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The smallest of all the wild cats, the sand cat is 17-22 inches long and weighs 3-7.5 pounds, with males being larger than females. The coat color varies from pale yellow to gray, with dark brown to black stripes on the tail and limbs and reddish-orange stripes accenting both eyes; the chest and chin are always white.
Although it looks a lot like a domestic cat with a relatively quick glance, it can be distinguished from its cousins by its very broad head and widely-spaced ears, as well as by the wiry, black fur covering the pads of the feet. That fur protects the sand cat's feet from the hot sands on which it lives and also gives it better maneuverability on that sand. It's ears are protected from blowing sand by extra long and thick ear hairs.
Distribution and Habitat
The only cat known to inhabit true desert areas, the sand cat is found in four distinct geographic regions -- the Sahara Desert in Algeria, Niger, and Morocco; throughout the Arabian Peninsula; in desert regions of Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan; and in Turkmenistan. Its habitat ranges from plains with very little vegetation to rocky valleys with shrubs and trees.
Sand cats are opportunistic hunters that prey on a variety of animals including rodents, hares, spiders, reptiles, and venomous snakes. Their very well developed sense of hearing allows them to skulk close to the ground and listen for burrowing. When they hear something which corresponds to a meal they dig down to catch their prey. They are known to be fearless snake hunters that will readily attack venomous vipers. Since their prey provides almost all of their moisture needs, sand cats can go for months without free-standing water.
Because sand cats are difficult to study in the wild their courtship habits are unknown. Captive sand cats breed more than once per year, but the frequency of breeding in the wild likely depends on food supply. Breeding takes place between January and April in the Sahara, begins in April in Turkmenistan, and occurs in September and October in Pakistan; breeding season of the Arabian population has not been determined.
Gestation takes 59-63 days, after which 1 to 8 kittens are born. Although kittens are relatively independent by their 8th month, they will not reach sexual maturity until sometime between their 9th and 14th month. Sand cats are known to live up to 13 years in captivity.
Other Habits and Behaviors
Sand cats are not good climbers or jumpers, but are excellent diggers and dig shallow burrows to lie in and escape the heat of the day. They are known to lie on their backs outside their burrows to release internal heat.
Males and females have overlapping territories that average 6 square miles, and an individual may roam distances up to 4 square miles when in search of food.
Although they are strictly solitary except when mating and rearing young, sand cats do not defend their territories. They have even been observed taking turns sharing burrows. One cat will leave and hunt while another stays behind and rests. When the first returns, the other will leave.
Sand cats are generally nocturnal, although members of a subspecies from Pakistan are nocturnal during the summer and active at dawn and dusk during the winter.
Bark-like sounds are used as mating calls to communicate between individuals, allowing them to locate one another over long distances.
The population of sand cats in the wild is unknown, but the species is classified as Near Threatened due to the illegal pet trade, habitat destruction, and decline of prey, as well as the introduction of domestic dogs and cats in some areas.
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This page was last updated on May 12, 2017.