Top 5 Facts About the Sand Cat

Although small, they are highly adapted species that can live without water, run across shifting sand, and detect prey through ultrasonic hearing — all in the African and Asian deserts.

Sep 16, 2023byAndrew Olsen
facts sand cat

Sand cats, known to scientists by their Latin name Felis margarita, are about the size of a house cat. With their short legs and small bodies, they can cool and warm their bodies quickly. They may be small, but they are perfectly adapted to harsh desert climates. Their paws are covered in hair, sometimes leading to researchers’ frustration, which makes them nearly impossible to track but allows them to walk on the hot sand. They can hear prey under the ground through their supersonic hearing.

5. Solitary Creatures Who Live and Hunt Alone

sand cat eating snake
Photo credit: Alain Dragesco-joffé

Sand cats aren’t good at sharing and prefer to hunt and live alone. When a sandstorm rages through the desert, they may seek shelter in a burrow with another sand cat. Still, they’re not the roommate type who lives with another member of their species.

Usually, they occupy other animals’ (like foxes and porcupines) deserted burrows. However, they’ll sometimes dig their shelter to escape the extreme weather. They prefer arid habitats with little vegetation and rolling or flat terrains. Because they sometimes dig for their food, they don’t live in areas where the soil is compacted.

Because sand cats prefer a solitary life, they will only meet up during the mating season. The mating season depends on where they live: individuals in the African Sahara Desert breed between January and April. In Turkmenistan, they’ll begin breeding in April, and those living in Pakistan have a breeding season between September and October. Females can give birth to a litter ranging between one and eight kittens, but two to four kittens are most common. A newborn kitten weighs about 39 grams (one ounce). From around six to eight months will become independent of their mothers and become sexually active around fourteen months.

4. They Are Perfectly Adapted to Live in Deserts

Sand Cat Program Morocco Jan 2018 Gregory Breton
Photo credit: Gregory Breton

While we might not be able to cope with the extreme heat and cold found in deserts, the sand cat has several unique attributes that help them cope with life in the desert. They live in three distinct desert regions in the world:

  1. Africa’s Sahara Desert – stretching through Algeria, Niger, and Morocco,
  2. The Arabian Peninsula, and
  3. Central Asia, including Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan.

Their coats are dense, allowing them to survive nighttime desert temperatures – where the mercury can drop to 31 degrees Fahrenheit (-0.5ºC). This thick coat also means that they need to keep cool during the day, and that’s why they prefer sleeping during the day in burrows, under shrubs, or digging a spot to stay cool. Unique strands of black hair on their paws protect their toes from the burning sand. It also helps them to move swiftly over the loose desert sand. Much to researchers’ frustration, these special hairs also help to erase its tracks in the sand, making it nearly impossible to track them in the desert.

3. No Water? No Problem!

sand cat stalking
Photo credit: slowmotiongli / Getty Images

Because they live in the desert, they are far from water sources. The sand cat can survive for weeks without drinking a drop of water. Instead, they obtain all the moisture they need to survive from their prey. In the Sahara, they are sometimes caught by mistake in traps around oases set for foxes or golden jackals. Other times, they are caught and killed in retaliation for preying on poultry livestock.

2. Supersonic Hearing

sand cat looks like domestic cat
Photo credit: Paul and Cathy / Flickr

If you share your house with a cat, you’ll know they can pick up even the slightest sound. The sand cat’s hearing is even more acute than our domestic furball at home’s hearing. While it is true that on any cat, 20 muscles control each ear (usually to ignore us at home when we call them…), the sand cat’s ears are even more unique. They can move their ears independently; one can face backward while the other faces forward to help them hear sounds from all directions.

They have excellent hearing, just like other members of the cat family. Their ears are set low on the skull, which, combined with their short legs and tendency to stay close to the ground, helps them to hear their prey – even under the ground. When a sand cat detects their target under the ground, it’ll start digging quickly to get to its prey and capture it. Sometimes, they’ll cover their meal and return later to finish eating it.

However, the sand cat’s outer ear resembles the domestic cat’s. However, the sand cat’s ear canal is double the size compared to our moggies at home. According to research by Huang et al., their uniquely developed sense of hearing allows them to hear about five times better than a house cat. It is about 8 decibels greater when compared to domestic cats. These unique hearing abilities help them detect prey burrowing under the ground.

1. They Share a Name with a Popular Drink

sand cat burrow
Photo credit: unknown photographer

Their scientific name, Felis margarita, doesn’t mean they like to indulge in desert cocktail hour. They are named in honor and after the French general Jean Auguste Margueritte, whose expeditions in the Sahara Desert of Algeria during the 1850s led to their discovery in 1858. Victor Loche, the first person to describe the species, was a naturalist and soldier who named them after General Margueritte.

Andrew Olsen
byAndrew Olsen

Andrew is a proud cat dad of three spoiled cats, Schopenhauer, Poppy, and Empress Sisi. Growing up with various pets instilled a lifelong love for animals in him. His work in environmental management, particularly water governance, gave him first-hand experience with the delicate balance between humans and animals — domestic and wild. His favorite hobbies include browsing and buying cat toys, gardening, growing fresh catnip for his cats, drinking tea, and reading with a cat on his lap.