to droughts?

    • Pat Bumstead

      Sand cats live in hot, dry deserts where conditions rarely change. There are no droughts as the desert climate is always the same. They have several adaptions to life in this arid land – fur on the soles of their feet, low set ears for sneaking up on prey, and thick coats to protect from alternating temperatures of day and night. I’m not aware of any adaptive senses other than the enhanced hearing, which is shared by many desert predators of various species.

    • Pat Bumstead

      Seasons don’t change that much in the Sahara desert, although temperatures are a little hotter – up to 106F – in the summer. These cats are adapted for desert conditions, but will likely hunt less during the hottest days. The most difficult time for female sand cats would be when they have young kittens. The mother needs to find enough food for herself so she can produce milk for the kits.

  10. Jordan

    Hi, I’m doing a project on why we should help a certain endangered species, and I’m doing sand cats. One of the questions I had to answer was “How would your animals extinction effect humans?” I was wondering if anyone would know the answer to this. Thanks!

    • Pat Bumstead

      Like all the small cats, sand cats eat mice and rats. Without cats, people would be over run with these small rodents in their fields and houses.

    • Pat Bumstead

      Yes there are a few zoos in the US that house sand cats. Many of them are off exhibit though, as the cats need quiet and privacy to breed.

  11. Alistair

    I am doing a project too and I have some questions.
    1. Can sand cats climb and do things like domestic cats?
    2. Where do they get water from and how much do they need?
    3. Are sand cats going to go extinct(in 100-150 years)

    Thank you in advance

    • Pat Bumstead

      Sand cats live in dry deserts with no trees so they have no need to climb in the wild. In captivity, they can climb if something is on a slant, but cannot go straight up a tree like domestic cats. They spend so much time digging in sand that their claws are not as sharp as those of other cats. In all other ways, sand cats do everything just like domestic cats.

      They get all the water requirements they need from their prey- large insects, scorpions, rodents and snakes. They will drink water if it is available, but living in the desert they have adapted to surviving from the liquid in their prey species.

      As sand cats live in the large Sahara Desert where there are few people, it is not likely they will be extinct in 100 years. Climate change may change that, but we don’t know for sure at this point.

    • Pat Bumstead

      Like all wild cats, sand cats need safe habitat with lots of prey species. But most importantly, they need to be safe from humans.

    • Pat Bumstead

      Sand cats eat insects, reptiles, small mammals and anything they can catch. They in turn are eaten by venomous snakes, jackals or large owls.

  12. dooderman

    What keeps them cool enough to not die from overheating? I am also doing a project. Thanks in advance!

    • Pat Bumstead

      Sand Cats are active at night when the temperature is cooler. During the hot desert days, they sleep in underground burrows to avoid the heat. This is how most small desert dwellers survive.

  13. Pat Bumstead

    Very little is known about sand cats in their native habitat. The best way to help them is for scientists to learn what they need to survive, then set up conservation plans. People can help by telling everyone all about sand cats, as most people don’t even know they exist.

    • Pat Bumstead

      Sand Cats eat small rodents, reptiles, snakes, lizards, birds and insects. Basically, they eat anything they can catch in the desert where prey is scarce.

  14. Chris

    Do you know if Sand Cats are adequate swimmers? I’ve been searching all over the place and can’t find anything saying if they’re good or bad.

    • Pat Bumstead

      Sand cats live in the driest deserts in the world with no lakes, ponds or rivers anywhere. I don’t know for sure, but I doubt they would be able to swim at all as they would have no need for it.

    • Pat Bumstead

      Sand cats are not currently listed as endangered. Their population is thought to cover huge areas of desert in northern Africa and the Middle East. No one knows how many there are, as it’s impossible to count them over such a large area.

  15. Dylaquil

    Why is the sand cat important to our planet and the environment? I am also doing a project so this would help me out a lot.

    • Pat Bumstead

      Like the other small wild cats, sand cats eat large quantities of mice, rats and other rodents. These rodents eat grain and other agricultural products, meaning less food for people. If there were no cats eating the rodents, people in many countries would be completely over run by mice and rats.

  16. Catman

    Thanks! This solved alot of my questions and helped with my project! I hope we, as humans can bring ourselves to save the Sand Cats!

    • Pat Bumstead

      Sand cats are not officially listed as endangered. Their population is thought to be widespread and healthy, but there is just not enough data to know anything for sure about them.

    • Pat Bumstead

      The main threat to sand cats is loss of habitat and prey species as humans move into their territory. Other threats include domestic dogs which kill the sand cats, domestic cats that carry disease, and being caught in traps set out to capture jackals and foxes. Drought may also stop plants from growing, so rodents will disappear and the sand cats will not get enough food.

      • nicole

        im doing a project on this and have found your website very useful, thank you. how many are left in the wild?

        • Pat Bumstead

          No one knows how many sand cats are left in the wild. They have never been studied in their native habitat, and live in remote desert areas so there are no population figures.

    • Ybc

      Can they give birth with many babies,like the cats living in most of city’s residential yards,?

    • Pat Bumstead

      Thank you for your offer. At this time, there are no field studies being done on sand cats, but there is a Moroccan project in the early planning stages. We will be updating our website as the project progresses, so stay tuned!

    • Pat Bumstead

      What a good question – I have no idea! Being cats, they probably sleep as often as they can. But being wild cats, they would be more prone to short cat naps so they stay aware of their surroundings.

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