The Pallas Cat or Manul: Facts, Conservation, and Toxoplasmosis
What Is a Pallas or Pallas's Cat?
The Pallas cat is roughly the size of a domestic cat. It's a wild animal and has a very distinctive appearance. It has long, dense hair on its body and cheeks, a flattened face, a low forehead, and small ears that are far apart. The cat lives in cold areas of Central Asia, where its thick coat helps to keep it warm. It's also known as the Pallas’s cat, the Pallas’ cat, and the manul. Its scientific name is Otocolobus manul.
The animal's population is classified as "Near Threatened" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Its habitat is gradually disappearing. In the past, it was hunted for its beautiful coat. Although this activity is less common today, it still occurs. Another problem for the cat is that the rodents that it eats are often regarded as pests by the local people and are poisoned.
When the population of a species is under pressure, zoos that are trying to act as conservation organizations often try to breed the animal while it's in their care. One problem faced by Pallas cat kittens in captivity is their susceptibility to toxoplasmosis, a disease caused by a parasite that also infects domestic cats and humans. Toxoplasmosis is sometimes fatal for the kittens.
The Pallas cat is named after the German scientist Peter Simon Pallas, who lived from 1741 to 1811. He studied, described, and categorized large numbers of plants and animals, many of them unknown to science before his research.
An adult Pallas cat is generally between eighteen and twenty-six inches long, not including the tail. The tail is around eight to twelve inches long. The animal is about twelve to fourteen inches high and weighs between five-and-a-half and ten pounds.
The cat has a notably flattened face compared to other felines. The green or yellow-green eyes stand out because of the black rim around them and the white fur underneath the eyes. In combination with the flat and widely-separated ears, the low forehead, and the outspread fur on the sides of the head, this gives the face a unique appearance. The animal has a stocky build and a thick coat, making it look as though it's overweight.
Features of the Coat
The Pallas cat has the longest and densest fur of any feline. The thick fur is important for the animal's survival in its often cold habitat. The coat is grey in winter and develops a yellow or red tinge in summer. The hairs are often tipped with white, giving the animal a frosted appearance. The hair is much longer on the undersurface of the body than on the upper surface. The coat is longer and thicker in winter than in summer.
The animal has a variety of black markings. These include black stripes on its cheeks, black spots on its forehead, black rings on its thick tail, and sometimes faint black marks on other areas of its body. The chin and throat are white, however.
The color of the coat helps the cat to blend in with its environment. Its small, low ears help to make it less visible to its prey. These features are useful, since the cat often stalks its prey rather than running to catch it. Pallas cats have relatively short legs in proportion to their bodies.
Tibet is an autonomous region in the southwestern part of China. Pallas cats are found on a huge, elevated plateau in the area known as the Tibetan Plateau.
Distribution of the Pallas Cat
Pallas cats have a wide distribution in Central Asia and are also found in some South Asian countries. They aren't abundant anywhere, however. The countries where they've been found are shown in the map of Central Asia above and the map of South Asia below. According to the IUCN, the cats live in:
- China, including the Tibetan Plateau
The animals may also live in the other areas shown in the first map and not included in the list above, but this is uncertain.
Pallas cats generally live at higher elevations and are often found in cold and dry grasslands. They are also found in scrubland and desert. They tolerate snow but avoid areas with deep snow or areas that contain a large, continuous expanse of snow. The animals frequently inhabit areas that have rocky outcrops for protection. Rodents also live in the animals' rocky habitat, which make it easy for the cats to ambush their prey. Pallas cats are good climbers and move over the rocks with ease.
In the wild the cats may be active at any time of the day or night, but they are primarily nocturnal or crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk). They spend their days protected in a rock crevice, in a cave, or in a burrow dug by another animal, such as a marmot. In the late afternoon, early evening, or early morning, the animals begin to hunt.
The cats stalk and ambush their prey, pouncing on the unfortunate animal at the last moment or trapping an animal as it emerges from its burrow. The cats aren't great runners. The largest component of their diet is made up of rodents, especially pikas and voles. Other small mammals may also be eaten, as well as birds, reptiles, and insects.
Pallas cats are solitary, reclusive, and territorial animals. Both the male and the female mark their territories with secretions from their scent glands. When they are tense or upset, the cats produce a mumbling or chittering sound as they vibrate their upper lips in a threat display. The kittens in the video shown later in this article have already started to develop this technique. Pallas cats can be aggressive. Even in captivity, they are not cuddly creatures. They have been called "the original grumpy cat".
