Sand Cat

Felis margarita

Last updated: October 20, 2022
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff
Image Credit slowmotiongli/Shutterstock.com

They can survive for weeks without drinking water because the get moisture from their prey.

Sand Cat Scientific Classification

Kingdom
Animalia
Phylum
Chordata
Class
Mammalia
Order
Carnivora
Family
Felidae
Genus
Felis
Scientific Name
Felis margarita

Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.

Sand Cat Conservation Status

Sand Cat Locations

Sand Cat Locations

Sand Cat Facts

Prey
Insects, birds, rodents, snakes
Main Prey
Rodents
Name Of Young
Kitten
Group Behavior
  • Solitary
Fun Fact
They can survive for weeks without drinking water because the get moisture from their prey.
Estimated Population Size
27.200
Biggest Threat
Loss of habitat
Most Distinctive Feature
Large, low ears, short legs, long tails
Distinctive Feature
Runs with its belly low to to the ground
Other Name(s)
Sand dune cat
Gestation Period
59-67 days
Temperament
Not aggressive
Age Of Independence
3-4 months
Litter Size
1-8 kittens, but typically 2-4.
Habitat
Desert
Predators
Venomous snakes, jackals, owls, domesticated or feral dogs
Diet
Carnivore
Average Litter Size
2-4
Lifestyle
  • Nocturnal
Favorite Food
Rodents
Type
Jerboa
Common Name
Sand cat
Special Features
Covered in long woolly fur.
Number Of Species
-2
Location
North Africa, Middle East, Central Asia

Sand Cat Physical Characteristics

Color
  • Brown
  • Grey
  • Yellow
  • Beige
Skin Type
Fur
Top Speed
25 mph
Lifespan
18 years in captivity
Weight
3.3-7.5 lbs
Height
9.4-14.2 inches at the shoulder
Length
15-20 inches long with a tail adding an additional 9-12 inches of length
Age of Sexual Maturity
9-14 months
Age of Weaning
5 weeks
Venomous
No
Aggression
Low

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“Sand cats have long fur on the soles of their feet to help them run in hot, shifting sand.”

Sand Cat Summary

The sand cat is a desert-dwelling wild cat species found in the deserts of North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. An adaptation it has for living in this harsh environment is its soft woolly fur, which protects it from daytime heat and nighttime cold. It also has long stiff black hairs on the soles of its feet to help it run quickly over deep sand without sinking.

Sand Cat Facts

  • Sand cats have long fur on the soles of their feet to help them run in hot, shifting sand.
  • They are fierce hunters, preying on small animals and snakes—even venomous vipers!
  • They can go for weeks at a time without water, getting moisture from their prey instead.
  • These cats are not endangered and live across North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia.
  • They are not aggressive to humans and can be kept as pets, but require special care.

Sand Cat Scientific Name

The scientific name of the sand cat is Felis margarita. It is named after the French General Jean Auguste Margueritte, the leader of an expedition that discovered the cat in Algeria in 1858. It belongs to the Felidae family of the Mammalia class. Another common name for this species is the sand dune cat.

In the past, four subspecies of sand cat were recognized. Today two subspecies have been proposed but need further research before being accepted by the scientific community:

  • Felis margarita margarita – a small species with yellow-beige fur
  • Felis margarita thinobia – a larger Asian species with greyer fur

Sand Cat Appearance

Sand cats have thick fur on their paws, including between their toes, which helps to insulate them from the scorching heat and brisk cold.
Sand cats have thick fur on their paws, including between their toes, which helps to insulate them from the scorching heat and brisk cold.

As small desert-dwellers, the Sand cat range in weight from 3.3 to 7.5 pounds. Their bodies are 15-20 inches long with a tail adding an additional 9-12 inches of length. They stand 9.4-14.2 inches at the shoulder. This is approximately the size of a domestic housecat, though housecats are generally heavier (9-11 pounds)

The Sand cat has short legs, a wide head, big eyes, and a long tail. It has larger ears than other small cat species. Their ear canals are twice the size of a domestic cat, allowing about 5 times more sound into their ears. It uses this exceptional hearing to detect the faint scratching sounds of small rodents underground, and to hear mating calls of other cats across vast distances. The ears are set low, which makes the head appear broad and flat.

