The Adaptations Of The Only True Desert Cat

The sand cat is the only true desert living cat. The black-footed also lives in dry environments. The sand cat lives in areas of sandy desert. In these areas the temperatures reach extremes. For example in the Karakum Desert (Central Asia), the air temperature can exceed 40°C (104°F). The temperature of the surface of the sand reaches an extraordinary 80°C (water boils at 100°C). While in winter air temperatures plummet to -25°C. The sand cat prefers a flat and open habitat “covered with unstable sand on which grows little but a few tufts of grass and occasional small bushes” 2.

Karakum Desert
Karakum Desert. Photo by David Stanley
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It is a hostile environment with no water. The sand cat does not need to drink water. This hardy small wild cat with a domestic cat appearance can obtain all the water it needs from its prey. For most of the year the sand cat does not drink. This has been observed in captivity. One captive sand was fed fresh rodents and birds and refused all water for 2 months. Another did drink freely however. However, the sand cat will usually drink water when available 1.

During the extremes of temperature the sand cat stays in a burrow. These are burrows vacated by the red fox, corsac fox, Ruppel’s fox or porcupine 6. The sand cat will enlarge the burrows of gerbils and ground squirrels. On one occasion a sand cat was seen to be sharing a burrow with five gerbils (the gerbil is a prey species for the sand cat). Burrows are about 1.5 to 3 meters in length. At the lowest point they can be about 60 centimeters below the surface.

sand cat
Sand Cat in captivity. Photo by Yinghai. He looks unhappy in captivity.

The long, dense coat also assists.The coat can be more than 2 inches in length. The coat makes the cat look larger than it is. The sand cat weighs about 2-3 kilograms (3 kgs is 6.6 pounds, which is equivalent to to a smallish domestic cat).

The paws are protected by long dense hair growing between the toes, which results in the sand cat leaving indistinct paw prints (note: I don’t see this fur on the cat above, in captivity). The furry paws make it easier to move through sand and form a ‘dense mat’ covering the paw pads5. The claws of the hind feet retract poorly. This may also be an adaptation to assist in walking on sand. The cheetah has non-retractable claws (or a reduced mechanism) designed to assist fast movement and twists and turns in chasing prey.

The sand cat has large ears indicating that it detects prey through sound. The ears are set particularly low on the head. This is an adaption to the terrain which is sparse. It seems that pointed ears set high on the head (like the serval) would break cover (Sunquists in Wild Cats of the World page 69).

The sand cat’s fur is desert colored (a ‘pale sandy color’), unsurprisingly. There are black bars on the legs and a black tip on the tail. As is usual for many of the wild cat species, the undersides of the cat are white.

The skull of the sand cat is designed for desert life. Modifications include:

  • a shortened bulging braincase;
  • wide zygomatic arches (cheek bones);
  • large, forward directed eye sockets;
  • enlarged tympanic bullae – a part of the middle ear believed to amplify sound and detect vibrations. Fennec foxes also have enlarged tympanic bullae. 3

The sand cat hunts at night. They can travel long distances at night – up to about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) and they move in an interesting way. The belly is low to the ground (as a means to be less visible?). They move fast with ‘occasional leaps’. The legs are short and appear to be wide apart. The sand cat can show burst of speed to 40 kph over 400 meters (25 miles per hour over about 400 yards) 4.

When in danger the sand cat escapes detection by merging with the landscape as it has little or no cover. It will crouch besides a rock, place its chin on the ground, flatten its ears and become almost invisible.

It seems that wild cats living in remote places have failed to learn that humankind can be dangerous! The sand cat, the Andean mountain cat and the snow leopard are all rather tame in the presence of people. This is a failure to adapt as it makes them more vulnerable to hostile human activities.

  • Original photo on Flickr of sand cat
  • Original photo on Flickr of desert
  • Sources and short quotes: Wild Cats Of The World ISBN-13: 978-0-226-77999-7


  1. Heptner WG and AA Sludskii 1992 Mammals of the Soviet Union Vol2 part 2 Carnivora (Hyenas and cats). English translation, sci.ed. R.S. Hoffmann. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institute Libraries and the National Science Foundation. AND Roberts TJ 1977 The Mammals of Pakistan. London: Ernest Benn.
  2. Dragesco-Joffe A 1993 La vie sauvage du sahara, Lausanne: Delachaux et Nestle.
  3. Hemmer H, P Grubb and CP Groves 1976 Notes on the sand cat Felis margarita Loche 1858. Z Saugetierk 41: 286-303. AND Heptner WG and AA Sludskii 1992 (above at 1) AND Pocock RI 1938 The Alegerian sand cat (Felis margarita Loche). Proc. Zool. Soc. Lond. 108 B:41-46.
  4. Dragesco-Joffe as above
  5. Dragesco-Joffe as above AND Abbadi M 1991 Israel’s elusive feline: Sand cats. Israel Land and Nature 16(3):111-115.
  6. Heptner WG and AA Sludskii above

7 thoughts on “The Adaptations Of The Only True Desert Cat”

  1. I’m glad I found out about these amazing little cats. Reading the part about water, very good, and it wasn’t surprising, but necessary adaptation. But as a rule I know domestic cats don’t drink a lot, and can ho days with out drinks.



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