Monday, March 31, 2014


You are probably thinking that Toto was Dorothy's dog in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and you're right.  But did you know that there is a real, live cat named Toto?  Well, in case you didn't, I'm going to tell you all about him.

The story of this cat began on June 1, 2011, when a nasty tornado hit Massachusetts.  During rescue operations in the small town of Brimfield, a worker found a tiny kitten way up high in a tree.  This kitten was only 2 or 3 weeks old, at the most, so he could not have climbed the tree by himself.  What evidently happened was that the tornado blew him up into the branches.

The kitten was brought to the fire station where there were a bunch of paramedics, including a man named Jonathan Hall.  "Everything seemed to come to a halt," Jonathan said later.  "Firemen and paramedics are by no means softies and can be pretty jaded by the everyday experiences they encounter.  But suddenly all focus was on this tiny bundle of fur who had clung so tenaciously to life."   Someone said that the kitten ought to be named Toto, because he survived a tornado.  And that is how Toto got his name.

The little kitten only weighed 6 ounces, and he was very cold and hungry when he was rescued.  The paramedics tried to give him milk and keep him warm, but soon they decided that Toto needed veterinary care.  So they turned him over to volunteers from the Boston Animal Rescue League, who were in Brimfield trying to help other animals affected by the tornado.  The ARL found a mother cat who was willing to nurse Toto along with her own kittens, and eventually Toto got all better.

Brimfield Police Chief Dawn Charette said that the kitten, who survived a tornado that killed one person, injured several others, and destroyed 140 homes, was a source of encouragement for the town.  "After what we saw out there, that kitten was like a symbol of hope," Chief Charette said.  "I saw guys -- I mean big, tough cops -- just break down when they saw that kitten.  We started thinking that if that cat would be okay, then maybe we'd all be okay, too."

In August, Jonathan's wife Amy surprised him by adopting Toto from the ARL.  The kitty seems very happy to be living with the Halls and his feline companion.  He likes to go everywhere around town with Jonathan, wearing a harness and leash, of course.

One of the first places they went was to the fire station, and after that, they started getting requests to visit schools, churches, weather forecasters, and special events.  Then Jonathan got the idea to write a children's book about Toto, so that's what he did, with funding from the Country Bank of Brimfield.  The illustrator for the book was Carol Rusicka.

On April 1, 2012, the book was published.  It is called Toto the Tornado Kitten, and 100% of the proceeds from people buying it go to the ARL of Boston.  If you would like a copy of your very own, you can find it on Amazon or else on Toto's Facebook page.

Because Toto is so famous in the community and loves going places with his dad, Jonathan decided to write a second book.  It came out on May 1, 2013 and is called Oh Toto, Where Did You Go?  "It details all the fun places that we go to together," said the author.

Another thing Jonathan said about Toto was this:  "I am not a deeply spiritual person.  I've been a paramedic for 20 years and it can be a very tough profession.  But there is something very healing about being in this cat's presence, and it's just wonderful to see the way he brings people together."

Toto revisiting the place where he was rescued

Saturday, March 29, 2014


Everyone has heard of dodo birds, but nobody alive today has seen one.  There is a very good reason for this, which is that dodos went completely extinct back in 1682.  So when a person says something is "as dead as a dodo," that means it is really and truly gone, and it will never come back again.  Well, unless scientists figure out how to clone new dodos using old dodo DNA.  Which they are working on, so you never know what will happen.

Frederick William Frohawk (1861-1946)
Plate 24 from Rothschild's Extinct Birds (1907)
From the picture by Roelant Savery, with alterations

Okay, so now to start at the beginning of the dodo bird's story.  Way back when the earth and all the animals and plants were evolving, the dodos ended up living on the island of Mauritius, which is east of the island of Madagascar, which is east of Africa.  After a while, dodos stopped needing to do any flying, so they just walked everywhere, and their wings turned into little feathered nubs.  The dodos ate fruit and nuts that fell off the trees, and they made nests on the ground, and they didn't have to worry about predators because there weren't any.

Then in 1505, some Portuguese adventurers became the first humans to set foot on Mauritius.  They were amazed to see the dodos because they had never seen birds that looked quite like that.  It was easy to catch dodos because they weren't afraid of people.  So the sailors killed some and tried eating them, with mixed reviews.  Some people thought they were pretty yummy, and others claimed the meat was too dark and greasy.