They have thick woolly fur that can grow 2 inches long. This is useful adaptation to insulate them from the extremes of heat and cold in the desert. Their fur can be pale sandy brown to grey-brown. They are darker on their backs and paler on their bellies and sometimes have striped legs. The lower half of their face and their chest are white or pale yellow. A red streak runs from the corners of their eyes across their cheeks. Their ears and tails are black-tipped and they have a few black rings near the tip of their tails.

A unique adaptation of this species is that they have long dense hair growing between the pads of their feet that create a cushion of fur to help them walk on hot, shifting sand without burning their feet or sinking. This also means their tracks are nearly invisible, making them hard for biologists to track in the wild.

Sand Cat Behavior

In the Sahara, sand cats are called “the cat that digs holes.” They love to dig, both to construct burrows and unearth rodents burrowing under the sand. They are not found in areas where the soil is tightly compacted. Their claws are not fully retractable. The front claws are short and sharp, adapted to hunting, while the back claws are small and blunt for digging.

During the scorching desert days, sand cats shelter in deep burrows beneath a sand dune or shrub. Sometimes they will use another animal’s empty burrow, even those of other sand cats, but will not sleep together with another cat. When sand cats become too overheated, they sometimes lay outside on their backs to release heat from their chests and bellies.

Sand cats are nocturnal. After dark, they sit by their den opening and use their senses to survey the surrounding area for about 15 minutes. They spend the evening hunting and can travel long distances in search of prey. Typically they roam about 3.4 miles each night. When they return to their den in the evening they perform the same 15-minute vigil before going to bed when the sun comes up.

They have a unique running pattern: they are able to move at a fast run with their bellies close to the ground, with occasional leaps. They can sprint at speeds of 19-25 miles per hour. This is less than that of domestic cats who have longer legs and achieve speeds of up to 30 mph.

Biologists have some difficulty studying sand cats in the wild because of their nearly-invisible tracks, their habit of meticulously burying their feces in the sand, and their clever behavior of closing their eyes when a light is shone on them at night so that their eyes will not reflect in the darkness. Yet, sand cats in some locations are not afraid of humans and reportedly can even be picked up out of their dens without defending themselves.

Sand cats can be tamed easily and are often sold as pets in North Africa and the Middle East. However, when taken to colder and more humid countries they need to be vaccinated and kept in heated indoor facilities to combat respiratory infections. As a wild species, their natural instincts are stronger and their behavior may be more unpredictable than a domestic cat. Capturing cats for the pet trade threatens their continued viability in the wild. It is preferable to enjoy these animals in zoos that are equipped to give them optimal conditions.

Sand Cat Habitat

The sand cat prefers to live in rolling desert terrain with some grasses and small shrubs where more prey can be found and not in bare, shifting sand dunes. In desert habitats where rainfall is sparse, daytime temperatures are extraordinarily hot, reaching up to 124 degrees F. During night, there is no humidity or cloud cover to trap heat and after dark the temperature plunges as low as 31 degrees F. The sand cats’ body and behaviors are adapted to these extreme conditions.

Sand cats inhabit unconnected areas of North Africa, Arabia and other parts of the Middle East, and Central Asia. Sand cats were detected in the border areas of southern Israel and Jordan in the late 1980s but have been considered extinct in that region since 2002, largely due to agricultural cultivation. Thus far, attempts to reintroduce them in that area have not been successful.

Sand Cat Diet

Sand cats hunt birds, insects, rabbits and small rodents such as jerboas and gerbils. They are also fierce snake-killers, feeding even on venomous vipers. Their technique for killing this dangerous prey is to stun it with rapid blows to its head before pouncing on it with a fatal neck bite.

They drink water when it is available but can survive without it for weeks at a time, absorbing moisture from their food instead.. Sand cats have raided human camps at night to steal fresh camel‘s milk.

They hunt at night, slinking close to the ground and listening for any faint sounds their prey might make. If they hear the sounds of burrowing, they quickly dig up their prey. If a kill is too large to eat all at once they will cover it with sand and return later to feed.

