Small Cat Spotlight: Pallas’s Cat

By Ross Rosenthal
Marketing and Communications Specialist

Pallas's cat

For our seventh installment of Small Cat Spotlight, we’re turning our attention to Central Asia, the vast expanse of steppe and mountains home to a famous small cat: Pallas’s cat (Otocolobus manul). More than just a funny, furry face, learn more about this small cat and programs to study them across their range.


These small cats are characteristically stocky, with flat foreheads. The face is unmistakable: Pallas’s cats possess wide cheeks, fluffy ears on each side of their furry head and many characterize them as having a perpetually grouchy expression. They have black stripes on their face, with tufts of white flanking it from the eyes to the cheeks. Generally, Pallas’s cats have grey fur, especially in the winter, while they may have reddish fur in the summer months. 

These photogenic cats have bodies specialized for living in cold, snowy environments. Their bodies help them camouflage with snow and rocks. However, it is hard to mistake them for any other small cat; only the Chinese mountain cat comes close.

Two Pallas' cats

Distribution and Habitat: 

Pallas’s cats have a patchy range across much of South, North, East and Central Asia’s snowy, cold steppe. They prefer habitats like grasslands or deserts with vegetation or rocky outcroppings for cover. While their bodies are adapted for snow, they seldom inhabit areas with snow cover of more than 15 cm (about 6 inches). Their main stronghold is in Russia, Mongolia and western China, with significant populations in Kazakhstan, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan. Small populations also exist in South Asia, with little known about populations that reside in Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan.

Pallas' cat crouching

Ecology and Behavior: 

Pallas’s cats have a wide diet, but they primarily prey on small mammals, including rodents, lagomorphs (rabbits and hares) and pikas, which are commonplace across much of their range. However, they have been known to prey on birds, lizards and, on very rare occasions, small wild sheep species. They are primarily crepuscular carnivores, hunting during dusk and dawn to avoid their own predators like eagles and foxes. 

Pallas’s cats have astoundingly large home ranges for their size, with one male recorded as having a territory of up to 207 square kilometers (129 square miles). A male’s territory can overlap with up to four females, and Pallas’s cats have been known to migrate territories in the months when they may be at risk from predation.  

Male Pallas’s cats often injure one another when they fight over mates, during a winter mating season. Females usually bear three to four kittens every year in the wild, with two-thirds of these kittens not reaching adulthood primarily due to hunting by foxes and birds of prey in addition to killing by domestic dogs and people. Indeed, Pallas’s cats have an average lifespan of six years in the wild, compared to 11.5 in captivity.

Pallas' cat on rock staring

Status and Threats:

Pallas’s cats are listed as “Near Threatened” on the IUCN Red List with a decreasing population. While not an especially imperiled small cat, they do not occur at high densities and face future threats of development for mining and agriculture. They also have fallen victim to incidental poisoning because livestock herders poison their primary prey, pikas, and were once hunted for their fur. Their trade was outlawed internationally in the 1980s, though hunting still exists in Mongolia. Additionally, Pallas’s cats are often bycatch in traps set by nomads intended for wolves and foxes and are killed by domestic dogs.

Pallas' cat on rock

Panthera’s Work: 

Panthera currently partners with the Snow Leopard Conservancy – India Trust to study Pallas’s cat ecology and mitigate their threats in Ladakh, India. This begins with interviews with local communities and direct observations of Pallas’s cats to make an initial assessment of their distribution and threats. Additionally, Panthera’s Conservation Genetics Team and partners are currently trialing an emerging genetics tool called eDNA (environmental DNA) using Pallas’s cat as a focal species in Mongolia. In the past, however, Panthera has not done any specific work on Pallas’s cats. Still, since much of Pallas’s cat range overlaps with snow leopard range, our camera traps meant to record snow leopards have incidentally captured Pallas’s cats in the past, allowing us to monitor their distribution. Programs to protect snow leopards also trickle down to Pallas’s cats — international interventions preventing wildlife trade and more ecotourism bring benefits to many species living in snow leopard range, including Pallas’s cats. 
Learn more about Panthera’s Small Cats Program and read our other Small Cat Spotlights.