Contemporary sketches of dodos, made in 1602
during the voyage of the VOC Gelderland

The earliest descriptions of the dodo birds were written by members of the Dutch East India Company. Here's one from the  1598 journal of Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck:

Blue parrots are very numerous there, as well as other birds; among which are a kind, conspicuous for their size, larger than our swans, with huge heads only half covered with skin as if clothed with a hood. These birds lack wings, in the place of which 3 or 4 blackish feathers protrude. The tail consists of a few soft incurved feathers, which are ash coloured. These we used to call 'Walghvogel', for the reason that the longer and oftener they were cooked, the less soft and more insipid eating they became. Nevertheless their belly and breast were of a pleasant flavour and easily masticated.

The word Walghvogel means "wallow bird," and it was used to refer to the loathsome flavor of the meat.  Given a choice, the sailors preferred to eat pigeons and parrots.

"What did you just call me?"

It's hard to know exactly where the word dodo came from.  Some people think it came from the Dutch word dodoor, which means "sluggard."  But others believe it is more likely that dodo comes from Dodaars, which means "fat-arse" or "knot-arse," describing the knot of feathers on the bird's rear end.  Other theories are that the name came from the Portuguese doudo, meaning "crazy," or that the birds had a call that sounded like "doo-doo."

This 1638 painting by Cornelis Saftleven
may be one of the last pictures made of a live dodo.
It is in the Boijmans Museum in Rotterdam.

We don't have any complete specimens of dodos, so we don't know exactly what they looked like.  Mostly, they were described as having plumage that was sort of gray or brown, with primary feathers and a tuft at the rear that were lighter in color.  Dodos were probably about 3 feet tall and had a weight range from 23 to 47 pounds.  It's likely that they lived in the drier coastal woods of Mauritius.
The closest genetic relative to the dodo was the Rodrigues Solitaire, which is also extinct.  The closest living relative is the Nicobar Pigeon.

Here's a description of the dodo bird written in 1634 by Sir Thomas Herbert in A Relation of Some Yeares Travaille into Afrique and the Greater Asia:

It is  reputed more for wonder than for food, greasie stomackes may seek after them, but to  the delicate they are offensive and of no nourishment.  Her visage darts forth melancholy, as sensible of Nature's injurie in framing so great a body to be guided with complementall wings, so small and impotent, that they serve only to prove her bird.
The halfe of her head is naked seeming couered with a fine vaile, her bill is crooked downwards, in midst is the trill [nostril], from which part to the end tis a light green, mixed with pale yellow tincture; her eyes are small and like to Diamonds, round and rowling; her clothing downy feathers, her train three small plumes, short and inproportionable, her legs suiting her body, her pounces sharpe, her appetite strong and greedy. Stones and iron are digested, which description will better be conceived in her representation.

"Edwards' Dodo" was painted by Roelant Savery in the late 1620s.
It was owned by ornithologist George Edwards,
who later gave it to the British Museum.

People always used to think of dodos as fat and clumsy, but now scientists are saying this idea may be wrong.  Old European drawings and paintings of dodos were probably based on overfed captive birds or else on stuffed specimens that were not done very well.  Studies on the strength of dodo leg bones show that the bird could actually run quite fast.  When it needed to defend itself, the bird probably used its big beak as a weapon.

The dodo was not the only bird to go extinct on Mauritius.  Others include the Red Rail, Broad-billed Parrot, Mascarene Grey Parakeet, Mauritius Blue Pigeon, Mauritius Owl, Mascarene Coot, Mauritian Shelduck, Mauritian Duck, and Mauritius Night Heron.  Besides that, two types of tortoises, a boa, a snail, a flying fox, and two varieties of plants became extinct on the island.

The population of Mauritius during the 17th century was never more than 50 people, so the dodos did not go extinct as a direct result of people killing them.  Instead, what happened was that the people brought non-native animals with them, such as dogs, pigs, cats, rats, and crab-eating monkeys.  These animals ate the eggs out of dodo nests.  At the same time, settlers were cutting down the trees and destroying the dodos' habitat. But the fact is that the dodo population may have already been pretty small before humans ever showed up on Mauritius  Which would partly explain why the birds went extinct so quickly. There is some disagreement about the exact year that the dodo became extinct, but it might have been 1682.  Or maybe 1688.  Or most definitely between 1688 and 1715.

