African Wild Dog: Profile and Information

African Wild Dog

The African wild dog (Lycaon pictus), also called the Cape hunting dog, or the painted dog, is a canine endemic to sub-Saharan Africa.

It is one of the largest indigenous canines in Africa and the only still-existing member of the genus Lycaon, which is differentiated from Canis by a lack of dewclaws and dentition highly specialised for a hyper carnivorous diet.

There are approximately 6,600 adults (including 1,400 mature individuals) living in 39 subpopulations that are all threatened by human persecution, habitat fragmentation, and outbreaks of diseases.

Considered to be one of the largest subpopulations, probably consisting of less than 250 individuals, the African wild dog is a well-known endangered species listed on the IUCN Red List since 1990.

The African wild dog is a well-known social animal, moving and living in packs with separate dominance hierarchies for both sexes.

Common among social carnivores, the females disperse from the natal pack once they become fully sexually mature rather than males.

The offspring are allowed to feed only on carcasses at first. Similar to other canids, the African wild dog regurgitates food for its offspring, but this action is also done to other adults, to the point of being central to their daily life.

Its natural enemies are hyenas and lions: the former are frequent kleptoparasites, while lions will kill the canids where possible.

Scientific classification

Scientific nameL. pictus


Cape wild dog (L. p. pictus)The nominate subspecies inhabiting the Cape of Good Hope are distinguished by the large quantity of black orange-yellow fur overlapping the ears, the partly yellow backs of the ears, the mostly yellow underparts, and a number of whitish hairs on the mane of the throat. Those in Mozambique are characterized by the almost equal growth on both the upper and lower parts of the body of yellow and black, as well as having less white fur than the Cape type.
East African wild dog (L. p. lupinus)This subspecies is characterised by its very dark coat with very little yellow.
Somali wild dog (L. p. somalicus)This subspecies is smaller, has shorter and coarser hair, and has a lower dentition than the East African wild dog. Its colour closely corresponds to that of the wild dog of the Cape, with the yellow patches being buff.
West African wild dog (L. p. manguensis)
Chadian wild dog (L. p. sharicus)


The African wild dog has the most specialised adaptations among the canids for diet, coat colour, and for chasing its prey through its running (cursorial) ability.

The absence of the first digit on its forefeet increases its speed and stride, while it still possesses a graceful skeleton. This adaptation allows it to pursue its prey for long distances across open plains.

The teeth are commonly carnassial-shaped, and its premolars are one of the largest in terms of relative to the body size of any living carnivoran.

On the first lower molars (lower carnassials), the talonid has evolved to become a sharp cutting blade for flesh-slicing, with a loss or reduction of the post-carnassial molars.

This adaptation is said to also occur in two other hypercarnivores – the bush dog and dhole. Individuals differ in colours and patterns, which indicates a diversity of the underlying genes.

The main purpose of these coat patterns can be said to be an adaptation for concealment, communication, or temperature regulation.

The oldest African wild dog fossil dates back to 200,000 years ago. It was discovered in HaYonim Cave, Israel. The species Canis falconeri (Xenocyon) shared the African wild dog’s absent first dewclaw (metacarpal), though its dentition was still averagely unspecialised.


The African wild dog is one of the bulkiest and most solidly built of African canids. The species stands 24 to 30 in (60 to 75 cm) in shoulder height, measures 28 to 44 in (71 to 112 cm) in head-and-body length, and has a tail length of 11 to 16 in (29 to 41 cm). The bodyweight of adults ranges from 40 to 79 lb (18 to 36 kg).

Averagely, dogs from East Africa weigh around 44 to 55 lb (20–25 kg), while in southern Africa, males weigh a mean of 72 lb (32.7 kg) and females a mean of 54 lb (24.5 kg)). Females are usually 3 to 7% smaller than males.

Distinct to members of the genus Canis, the African wild dog has outsized ears, is comparatively tall and lean, and lacking dewclaws. Its dentition also varies from that of Canis through the narrowness of the canines, the degeneration of the last lower molar,  and proportionately wide premolars, which are one of the largest relative to body size of any carnivore.

A single, blade-like cusp crests the heel of the lower carnassial M1, which increases the shearing ability of the teeth, thus the speed at which prey can be eaten.

This trait is shared with two other canids (the Asian dhole and the South American bush dog), called the trenchant heel. The skull is comparatively shorter and wider than other canids.

