Sand cats are very difficult to keep in captivity

Naiade. Photo: Facebook page of El Paso Zoo. Thanks.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

Today, there is a splash of online news activity about the charming, female sand cat, Naiade, who has just died at El Paso Zoo at the old age of 17. This is an exceptional age for a sand cat in captivity because, as stated in the title, this wild cat species doesn’t do well when captive like many other wild cats. Naiade had lost her naturally aggressive behavior and become sweet and serene. She had become somewhat domesticated over the many years of her captivity.

Naiade was the oldest sand cat in the Association of Zoos and Aquarium facilities of America. This does not surprise me because in 2002 the best authorities on the wild cat species, the Sunquists (Wild Cats of the World), state that “a few have survived in captivity for several years”. “Several” means around 5 years in my book.

Wild-caught sand cats (cats imported I suppose from their natural habitat in the deserts of Saudi Arabia perhaps) “often die within a year of being brought into captivity”.

“Out of eighteen cats imported from the Nushki Desert, fifteen died of feline enteritis, despite being vaccinated against the disease”

No doubt over the years zoo keepers have become more skilled at keeping wild cat species.

This short post is a reality check. We don’t hear about the sand cats who die at 1-6 years-of-age because they contracted respiratory infections and rhinitis to which they are very susceptible or, as mentioned, enteritis.

The sand cat is sensitive to cold weather and high humidity. Unsurprising since they are the only true desert dwelling cat on the planet.

Sand cats are attractive zoo exhibits because they are very cute looking. They are like domestic cats but definitely don’t behave like domestic cats.

In 1966 they were discovered in Pakistan and a number shipped to the USA, where they did badly. I am sure most died at a young age. There were attempts to breed them. I don’t know how successful the breeding programs where  – probably unsuccessful to a large extent because the cats become stressed and ill.

Naiade was also ill and being treated at the time she died. She suffered from several medical conditions but we are not told what the illnesses were.

The staff at El Paso Zoo had formed a close relationship with her. They were lucky to have had the opportunity. Sand cats don’t generally do well in captivity and I have a feeling that no matter how good the zoo facilities and staff are they struggle to keep their sand cats alive into conventional old age.

In 2002, the Sunquists tell us that we don’t know the average age of sand cats in the wild. The typical lifespans of small wild cats is around 10-12 in the wild as far as I am aware.

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Useful tag. Click to see the articles: Cat behavior

9 thoughts on “Sand cats are very difficult to keep in captivity”

  1. If Canyon’s death did indeed result from him choking on a raw chicken neck, this would make one wonder how many of the small to medium size wild cats in their native environments also die from eating birds, chickens etc.
    There have been reports of sand cats being shot and killed by farmers residing in desert areas due to the cats killing and eating their chickens. Unfortunately, I think many other wild cat species are killed by humans for this same reason.
    Human encroachment into the cats native environment is having a negative affect upon many of the wild cat species.
    I rarely hear about a wild captured sand cat being sold into the pet trade. Most of the captive sand cats today have been born in captivity at zoological or endangered feline breeding facilities.
    There is a younger male in England who I believe was purchased at a pet shop in England but his background prior to the pet shop has conflicting stories. I have no doubt he is pure 100% sand cat most likely harrisoni ssp. however without any paperwork, microchip records from birth, studbook records etc. to verify his place of birth his true lineage and subspecies type will remain unknown.
    I once saw a rug on the internet that was made from sand cat pelts. I believe wildlife authorities somewhere in the Middle East confiscated the rug. Do you realize how many tiny sand cats were skinned to make that one sizeable rug? I would say at a minimum 50 cats.
    I feel sick every time I think about that.
    Re feeding raw or whole prey diets, I prefer to feed only organ and muscle meat with the necessary calcium, vitamins, taurine etc. added to the meat. Feeding raw is a controversial subject; even many ‘expert’ vets who the public relies on for advice have differing opinions on this topic. Some say raw is the absolute best diet for our carnivore felines and others are against it.

  2. Ruth aka Kattaddorra

    Poor Naiade, a life of captivity, she adapted and accepted it because she had no choice. It makes me very sad. I wish people would leave wild animals in their natural surroundings.

  3. This makes two sand cat deaths this month in the USA. The other sand cat, a 14 year old male named Canyon died earlier this month at Big Cat Rescue in Tampa Fl. Their website states he died choking on a raw chicken neck. His littermate a female named Genie living at the same facility, is apparently doing well at the ripe old age of 14.

    1. Thank you for sharing that Debra. I didn’t know that Canyon had died. Actually, I consider an episode like that to be a “kill by ignorance”.
      It should reinforce to all cat caretakers that poultry bones should never be given to any cat. Chicken necks have too many segments and long bones splinter and can cause multiple problems including punctured esophagus and intesine.
      I cringe every time I read that a cat is given chicken bones.

  4. According to my limited knowledge, the sand cats are from Saudi Arabia. The sand cats are also a cat of middle east and desert cat of Pakistan but they are not kept as household cats. Its a very very cute, attractive looking and really wild cat. And sorry for Naiade that she could not be saved but she is really cute and ofcourse lived a real long life in ZOO.

    Thank you for sharing this article Michael, very informative <3

    1. Thanks Ahsan. I wanted to make it clear that the sand cat is not suited to captivity. The habitat is so specialist it is hard to replicate and combined with the stress of captivity it leads to ill-health. Sand cats can travel about 15 kilometres in one night hunting. Think how trapped they feel in a 20 foot square cage.

  5. Can’t help but love these little cats.
    I’m happy that she lived a long life, even in captivity.
    There’s no mention of companionship, so I assume she was one of her kind. She, probably, had no choice but to become docile in order to get any sort of attention and affection.

    1. It makes me wonder why the sand cat didn’t become the domestic cat rather than the African wildcat. Probably because the no people live in the same area as sand cats whereas the African wildcat is ubiquitous, living in a wide range of habitats and close to human settlements.

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