Original illustration of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
by John Tenniel, 1865

Lewis Carroll put a dodo character in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and that is probably the main thing that made dodos into such famous symbols of extinction.  The dodo still appears today in popular fiction, and it is used to promote the protection of endangered species.  In Mauritius, the dodo serves as a mascot on many products and as a watermark on Mauritian rupee banknotes.

Painting by Jacob Hoefnagel, early 1600s,
of a specimen in the collection
of Emperor Rudolph II in Prague

In closing, I will share a silly poem about the dodo that Hilaire Belloc published in 1896 in his Bad Child's Book of Beasts.

The Dodo used to walk around,
And take the sun and air.
The sun yet warms his native ground--
The Dodo is not there!

The voice which used to squawk and squeak
Is now for ever dumb--
Yet may you see his bones and beak
All in the Mu-se-um.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


On the very same day that Mom bought herself some expensive new shoes, she also went to the Mission Road Antiques Mall, which is a place where she likes to go, for some reason.  It can be very dangerous for her to go there because she often sees something she wants to buy.  Frankly, I think the only reason why old junk would be interesting is if it had some lingering doggy odors on it.  Otherwise, I don't see the point.

Anyway, I am very proud to report that on this latest trip to the antiques mall, Mom did not buy a single thing -- not even a single cheap thing, of which there aren't very many at that particular antiques mall.  I think maybe it was because Mom had just spent a wad of money on shoes, and she realized that she should save the little bit of money she had left to buy food for us dogs and cats.  At least, I hope that's what she was thinking.

However, while she was there, Mom used her cell phone to take some pictures of antiques, which didn't cost her a penny, and now I will show you those pictures.

First of all, here's a "lazy butler" who is just the bottom half of a man sitting in a chair, holding a tray.  This is totally weird, if you ask me.  Sometimes I think it is better not to know where humans get their ideas!

This is a plaster replica of Beauregard, or at least that's what the tag said.  G.T. Beauregard was a Confederate general in the Civil War.  You can tell he's been through a lot of fighting and bad weather because of how beat up he looks.

Mom said there were lots of bunnies in the antiques mall, and also anything else that looked like it might have to do with Easter.  This is the only bunny Mom took a picture of because she knew I would be more interested in seeing pictures of antique dogs.

Here's a dog that's actually a pitcher.  It was made in Czechoslovakia.  I like the expression on the dog's face because he looks kind of sad or anxious or something.

This bronze sculpture shows a mama dog and her puppies.  The sculpture reminds me of when I was a little puppy myself, and my mama used to feed me and clean me up and keep me warm.  I wonder what ever became of her and my littermates.  It's been a long time since I saw any of them.

There were lots of dog pictures and figurines at the antiques mall, but Mom said she only saw one chihuahua, and it was a little framed print.  Mostly what Mom saw was pugs and Boston terriers and French bulldogs and poodles and boxers and Scotties.  Plus a couple of greyhounds and wire fox terriers..  Here's a table with a lot of dogs on it.

And here's a goofy-looking ceramic Boston terrier.

Maybe it's just as well that they didn't have any chihuahuas.  I wouldn't want to see any as crazy-looking as that Boston!

Thursday, March 20, 2014


As I'm sure you remember, my brother Marius had hip surgery recently.  He has been healing up nicely, and he got his stitches out on Tuesday.  But guess what!  The day before Marius got his stitches out, TRISTAN had to have surgery!  And the reason for this was because Tristan had a weird sort of lesion thingy on his side, about the size of a quarter.  At first we thought it was maybe ringworm because we thought our foster kitty Kaga might have ringworm on one of his ears.  When Mom first noticed the place on Tristan's side, she took him to see Dr. Vodraska.  Dr. V was not convinced that it was ringworm, but she agreed to wait for the results of Kaga's culture.  And in the meantime, Tristan had to take an antibiotic called Clavamox, which he liked doing because Mom gave it to him in a wad of canned dog food.