The fur of the African wild dog, composed entirely of stiff bristle-hairs with no underfur, varies greatly from that of other canids. As it ages, it eventually sheds its hair, with older individuals becoming virtually almost naked.

Colour variation is extreme and can be used in visual recognition, as at distances of 50 to 100 m, African wild dogs can identify each other.

There is also some geographical variation in coat colour, with northeastern African specimens with small white and yellow patches appearing to be mostly black.

Southern African ones are more brightly coloured, sporting a combination of brown, black, and white coats. Most of the coat patterning of the species occurs on the legs and trunk.

There is no difference in facial markings, with the muzzle being black on the cheeks and forehead, eventually shading into brown. On the back of the ears, a black line runs up the forehead, becoming blackish-brown.

The neck and back of the head are either yellow and brown. Occasionally, behind the forelegs, a white patch occurs, with some specimens having fully white forelegs, throats, and chests.

The tail’s tip is normally white, the middle is black, and the base is brown. Some may have black fur below the white tip, while some lack the white tip entirely.

With the left side of the body sometimes having different markings than that of the right, these coat patterns may be asymmetrical.

Social behaviour

There are very close social relations within the African wild dog packs, stronger than those of sympatric spotted hyenas and lions; solitary life and hunting are also highly rare in the group.

They live in permanent packs of 2 – 27 adults and yearling pups. In Kruger National Park and the Maasai Mara, the average pack size is 4 or 5 adults, while packs in Moremi and Selous include 8 or 9.

However, in response to the seasonal migration of vast springbok herds in Southern Africa, larger packs have been spotted, and temporary aggregations of hundreds of individuals may have gathered.

Males and females have different hierarchies of dominance, with the oldest female typically leading the latter. The oldest male can lead the males, but younger specimens may be substituted for these; therefore, some packs can contain older former male leaders of the pack.

Usually, the dominant pair monopolises breeding. Since males stay in the natal pack, the species differs from most other social species, while females disperse (a pattern also found in primates such as chimpanzees, gorillas, and red colobuses).

In addition, males appear to outnumber females 3: 1 in any given pack. Dispersing females join other packs and expel some of the resident females associated with the other group members, thus preventing inbreeding and allowing the evicted individuals to find new packs of their own and race.

Males seldomly disperse, and when they do, other packs already containing males are invariably rejected. The breed, while possibly the most social canid, lacks the intricate facial expressions and body language seen in the grey wolf, undoubtedly due to the less structured social structure of the African wild dog.

In addition, while elaborate facial expressions are essential for wolves to re-establish bonds after long periods of separation from their family groups, African wild dogs, which remain together for much longer periods, are not as important.

Feeding and hunting behaviour

The African wild dog and the cheetah are the only major African predators that are mostly diurnal. By approaching prey quietly, the African wild dog hunts then chase it in a pursuit clocking for 10 – 60 minutes at up to 41 mph (66 km/h).

Usually, the typical chase only goes as far as 2 km. During this time, the prey animal, if large, is bitten repeatedly on the belly, legs, and rump until it stops moving, while the smaller prey is simply pulled down and ripped apart.

When it comes to hunting prey, African wild dogs have a higher success rate, although they are smaller than leopards and lions.

The African wild dog’s hunting tactics vary depending on the species of prey, with wildebeest being rushed to the herd to panic and isolate a helpless individual, while territorial antelope species that protect themselves by running in large circles are captured by cutting off their escape routes.

In 2 to 5 minutes, medium-sized prey is often killed, whereas larger prey will take half an hour to bring down, such as wildebeest. Usually, male wild dogs perform the job of catching dangerous prey by the nose, such as warthogs.

Performance in hunting varies with the type of prey, vegetation cover, and pack size, but wild African dogs tend to be very successful, sometimes with more than 60% of their chases resulting in a kill, often up to 90%.

This is much higher than a lion (27-30 percent) and hyena (25-30 percent) success rates appear to be, but these two large predators also lose their good kills to African wild dogs.

A study of 1,119 chases by a pack of 6 Okavango wild dogs found that most were uncoordinated short-distance chases, with a 15.5 percent individual kill rate. Each dog enjoyed an efficient benefit-cost ratio by sharing the kill.

In order to prevent injury, small prey such as mice, hares, and birds are hunted individually, with dangerous prey such as porcupines and cane rats being killed with a swift and well-placed bite.

