Common Name: Sand Cat
Phylum: Chordata (Vertebrata)
Genus: Felinae (Felis)
Misc: This is one of the more difficult cats to study in the wild. Their foot coverings allow them to walk on sand without sinking, leaving their footprints nearly invisible. They have learned to crouch down and shut their eyes when a light is shone on them, which prevents the light from reflecting their eyes for tracking. That combined with their protective coat color makes them blend right into their habitat. They also bury all of their excrement making it impossible to find and analyze so their diet can be studied.
Size and Appearance: Sand Cats weigh in at 4-8 pounds and reach lengths of 29-36 inches, and heights of 10-12 inches. It has a dense soft fur that is a pale sand or gray color above and paler underneath. It has large ears and a broad head, and a reddish streak that runs from its eyes across its cheeks. The ears are reddish-brown and black-tipped. There are faint stripes running down the flanks and black bands running around the tops of the front legs. The tail has 2-3 black rings towards its black tip. The feet are covered with a thick layer of wiry black hair, which insulates the footpads against extremes of heat and cold, and allows for easier movement through the sand. They are prolific diggers, and their claws are not very sharp for lack of places to sharpen them in the desert.
Habitat: Sandy and stony deserts.
Distribution: From the Sahara through the Middle East to Turkestan.
Reproduction and Offspring: These cats have been reported to have 2 litters per year in parts of their territory in both March-April, and again in October. Gestation is 59-63 days, after which females produce a litter of 2-4 kittens. At birth, the newborns weigh approximately 1.5-2 ounces, and will gain about 12 grams per day. Their eyes will normally be open by the 14th day, and they will begin to walk by the 21st day. They begin to take solid food at 5 weeks and become independent by 3-4 months. They reach sexual maturity around 10-12 months.
In captivity, they have lived up to 13 years, but have a high juvenile mortality rate (41%).
Social System and Communication: Solitary.
Because their populations are so few, they have a loud mating call, which resembles the barking of a small dog. Their other vocalizations include meowing, growling, hissing, spitting, screaming and purring. Hear our purrs, hisses, snarls, calls, and growl sounds HERE
Hunting and Diet: Primarily nocturnal, they hunt by digging. Their highly developed hearing allows the to locate prey which is not only sparsely distributed, but underground as well. Their primary diet consists of 3 species of gerbils. It also includes birds, reptiles and arthropods. They are also known for being snake hunters, which they kill with a rapid blow to the head that stuns, and then administer the death bite to the neck. Sand Cats will also cover large kills with sand and return later to feed.
Principal Threats: Habitat degradation is the major threat to the sand cat. Vulnerable arid ecosystems are being rapidly degraded by human settlement and activity, especially livestock grazing (Allan and Warren 1993, Al-Sharhan et al. 2003). The sand cat’s small mammal prey base depends on having adequate vegetation, and may experience large fluctuations due to drought (Sunquist and Sunquist 2002), or declines due to desertification and loss of natural vegetation.
Other localized threats include the introduction of feral and domestic dogs and cats, creating direct competition and through predation and disease transmission (Nowell and Jackson 1996). They also may be killed in traps laid out by inhabitants of oases targeting foxes and jackals or in retaliation for killing their chickens (De Smet 1989; Dragesco-Joffé 1993). There are occasional reports of animals shot in south-east Arabia (M. Strauss pers. comm.)
Status: CITES: Appendix II (except F.m. scheffeli which is on Appendix I). IUCN: Insufficiently known (F.m. scheffeli is classified Endangered).
Felid TAG recommendation: Sand cat (Felis margarita). Sand cats have a long history of living in North American zoos, but have been poorly managed. Two populations exist, one that is hybridized and another derived from an Israeli population. The TAG recommends an SSP with a target population of 80 individuals, all to consist of F. m. harrisoni, the race from the Arabian peninsula. The American SSP and European EEP have joined forces in their breeding plans as neither continent has enough diversity to sustain their populations.
How rare is this cat? The International Species Information Service lists 116 worldwide, with 36 being in the U.S.
Information reprinted With Permission from the IUCN Wild Cats Book.
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