So then on Monday, when Mom was doing email, she picked Tristan up so he could sit in her lap, and he started screeching like he was being attacked by a million cats with very sharp claws.  Mom looked under Tristan's shirt, and she was shocked to see that the place on his side had broken open, and all this icky blood and pus was coming out.

Mom called the vet's office, and they said to bring him over and leave him for a while until one of the vets could look at him.  Later on, Dr. Vodraska called Mom and said that she wasn't sure what caused the nasty place on Tristan's side, but it might be something like a spider bite or else something was stuck in there, like maybe a cat claw.  Dr. V thought Tristan ought to have surgery to take the thing off, whatever it was.  So Mom agreed, and she got to spend more money, just to prove how much she loves us dogs.

In this photo, you can see Marius wearing
an inflatable doughnut collar,
and more importantly, you can see my
cute little Tommy Bahama hoodie.
Anyway, Marius got his stitches out, and he is supposed to have physical therapy, if Mom ever gets around to calling and making an appointment for him.  Tristan felt pretty yucky the first night after his surgery, but now he is lots perkier.  He has to wear the Cone of Shame so that he won't chew on his stitches.  But last night one of them broke anyway, and it might be because Tristan can reach his incision with his hind foot, which means he can scratch at it.  Or it might be because Tristan was running around like crazy in the yard, which he's not supposed to be doing, but it's hard to keep Tristan from doing stuff like that.

Anderson and Kirby check out Mom's purchase.

But now here's some other news.  Yesterday Mom went to a fancy shoe store to buy some nice, comfy shoes to wear when she is standing around for hours, being a security officer at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.  The man at the store measured Mom's feet, and it turned out that her left foot is a whole size bigger than her right foot.  Once before, when she was buying hiking boots, Mom had also found this out about her feet.

Mom's new shoes
Also, Mom learned that she had been wearing shoes that were at least a half size too small for her, which might be why her big toes keep rubbing on the sides of the shoes.  The nice man at the store brought out some really expensive German shoes for Mom to try on, and then she also tried on some less expensive New Balance shoes.  She ended up buying two pairs of the cheaper shoes, one for work and one to wear in real life.  The two pairs of shoes, plus the insoles, plus a special pair of support socks cost almost as much as Tristan's surgery.

I'm the only dog in the house who hasn't
had surgery lately, and I want to keep it that way!

This seems crazy to me, because of course Mom should be only spending money on us dogs and not on shoes for herself.  Mom says I am probably right, but she was feeling selfish, and she hopes I can forgive her.

Monday, March 17, 2014


Well, today is St. Patrick's Day, and you know what that means:  time for another blog entry about an Irish dog breed!  So this year the chosen breed is Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers.

This is a breed that has been around for a long time.  For at least 200 years, Wheatens were bred as all-purpose farm dogs who did things like herding, guarding the livestock, and killing vermin.  According to Anna Redlich in The Dogs of Ireland, William III decreed in 1698 that "only persons owning an estate of freehold of the yearly value of 40 pounds, at least, or a personal estate of 1,000 pounds shall keep any hound, beagle, greyhound, or land-spaniel other than whelps under the age of twelve months."  So that meant poor people could not have fancy hunting and sporting dogs.  But they could have "ordinary" dogs such as terriers.

Two other "poor man's breeds" were the Kerry Blue Terrier and the Irish Terrier.  These two terriers are related to the Wheaten and may have descended from Wheatens.  The Irish Kennel Club did not recognize the Soft-Coated Wheaten breed until 1937.  The British Kennel Club followed suit in 1943.  A woman named Lydia Vogel had the first Wheaten Terriers exported to the U.S. in the 1940s, but there was no serious interest in the breed for the next 10 years or so.  The American Kennel Club finally recognized them in 1973.

Wheaten Terrier puppies are usually dark brown or red when they are born, and they may have ears and muzzles that are black or dark brown.  The puppy coat grows out to be almost white, and then it turns a wheaten color by the time the dog is 2 years old.  American dogs have a coat that is heavier than the thin, silky coats of Irish and European Wheatens.