Sand Cat Predators, Threats, and Conservation Status

Although sand cats do stalk and kill venomous snakes, these dangerous reptiles are also one of their main predators. Other threats are jackals, large owls, caracals and wolves. Domestic and feral cats and dogs also attack them, compete for the same prey, and transmit diseases. Respiratory infections commonly cause death for domesticated sand cats, especially ones not vaccinated or not kept in a low-humidity environment.

Sand cats were classified as “near threatened” until 2016. In that year, the IUCN Red List downgraded their status to “least concern.” Their numbers in the wild are unknown, but estimates and their wide geographic distribution mean they are no longer considered in danger of extinction.

A major long-term threat to the species is habitat loss. Some areas of their habitat have sparse vegetation that nomadic people use for livestock grazing and for gathering firewood. When depleted, it removes the ground cover and food sources for the smaller animals the sand cat feeds upon.  

Sand cats are sometimes killed by shepherd dogs, poisoned, or caught in traps intended for foxes or jackals (which threaten domesticated poultry). They are sometimes trapped to be sold in the pet trade. Warfare and movement of human refugee populations through wild areas has affected sand cat habitats in several countries, including Mali, Syria, and Iraq.

Although hunting Sand cats in Algeria, Iran, Israel, Kazakhstan, Mauritania, Niger, Pakistan, and Tunisia is prohibited, they are not protected in Egypt, Mali, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, or the United Arab Emirates. Israel has tried unsuccessfully to reintroduce them into the Arabah Desert.

Sand Cat Reproduction, Babies and Lifespan

Sand cats are solitary animals, widely dispersed over a large area. To help them find other cats across great distances, they have a loud mating call that can sound like a small barking dog. Otherwise, they communicate with the same kinds of vocalizations as domestic cats. They also spray urine and use scents and scratch marks to identify territory.

The breeding season for sand cats differs with their location, climate, and resources. In the Sahara it usually lasts from January to April. In captivity they may breed more than once a year.

Gestation for sand cats takes 59-67 days. They can have anywhere from 1-8 kittens, but the usual litter size is 2-4. Kittens weigh about an ounce at birth—the weight of a slice of bread. Their eyes open at 2 weeks and they first eat solid food at 5 weeks. They can strike out independently at 3-4 months and are sexually mature at 9-14 months.

The sand cat’s lifespan in the wild is unknown, but in captivity, they can live up to 18 years old.

Sand Cat Population

The global sand cat population is estimated at over 27,200 adults. This is considered to be a conservative estimate. The long-term trend in sand cat population is unknown.

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About the Author

I'm a freelance writer and a lifelong animal lover. I've traveled the world, but the high point for me was riding an elephant in Nepal. Currently I'm an "Emotional Support Human" to 2 dogs, 1 cat, and 3 guinea pigs. My favorite wild animal is the quokka. If you've never heard of it look it up . . . and smile!

Sand Cat FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Can the sand cat be a pet?

Sand cats are not aggressive to humans and can be easily domesticated. They are sold as pets in some parts of North Africa and Southwest Asia, but this threatens their population in the wild. To survive in captivity they need warm, very low-humidity environments; otherwise they are prone to respiratory infections that are often fatal. This is a species better enjoyed in the wild and in zoos.

What kind of cat is a sand cat?

It is a small species of desert cat that lives in North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia.

How many sand cats are left?

Their numbers in the wild are estimated at about 27,200. They are not considered an endangered species because they are found in many countries over a wide geographical area.

What does a sand cat eat?

Insects, birds, small animals such as rodents, and snakes, including poisonous vipers.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.

Sources
  1. Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, Available here: https://nationalzoo.si.edu/animals/sand-cat
  2. Wikipedia, Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sand_cat
  3. International Society for Endangered Cats (ISEC) Canada, Available here: https://wildcatconservation.org/wild-cats/africa/sand-cat/
  4. Cats for Africa, Available here: https://www.catsforafrica.co.za/sand-cat-felis-margarita/sand-cat-distribution/
  5. Sand Cat International Studbook Vol. 21, Available here: https://bigcatrescue.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Sand-Cat-ISB-2012-small.pdf

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