Victor Loche first described the sand cat in 1858 from a specimen found in the Sahara. He proposed to name the species in recognition of Jean Auguste Margueritte who headed the expedition into the Sahara.
The sand cat is a small, stocky cat with short legs and a relatively long tail. The fur is of a pale sandy color, usually without spots or stripes. The lower and upper lips, chin, throat and belly are white. The ears are tawny brown at the base with a black tip. The lower part of the face is whitish, and a faint reddish line runs from the outer corner of each eye, angling down across the cheek. The large and greenish yellow eyes are surrounded by a white ring, and the naked tip of the nose is black. There are blackish bars on the limbs, and the tail has a black tip with two or three dark rings alternating with buff bands. In northern regions, the sand cat's winter coat can be very long and thick, with hairs reaching up to 2 in (5.1 cm) in length.
Its head and body length ranges from 39 to 52 cm (15 to 20 in), with a 23.2 to 31 cm (9.1 to 12.2 in) long tail. It weighs from 1.35 to 3.2 kg (3.0 to 7.1 lb). The auditory bullae and the passages from the external ears to the ear drums are greatly enlarged relative to other small felids. The undersides of the paws are protected from extreme temperatures by a thick covering of fur. The head is broad. The pinna of the ears is triangular, and the ear canal is very wide, giving the cat an enhanced sense of hearing. The ears are large and more pointed than in the manul. They are set low, giving a broad flat appearance to the head. This trait may protect the inner ears from wind-blown sand and aid detection of movements of subterranean prey. A highly developed hearing capacity is important for locating prey, which is not only sparsely distributed in arid environments, but also found underground.
The long hairs growing between its toes create a cushion of fur over the foot pads, helping to insulate them while moving over hot sand. The claws on the hind feet are small and blunt and, combined with the fur over the foot pads, makes the animal's tracks obscure and difficult to follow. The sand cat’s claws are not very sharp, as there is little opportunity to sharpen them in the desert; impressions of the claws are often visible in the tracks.
Sand cats are found primarily in both sandy and stony desert and have a wide but apparently disjunct distribution through the deserts of northern Africa and southwest and central Asia. They prefer flat or undulating terrain with sparse vegetation, avoiding bare sand dunes, where there is relatively little food. They can survive in temperatures ranging from −5 °C (23 °F) to 52 °C (126 °F), retreating into burrows during extreme conditions. Although they will drink when water is available, they are able to survive for months on the water in their food.
Small rodents are their primary prey, with records from Africa including spiny mice, jirds, gerbils, jerboas, and young of cape hare. They have also been observed to hunt small birds like Greater Hoopoe Lark, Desert Lark, and consume reptiles such as Desert Monitor, Fringe-toed lizards, sandfish, short-fingered gecko, horned and sand vipers, and insects. They are capable of satisfying their moisture requirements from their prey but drink readily if it is available. They can dig rapidly to extract their prey from the ground and bury prey remains in the sand for later consumption.
Sand cats live solitary lives outside of the mating season. They communicate using scent and claw marks on objects in their range and by urine spraying. They do not leave their feces in exposed locations as many other felids do. They make vocalizations similar to domestic cats but also make loud, high-pitched barking sounds, especially when seeking a mate. Hearing plays an important role in intraspecific communication; sand cats make a short, rasping bark in connection with mating activity.
They inhabit burrows and use either abandoned fox or porcupine burrows or enlarge those dug by gerbils or other rodents. The burrow is about 1.5 m (4.9 ft) deep and dug in slightly slanting ground with a single entrance, but also two or three were observed. In winter, they stay in the sun during the day, but during the hot season, they are crepuscular and nocturnal.