The average Soft-Coated Wheaten is 17" to 19" tall and 30 to 45 pounds in weight.  Wheatens need regular grooming to keep their coats from getting matted.  They can also be clippered.  Health issues include a couple of protein-wasting diseases, renal dysplasia, inflammatory bowel disease, Addison's disease, and cancer.  Most Wheatens live to be 12-15 years old.

Wheaten Terriers are happy, playful, spirited, energetic, and intelligent.  They greet people enthusiastically by jumping up on them.  They are not as scrappy as some terriers, but they are still very active dogs.  If they haven't grown up with cats, they may use their strong prey drive to chase them.  Wheatens are very protective of their families and will bark to alert them to the presence of strangers.  In general, this breed is good with children, but they might get excited and noisy while playing.

Another thing Wheatens like to do is dig holes, but my theory is that the reason they do that is because they are looking for a leprechaun's pot of gold!

Friday, March 14, 2014


Once upon a time, horses were really little, like the size of foxes.  This is very hard to believe, but it's true.  Then, over millions and millions and millions of years, they evolved to be bigger.  Their legs got longer, and they started having just one toe instead of 3 or 5, and their teeth got better at eating grass.  And eventually they turned into the animals we know today as horses.  And that's it, the entire history of the horse in one fairly short paragraph.

Artwork by Danielle Byerley

But if you want a few more details, you can go on reading.  However, I am not going to tell you everything there is to know about the horse's history because when I started doing my in-depth research on this topic, I found out it was a lot more complicated than I expected it to be.  Scientists used to think the evolution of the horse was a straight-line sort of thing, and so they were shocked to learn that it was more like a complicated bunch of tree branches.  But the horse's evolutionary story is still more complete than that of any other animal, and I guess there's something to be said for that.

Okay, so horses belong to a group called perissodactyls, which are hoofed mammals (ungulates) with an odd number of toes.  In this same group there are also animals that have a similar tooth structure and mobile upper lips.  Which means that horses are actually more closely related to rhinos and tapirs than they are to deer and cattle.

So anyway, these little perissodactyls lived in the tropical forests, and they browsed on bushes and trees and stuff like that.  The ground in the forests was moist, so it was helpful to have several spread-out toes to walk on it.  But after a while, some new plants called grass appeared, and it grew on drier steppe land.  Grass was harder to chew than foliage, so horses started developing larger, stronger teeth.  And on the open steppes, the horses needed longer legs, so that they could outrun their predators instead of just hiding.  So the horses' legs bones gradually became longer, and the weight of the animal shifted to the third toe, while the other toes lifted off the ground.

The evolution of the horse happened in North America.  Paleontologists all seem to agree that the very earliest ancestor was the Eohippus, or "dawn horse."  Of course, scientists always like to change the names of things, just when you finally learn the original name, so now Eohippus is called Hyracotherium.  This new name means "shrew-like beast," which sounds much less noble than "dawn horse," if you ask me.

Hyracotherium.  Artwork by Heinrich Harder, public domain

Hyracotherium appeared in the early Eocene age, about 52 million years ago.  It weighed less than 50 pounds, and it had 4 toes on the front feet and 3 on the back.  It looked sort of like a little deer, but you could tell it was a perissodactyl because it put most of its weight on a single toe of each foot.  Hyracotherium had a small brain, and it ate soft foliage and fruit.  But after 20 million years or so, it began to develop teeth that were more suited for browsing.

Orohippus.  Artwork by Bob Strauss, public domain

This change in teeth was part of what led Hyracotherium to evolve into Orohippus, about 50 million years ago.  Orohippus means "mountain horse," but I don't know why it was named that because the animal didn't live in the mountains and it wasn't actually a horse.  It was about the same size as Hyracotherium, but had a longer head, slimmer body and forelimbs, and longer hind legs.  Also, Orohippus didn't have the outer toes that Hyracotherium had.

Next came Epihippus, about 47 million years ago.  This animal had teeth with well-formed crests that worked very well for grinding.  Epihippus was about 2 feet tall.

Mesohippus.  Artwork by Heinrich Harder, public domain

By the Oligocene, 32-24 million years ago, the climate of North America had become drier, and grasses and prairies were developing.  In response to all these changes, Mesohippus ("middle horse") developed and became one of the most widespread animals.  It walked on 3 toes, but the middle toe was bigger and stronger.  It had a bigger brain than its ancestors, but was still only about 2 feet tall.

