8 Things You Didn't Know About the Sand Cat

These impressive felines can walk on blazing hot sand and leave no footprints.

tan sand cat with gray markings lies down atop large rock

Mike Doyle / Getty Images

The sand cat boasts fluffy ears, big eyes, and a tiny nose, making it easy to mistake for a charming kitten you might desire to scoop up and bring home. However, that would be a big mistake. While they share some physical traits with domestic cats, sand cats are as wild as they come. They are ferocious hunters and champions of the harsh desert environment.

Here are a few things you might not know about this cute creature that's not so cuddly.

1. Sand Cats Share Their Name With an Alcoholic Drink

This small feline goes by the names "sand cat" and "sand dune cat," but its scientific name is a bit more interesting: Felis margarita. No, it wasn't because of an affinity for the happy hour cocktail. Instead, it was named after the French General Jean Auguste Margueritte, the leader of the expedition that led to the species' discovery in 1858. The choice was made by Victor Loche, a French soldier and naturalist who first described the cat after encountering it in the Sahara Desert of Algeria.

2. They Are the Only Cat That Lives Primarily in the Desert

While some cat species, such as bobcats, pass through desert landscapes, the sand cat is the only feline to live exclusively in deserts, both stony and sandy. To manage this, they have adapted to this harsh climate in two main ways.

First, they have found a way to protect themselves against the most extreme conditions, like surface temperatures that rise up to 124 degrees Fahrenheit in the daytime and drop to 31 degrees Fahrenheit at night. They have thick fur on their paws, including between their toes, which helps to insulate them from the scorching heat and brisk cold. Sand cats in the desert of Central Asia grow winter coats with insulating hair up to two inches in length.

Additionally, sand cats do not need much water at all. They can go for weeks without a single sip, getting all the moisture they need from the prey they consume.

In the desert, the sand cats seek out area of sparse vegetation, rather than bare sand dunes, as that's where its prey is more likely to be found.

3. They Are Ferocious Hunters

profile of sand can skulking low to the ground across sand

slowmotiongli / Getty Images

Sand cats may remind you of adorable domestic kittens, but don't be deceived—they are fierce predators. They primarily eat small rodents, but they are opportunistic feeders and will also hunt birds, hares, and insects. They often even go after snakes without fear, particularly venomous vipers.

As generally nocturnal animals, sand cats do most of their hunting at night. They are impressively stealthy, skulking low to the ground on bent legs, ready to pounce. They use their sensitive hearing to locate prey, even underground.

If they catch more than what they can eat at one time, they bury carcasses in the sand for later consumption.

4. Sand Cat Populations Breed at Different Times

Sand cats in the wild do not have one shared breeding season. Instead, the period for breeding changes based on location, possibly due to factors like available resources and climate. For instance, sand cats in the Sahara Desert typically breed from January to April; in Turkmenistan, the breeding season doesn't start until April; in Pakistan, it runs from September to October.

Meanwhile, sand cats in captivity often birth more than one litter a year. A litter typically contains two to three kittens.

5. They Are Master Diggers

When they're not out and about at night, sand cats live primarily in burrows to escape the heat. That means they are prolific diggers—one recorded burrow was 15 feet long. Their claws do not retract fully, which aids them in their digging endeavors, though the process does likely make them blunt.

Like their hunting, sand cats are opportunistic when it comes to their burrows. While they will use their skills to dig one entirely on their own, they've been known to select burrows that have been abandoned by other animals; they will take over the burrows of gerbils and ground squirrels, for example, and enlarge them.

Many of the small animals that make up the sand cat's diet are also borrowers, so the felines need to be able to dig them out of the ground.

Sand cats adopt a "lookout" position at the opening to their burrows at the start and end of the night, looking around for about 15 minutes before leaving.

6. Sand Cats Bark Like Dogs

Sand cats don't make many sounds, but when they do, it's not the sound you'd expect. When taking a break from its solitary lifestyle and looking for a mate, the sand cat uses mews and bark-like vocalizations as a mating call. The sounds have been likened to the high-pitched rasps of small dogs like chihuahuas. Because there are typically great distances between individual sand cats, these mating calls are quite loud. They can also communicate by spraying urine and using scent marks to indicate their presence.

7. They Are Impossible to Track

sand cat walks uphill through loose sand leaving no footprints

MikeLane45 / Getty Images

Sand cats are difficult to find for predators and researchers alike. In addition to protecting the creature from heat, the fur on the undersides of its paws acts as a cushion that allows the cat to walk across the sand without sinking into it. In other words, the sand cat leaves no footprints behind it as evidence of its presence.

They've even been seen closing their eyes at night when humans approach to eliminate reflection and blend in completely with their environment.

8. Sand Cats Are Threatened by Habitat Degradation

In 2002, the IUCN listed the sand cat as "near threatened," but the distinction was changed to "least concern" in 2016 and remains so as of 2020. However, that doesn't mean the species' threats have disappeared. Most notably, the sand cat is threatened by habitat degradation, as arid ecosystems like theirs are vulnerable to human activity and settlement, including livestock grazing.

Other threats include the nearby introduction of both feral and domestic dogs, disease transmission, and a declining prey base due to droughts.

While some desert nomads consider the sand cats to be a threat to their chickens, the Toubou people who live northwest of Lake Chad do not hunt them. This stems from "religious respect for these small cats as tradition holds that they were the companions of the Prophet Mohammed and his daughter."

View Article Sources
  1. Sand Cat.” Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute.

  2. Cole, F. Russell, and Don E. Wilson. “Felis margarita (Carnivora: Felidae).” MSPECI, vol. 47, 2015, pp. 63-77., doi:10.1093/mspecies/sev007

  3. Sliwa, A., et al. “Felis margarita.” The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 2016, doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-2.RLTS.T8541A50651884.en