Large animals are deprived of their meat and organs, with the skin, head, and skeleton remaining intact, while small prey is consumed entirely. In the wild, the consumption rate of the species is 1.2 to 5.9 kg (2.6 to 13.0 lb) per African wild dog a day, with an average of three animals a day being killed by one pack of 17 to 43 individuals in East Africa.

Unlike other social predators, both adults and young family members will regurgitate food. When killing, feeding well before the dominant pair, pups old enough to eat solid food are given first priority; subordinate adult dogs help feed and protect the pups.


In East Africa, African wild dog populations tend to have no set breeding season, while those in Southern Africa typically breed during the time between April and July.

A single male closely follows the female during estrus, which holds other members of the same sex at bay. In most canids, the copulatory tie characteristic of mating has been documented to be absent or very brief (less than one minute) in African wild dogs, likely adjusting to the prevalence in their environment of larger predators.

The gestation period lasts 69 to 73 days, with the time usually being 12 to 14 months between each birth. With litters containing from 6 to 16 pups, the African wild dog produces more pups than any other canid, with an average of 10, suggesting that a single female can produce enough young people per year to form a new pack.

As it would be difficult for the average pack to obtain the amount of food required to feed more than two litters, breeding is strictly restricted to the dominant female, which may kill its subordinates’ pups.

The mother stays close to the offspring in the den after giving birth while the rest of the pack hunts. Usually, she scares away pack members approaching the pups until the offspring are old enough at three or four weeks of age to consume solid food.

Around the age of three weeks, the pups leave the den and are suckled outside. The other pack members wean the pups at the age of five weeks, where they are fed regurgitated meat. The pups begin to adopt an adult appearance at seven weeks, with visible lengthening in the muzzle, legs, and ears.

The pack abandons the den once the pups reach the age of eight to 10 weeks, and the young pursue the adults during hunts. Eating first on kills, a privilege that ends once they become yearlings is allowed to the youngest pack members.


A species-wide analysis found that five species were the most frequently selected prey by preference, namely Thomson’s gazelle, the greater kudu, impala, blue wildebeest, and bushbuck.

More precisely, Thomson’s gazelle is the most common prey in East Africa, while impala, reedbuck, lechwe, kob, and springbok are targeted in Central and Southern Africa. However, its diet is not limited to these species, since warthog, duiker, oribi, waterbuck, Grant’s gazelle, African buffalo calves, ostrich, and smaller prey such as hares, dik-dik, spring hares, rodents, and cane rats are also hunted. Staple prey sizes are normally between 33 and 441 lb (15 and 200 kg), while upper prey sizes vary from 90 – 135 kg (198 – 298 lb) in some local studies.

Calves are primarily but not solely targeted in the case of larger species such as wildebeest and kudu. Some packs in the Serengeti, however, are very commonly specialised in hunting adult plain zebras weighing up to 530 lb (240 kg). Another study suggested that some wild dog prey could weigh up to 637 lb (289 kg).

African wild dogs seldomly scavenge, but suitable carcasses of spotted leopards, hyenas, cheetahs, and lions, as well as animals trapped in snares, have been observed on occasion.

African wild dogs in packs of 17 – 43 eat 3.7 lb (1.7 kg) of meat on average per day in East Africa.


In savanna and arid zones, the African wild dog is mainly found, usually avoiding forested areas. This preference is possibly related to the hunting habits of the species, requiring open areas that do not block vision or hinder pursuit.

Nevertheless, in search of prey, it can pass through the scrub, woods, and montane areas. Land-dwelling populations of African wild dogs have been recorded, including one in the Harenna Forest, in the Bale Mountains of Ethiopia, a wet montane forest up to 2400 m in altitude.

There is at least one record of a pack being spotted at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. The species has been seen and recorded at altitudes of 1,800 m in Zimbabwe.

This species has been found at high altitudes in Ethiopia; several live wild dog packs were observed at altitudes from 1,900 – 2,800 m, and a dead individual was found at 4,050 m on the Sanetti Plateau in June 1995.


Formerly ranging through most of sub-Saharan Africa, African wild dogs were once absent only in the driest desert regions and lowland forests.

In North and West Africa, the species has been completely exterminated and has substantially decreased in number in Central Africa and Northeast Africa. The bulk of the species’ population now occurs in Southern East Africa and Southern Africa; in countries such as Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe, more precisely.

However, because of the lack of habitat, it is difficult to track where they are and how many there are.

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