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. Unlike a housecat, however, 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 Pallas cat population is classified as near threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). 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 an animal population 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 big problem faced by Pallas cat kittens in captivity is their high susceptibility to toxoplasmosis, a disease caused by a parasite that also infects domestic cats and humans. Toxoplasmosis is often 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.
Coat and Appearance
The Pallas cat has a stocky build and a thick coat, making it look as though it's overweight. 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.
A Pallas cat has a variety of black markings. There are 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, and there is a white line under each eye.
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.
Pallas Cats at Prospect Park Zoo
The Lives of Pallas Cats
Pallas cats are most abundant at higher elevations in cold, dry grassland areas of Mongolia, China, and the Tibetan Plateau, although they aren't numerous anywhere. They prefer grasslands that contain some rocky outcrops for protection. The rocks are also a home for rodents and make it easier for the cats to ambush their prey. Pallas cats are good climbers.
In the wild the cats may be active at any time of the day or night, but they are primarily nocturnal. They spend their days protected in a rock crevice, in a cave, or in a burrow dug by another animal. In the late afternoon or early evening 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 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 below have already started to develop this technique. Pallas cats can be aggressive. Even in captivity they are not cuddly creatures.
Kittens Responding to Being Filmed at 12 Weeks Old
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.
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.
Pallas Cat Kittens at Four Months Old
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 humans, but its main host is the cat. 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.
There are medications 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 and raw meat.
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 and may become carriers of the parasite, but the kittens, who have immature immune systems, may die.
Pallas Cats Wei Shand (Male) and Tula (Female)
Threats to the Population
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, but these may not provide effective protection for the animals. Another problems is that the cats are killed to obtain body parts for use in traditional medicine. Rodents that the cats eat are frequently poisoned because people believe that the rodents carry plague or destroy crops. The IUCN states that habitat degradation caused by agriculture and grazing livestock is another threat.
Toxoplasmosis is a major threat to Pallas cat kittens in captivity. The Pallas cat breeds well in zoos, but not all of the infants have survived and there has been a high kitten mortality rate. The good news is the survival rate is increasing as zoos learn how to lower the risk of infection in their cats.
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 cat 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.
© 2012 Linda Crampton