When the female Pallas cat is in her fertile phase, the male follows her around until mating occurs. This stage doesn't last for long. The female is no longer receptive to the male after forty-two hours.
The female gives birth to her kittens in a den. The kittens are born in April and May (at least in the areas that have been studied) after a gestation period of about 65 to 75 days. The litter generally consists of three to four kittens but may range in size from one to six kittens.
The youngsters leave home when they are about six months old and are ready to breed at ten to eleven months of age. In captivity, the Pallas cat has lived for eleven years. It likely lives for a shorter time in the wild.
Unlike the case in many other small members of the cat family, the pupils of a Pallus cat constrict into a circle instead of a slit as light intensity increases.
Facts About Toxoplasmosis
Toxoplasmosis is caused by a one-celled parasite called Toxoplasma gondii. This organism has a complex life cycle that involves multiple hosts. It infects birds and mammals, including rodents, cats, and humans. Both domestic and wild cats can be infected.
The parasite is widespread in the human population but may not cause any symptoms. If symptoms do result from the infection they are usually mild and short-lived and resemble the flu. A person with a healthy immune system will probably never develop a major problem from the infection, but if the immune system isn't working properly the parasite can cause serious effects.
Medications are available to treat toxoplasmosis. It's important that pregnant women who are infected by Toxoplasma gondii receive treatment because the parasite can be passed to the unborn baby and injure it.
Humans are most often infected by eating undercooked and contaminated meat or by drinking contaminated water, though it's also possible to become infected after handling infected feces from a cat.
Toxoplasmosis in Domestic and Pallas Cats
As in humans, a toxoplasmosis infection in domestic cats may not cause any symptoms or ill effects. Indoor cats are much less likely to develop toxoplasmosis than outdoor ones, since the infection is transmitted through infected prey animals, raw meat, and untreated water.
It's thought that Pallas cats are so susceptible to the toxoplasmosis parasite because they've never encountered it in their cold, relatively germ-free native environment and their bodies haven't developed any immunity to the parasite. The captive adults often survive toxoplasmosis but may become carriers of the parasite. The kittens have immature immune systems and may not survive if they become infected.
Threats to the Population
Loss of Habitat
The IUCN says that habitat degradation and fragmentation are the major threats for wild Pallas cats at the moment. Use of land for livestock grazing is the main cause of habitat loss. Another problem arising from this situation is that the dogs used to herd the livestock are sometimes predators of the cats. (Large eagles are also potential predators of the animals.) In some areas, construction, mining, or quarrying is destroying the cat's habitat.
Killing Pallas cats for their pelts is prohibited in many parts of their range, but the protection laws are not always enforced and illegal hunting still occurs. The cats are found in some nature reserves. These may not provide effective protection for the animals, however. The cats are sometimes killed for food or to obtain body parts for use in traditional medicine.
Loss of Prey
Another problem is that the rodents that form the major component of the cat's diet are frequently poisoned by humans. People believe that the rodents carry disease, destroy crops, and/or damage the habitat.
Toxoplasmosis may be a major threat to Pallas cat kittens in captivity. The Pallas cat has reproduced in zoos. Not all of the infants have survived, however, and in the recent past there has been a high kitten mortality rate. The survival rate appears to be increasing as zoos learn how to lower the risk of infection in their cats. Nevertheless, the disease is still a concern, as mentioned in a 2018 report from a Pueblo Zoo representative. The report is referenced below.
Like many animals classified as "Near Threatened" by the IUCN, the Pallas cat population is in danger of entering the more serious "Vulnerable" category. Education of the public and enforcement of wildlife protection laws are important strategies to help the animal's population. The Pallas cat does have the advantage of preferring to live in remote areas, but unfortunately humans are gradually encroaching on these areas.
Captive-bred animals can't be released into the wild unless they are free of toxoplasmosis, so dealing effectively with this disease is another very important strategy for Pallas cat conservation.
Although Pallas cats are quite common in captivity, there is much that is unknown about their lives in the wild. Camera trapping (filming wild animals with an unattended camera) has begun. Hopefully this and other techniques will enable us to learn more about the wild cats and also help us to protect them.
The Pallas's cat entry from the International Society for Endangered Cats Canada
Pallas cat facts from Big Cat Rescue
Facts about the Pallas' cat from the Feline Conservation Federation
The Otocolobus manul entry from the IUCN Red List
Information about Otocolobus manul from Wildscreen Arkive
Toxoplasmosis information from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
Breeding captive Pallas cats from a representative of the Pueblo Zoo, as reported in the Pueblo Chieftain (a Colorado newspaper)
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Linda Crampton