Miohippus, the "lesser horse" emerged about 36 million years ago.  It lived alongside Mesohippus for about 4 million years and then replaced Mesohippus.  After a while, the temperatures got lots colder in North America, and most animals moved south.  But one group called Plesippus crossed the Bering land bridge into Eurasia about 2.5 million years ago.  Plesippus was about as tall as an Arabian horse today, but it had a very stocky build.  This branch of the horse family tree went extinct about 8,000 B.C.


Eventually, all the ancestral horses died out in North America, and horses didn't come back to the continent until the Spaniards brought them in 1493.  The native people did not have a word for "horse" because they had never seen one before.  So they gave them names like "elk-dog" or "big dog" or "seven dogs," (because one horse could pull the same amount of weight as seven dogs).

After a while, some of the Spaniards' horses got loose or lost or stolen or somehow ended up being feral out on the prairies.  And that is how mustangs were invented.  The adoption and use of horses changed the lives of the American Indians in lots of important ways, but that is a story for another day.

Sunday, March 9, 2014


When I wrote before about our new chi brother, Marius, I told you that he had bad hips.  Also, I explained all about an operation called Femoral Head Ostectomy (FHO).  If you missed that blog entry or have already forgotten what it said, you can read it here.

Marius looked miserable the first night after his surgery.

Mom decided to go ahead and take Marius and his x-rays to visit Dr. Wilson, at the VCA Mission specialty clinic.  Dr. Wilson is a surgeon, and he is a very nice man.  Mom met him at the Humane Society Telethon last year, and he did a consult on Latifa, our kitty sister who has hip dysplasia.  He said that Latifa didn't need surgery, which was good news.

Anyway, Dr. Wilson looked at Marius' x-rays, and he examined Marius, and he said he thought that FHO surgery should be done pretty soon, on both hips at the same time.  He gave Mom an itemized estimate of what it would probably cost to do the operation, and it came to more than $2000, which did not surprise Mom because she is all the time having to pay big vet bills.

Luckily, Marius still has a good appetite.

Anyway, Marius ended up having the surgery on Wednesday.  After it was over, Dr. Wilson called Mom and said it went well, but that Marius' hips were "horrible."  He said the hips were even worse than he thought they would be when he looked at the x-rays.  In fact, they were some of the most awful hips he had ever seen.  My opinion is that Marius should get some kind of prize because of being so special, or at least he should get written up in a medical journal.  But Dr. Wilson did not mention writing an article or awarding a prize.  He did give Mom a 15% discount on the bill, but it still came to $2450.50.

Marius stayed overnight in the hospital, and then Mom picked him up on Thursday, after she got finished working at the art gallery.  Marius did not feel very good when he came home.  He just mostly lay around in the nice, soft bed Mom fixed for him inside a crate.  He ate his supper, though, which was a good thing because there was pain medicine mixed in with his food, and also antibiotics.

Marius has to wear the Cone of Shame
so he won't chew on his stitches.

At bedtime, Mom carried Marius upstairs, and he slept in a crate beside Mom's bed.  He started crying in the middle of the night, but after Mom talked to him a little bit, he was quiet again, and we all went back to sleep.

It seems like every day Marius is feeling a little better.  Mom gets him out of his crate to totter around the house until he finds a place to pee or poop.  When he first gets up, Marius can't seem to use his back legs at all, and they just cross over each other.  But Mom keeps straightening them out, and after a little while, Marius gets started walking, and he does pretty well.  I think it's funny to watch him try to walk, though, and so does Tristan.  Mom says we shouldn't laugh because the two of us have luxating patellas, and we will probably have to have knee surgery someday -- especially Tristan, and especially on his left knee.  But Mom hopes she can get most of Marius' bills paid off before somebody else needs to have surgery.

Marius has to find the perfect spot before he can pee.

In a couple of weeks, Marius will get his stitches out, and after that, he will have to have physical therapy.  Dr. Wilson thinks Marius will need to do that for about six weeks, but Mom hopes it won't have to be for that long.

Thursday, March 6, 2014


I had never heard of sand cats, and neither had Mom, but then Mom found this photo of them, and I thought they were pretty cute, even if they weren't chihuahuas.  So I decided to write about them.

