Sand Cat

sand cat

endangered cats

  • 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

Sand Cats Felis margarita are true desert dwellers, with numerous adaptations to an arid life and colouring that blends in with their environment. They are the only felid to occur exclusively in desert habitat.

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.


sandcompr90Sand cats occur across the Sahara Desert, from Morocco in the west to as far as Egypt and the Sudan in the east. Many areas that appear suitable have no records of their presence, but this may be a result of limited observations. They also occur in the Middle East and there is thought to be a very small population in Central Asia.

As true desert specialists, they occupy true desert that receives 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 size was variable between regions due to prey availability and competition from foxes and wildcats. The territories of the males were found to overlap, with the range of one male being 16 km2.

A 2006 study in Saudi Arabia found ranges were up to 40 km2. They trapped Sand Cats in both a nature reserve and an area of degraded habitat. In the protected area, researchers found five times more Ruppell’s Fox which are active at dawn and dusk. The foxes may have reached the bait in the traps before the nocturnal Sand Cats got to it. The rodent-eating foxes may also limit Sand Cat density in the reserve.


This close relative of the European Wildcat Felis silvestris shows a definite preference for extremely arid terrain.  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.


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.


As with most of the small felids, their numbers in the wild are unknown. They may be naturally rare but their habitat is so remote that it is somewhat insulated from human activities, at least in Africa. Threats include expansion of cultivation at the desert edges, and increased interaction with domestic dogs. Feral cats also increase competition for prey, and may cause disease transmission. They are also caught in traps set around human settlements for jackals and foxes.

They are collected for the illegal pet trade in the Middle East, and wild specimens sunning themselves are shot for ‘sport’. Fortunately, Sand Cats are mainly nocturnal and sleep during the hours when people are active.

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.

Their small mammal prey base depends on adequate vegetation and may experience large fluctuations due to drought or declines due to desertification.

One subspecies, the Pakistan Sand Cat, F. m. scheffeli, is listed as endangered in the wild, and none are held in captivity.

Range Map IUCN Red List (2008)

Updated 2013


    • Pat Bumstead says:

      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.

    • Pat Bumstead says:

      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 says:

      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 says:

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

        • Pat Bumstead says:

          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.

    • Pat Bumstead says:

      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.

  1. Catman says:

    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!

  2. Dylaquil says:

    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 says:

      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.

    • Pat Bumstead says:

      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.

  3. Chris says:

    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 says:

      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.

  4. Pat Bumstead says:

    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 says:

      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.

  5. Alistair says:

    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 says:

      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.

  6. Jordan says:

    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 says:

      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.

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