Sand cats live in deserts, where it is sandy, and that's how they got their name.  They can also be called sand dune cats or Felis margarita, which is their scientific name.  You might think they were named after the drink that's called a margarita, because a nice, cold margarita would be a nice thing to have if you were out in the desert.  But that's not where the name came from.  Instead, the cats were given their name by a naturalist named Victor Loche in 1858, who described a specimen he found in the Sahara.  I don't know if the specimen was dead or alive, but it's probably best not to know these things.  Anyway, the man who led the expedition into the Sahara was Jean Auguste Margueritte, and Mr. Loche named the sand cat in honor of him.

Well, okay, so besides living in northern Africa, sand cats also live in southwest and central Asia.  They have thick fur on the bottoms of their feet, so they can walk across hot sand or rocky ground.  Also, they don't drink water very often because they get all the moisture they need from the prey they eat.  Since 2002, the sand cat has been listed as NEAR THREATENED because of concern over its low population.  The main threat to the cat is desertification and other types of destruction of its prey's habitat.  The sand cat's prey is mainly small rodents and reptiles, plus sometimes birds.  Also, there is a lot of competition from foxes and snakes and other animals that prey on the same things the sand cat does.

Sand cats are small and stocky, with broad heads, short legs, and fairly long tails.  They weigh anywhere from 3 to 7 pounds, which makes them about the same size as a chihuahua.  The ears of a sand cat have large openings and wide ear canals.  Also, the outer ear is big and triangular.  All of this means that sand cats have a super-good sense of hearing, which is important if your live in the desert, where there's not much prey.  Sand cats can even hear something like a rodent underground and dig it out before it can get away.

Photo by Payman Sazesh

The best habitat for a sand cat is where there is flat or rolling terrain with not much vegetation.  The cats get along okay in temperatures anywhere from 23ºF to 126ºF.  When conditions are extreme, they hang out in burrows which might be abandoned fox or porcupine burrows.  Or else they enlarge rodent burrows by digging, which they are good at doing.  Usually, their burrows slant down to about 5 ft. deep.  In the winter, sand cats will come out in the sun during the daytime, but during hot weather, they only come out at night to hunt.

Arabian Sand Cat

In 1993, Israeli biologists did the first study on sand cats to find out how far they went at night, how big their ranges were, and things like that.  Right away, the scientists discovered that it was hard to track the cats.  For one thing, they don't really leave footprints in the sand because of all the fur on the bottoms of their feet.  And when a light is shined on them, they crouch down and close their eyes, so that no reflection can be seen.  Also, the cats are the same color as the sand and rocks, plus their bury their feces, instead of using it to mark their territories.  Still, the Israelis were able to estimate that a male sand cat's home range was about 6.2 square miles.

Sand cats mostly go their own ways until mating season comes around.  A female sand cat is in heat for five to six days, and during this time, she makes sounds that are sort of like the barking of a small dog.  Also she does a lot of scent marking.  Fifty-nine to 66 days after the female mates, her kittens are born.  The average litter size is three.  By the time the kittens are a year old, they are totally independent and sexually mature.

Kittens born to sand cats in captivity do not have a very good survival rate because of neglect by first-time mothers.  Another problem sand cats have in captivity is that they are sensitive to respiratory diseases.  To avoid having the cats get sick, zoos need to keep them in arid enclosures where the humidity and temperature are controlled.  A zoo in Jerusalem has started a reintroduction project, but it has not been very successful so far.  There are 200 or so sand cats in zoos and refuges around the world.  In vitro fertilization and embryo transfer has led to several sand kitten births in zoos in recent years, which is a good thing.

Sand Cat at Berlin Zoo
Photo by Christina Skov

If you want to watch a 4-minute video of a sand cat named Canyon at the Big Cat Rescue, you can go here:

Photo by Nicam Shilova

I told Mom that maybe we should get a sand cat of our own, but Mom said it is not arid enough inside our house.  Which means that the sand kitty would probably get sick and die.  Then we would all be sad.  I guess she's right about this, and I guess she's also right when she says we have way too many cats here already!

Photo by Johanna Leguerre/AFP