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African Wild Dog Facts: Attractive and Endangered Animals

Linda Crampton is a writer and experienced science teacher with an honors degree in biology. She enjoys writing about science and nature.

A colourful African wild dog or painted dog

A colourful African wild dog or painted dog

Attractive and Interesting Animals

African wild dogs are lean, long-legged, and attractive animals that live in sub-Saharan Africa. They have a mottled coat and are also known as painted dogs, Cape hunting dogs, or simply as wild dogs. The animals have a colourful and unique appearance. They live in packs and are very social. They are completely carnivorous and hunt cooperatively for their prey. Unfortunately, the African wild dog is an endangered species.

The scientific name of the animal is Lycaon pictus. It's the only living member of the Lycaon genus. As its common name suggests, it belongs to the dog family, or the Canidae, like the domestic dog and the wolves and coyotes of North America. The last three animals look very different from an African wild dog, however, and they belong to a different genus. Lycaon pictus is sometimes referred to as a canid after the name of its family.

No two wild dogs are marked exactly the same.

— African Wildlife Foundation

Physical Features of the Species

The coat of an African wild dog contains beautiful splotches of white, grey, black, brown, tan, and yellow hair. Each animal has a distinctive coat pattern. The tip of the tail is always white, however, and the muzzle is black. A black stripe extends up the face from the muzzle. The term "painted dog" is certainly appropriate for the species. The animal's hair is generally short but is longer around the neck. The erect ears are large and are usually rounded. They are often described as “bat-like”.

Wild dogs are 24 to 30 inches in height, measured from the ground to the shoulder, and weigh between 37 and 80 pounds. Males are usually larger than females. The animals have long and thin legs. They are the only members of their family without dewclaws and have four toes on each foot. Other members of the family Canidae have four toes on each hind foot but five toes on each forefoot. Four of the toes on a forefoot touch the ground, while one—the dewclaw—is higher up and doesn't touch the ground.

Social Life in the Pack

African wild dogs live in packs that usually contain 6 to 20 animals. In general, only the alpha male and female (the dominant animals) breed. All of the animals play a role in the pack's daily life, however.

The animals exhibit intricate greeting rituals. They touch noses, lick each other, and chirp, whine, and squeal as they interact. This interaction is often seen right before a hunt. As the animals circulate in the pack before they start their hunt, they greet their companions, wag their tails, run, leap, and become more and more excited.

Although the canids are fierce hunters, they show no or very little aggression towards other members of their pack, even when they're eating their prey. Some researchers have observed that when youngsters are involved in a hunt, the adults let them feed on the prey first. Researchers have also observed the animals feeding old, sick, or injured members of their pack.

African wild dogs feed peacefully after a hunt, and all members share in the feast.

— Wildlife Conservation Society

Hunting Behaviour of the Canids

The animals generally hunt at dawn and dusk. Their usual prey is antelope, including gazelles. They also attack larger prey such as young zebras, wildebeest, and warthogs as well as smaller animals like rodents and birds. The mottled colouring of the animals apparently confuses their prey. Their large ears provide excellent hearing and also help to cool the animals down.

African wild dogs run at speeds of up to 35 miles an hour. Occasionally, they reach 40 miles an hour. They can run for a long time without tiring. The animals communicate during a hunt with high-pitched chirping sounds. They also emit a call that travels long distances in order to keep in touch with their companions. They have been observed hunting in relays, with the lead animal changing during the hunt.

It’s estimated that wild dog hunts end in success 70 to 90 percent of the time. This is a very high success rate compared to that of lions, who are believed to successfully obtain prey in only 30 to 40 percent of their attempts.

The canids have a strong bite and bring down their prey quickly. They kill by disemboweling large prey rather than by grabbing the neck and suffocating it, as lions do. Their method of killing other animals has been seen as especially cruel by some people and has given the canid a bad reputation. Some researchers say that it's actually a quicker way to kill the prey than the suffocation method.

An Incident Involving a Captive Group

An attractive and interesting as African wild dogs are, it's important to remember that they are wild animals, even when they are kept in captivity. A sad incident in the UK in 2020 reminds us of this fact.

A pack of wild dogs lives at the West Midlands Safari Park. Storm Ciara was a fierce event that damaged the animals' compound and caused major problems in other areas of the country. The wild dogs escaped from their enclosure through a damaged gate and entered a neighbouring compound that contained Barbary sheep and Persian fallow deer. The pack of canids killed ten sheep and six deer.

The canids were returned to their compound after the event and were unharmed by the incident. The death of the sheep and deer was sad, but the wild dog pack was behaving naturally according to their hunting instincts.

Reproduction and Life Stages

The gestation period of an African wild dog is about two and a half months. The litter usually contains between ten and sixteen babies, but some may die. The babies are born in an underground den and have black coats with white spots. When they are very young and need their mother's full time attention, other members of the pack regurgitate food to feed the mother in the den.

The pups open their eyes about thirteen days after birth. Weaning happens when they are about eleven weeks old. Once the youngsters are weaned, other members of the pack—both males and females—help to feed them. The adults regurgitate food to give to the babies. When the adults in the pack leave to hunt for food, a few stay behind as babysitters for the pups. Unless there are puppies to take care of, the pack doesn’t stay in one place for very long. The pack lives a nomadic life except in the few months needed to raise the young.

Males pups generally stay with the pack in which they were born, but all of the females leave to join another pack when they are around two years old. The emigrating females generally stay together as they search for a group of unrelated males to join. The successful union of the females and males forms a new pack. Occasionally, the male pups leave their natal pack as well. African wild dogs generally live between nine and eleven years but have lived for as long as thirteen years in captivity.

When opposite-sex groups join, they undergo what has been termed a "trial courtship" that may or may not result in the formation of a stable reproductive unit.

— African Wild Dog Conservancy

Size of the African Wild Dog Population

According to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), the last population assessment of African wild dogs was carried out in 2012. The assessment estimated that there were 6,600 adults at that time. Only 1,409 of this number were classified as mature. The researchers defined "adult" individuals as those aged one or older and "mature" individuals as those that reproduced in the season in which the count was completed. The assessment needs to be updated.

The estimate of the number of mature individuals was challenging. Normally, only the alpha male and female in a pack reproduce. The other adults in the pack are capable of reproduction but are generally reproductively suppressed. Sometimes subordinate members of the pack do mate and have pups, however. In addition, since helpers take care of the babies (a behaviour known as cooperative breeding), it's sometimes hard to know who the parents are.

Threats to Survival

A major problem for Lycaon pictus today is habitat fragmentation. The animals were once distributed over a much wider area, and their population was continuous over this area. Now they are found in isolated populations, which reduces genetic mixing. Mixing of genes helps to maintain a healthy population.

Another problem is that wild dogs are being shot, poisoned, and trapped by farmers who want to protect their animals. Although the canids have attacked unprotected farm animals in some areas, researchers say that they are often falsely assumed to be the culprit when farm animals are killed.

Poaching is also a problem for the species. They are caught in snares set for other animals, which are illegally trapped for meat. Some wild dogs are killed by road traffic or by lions.

An additional challenge for the species is the introduction of diseases carried by domestic dogs into the wild dog packs. These diseases include rabies and distemper. Since African wild dogs are such social animals and greet each other by licking, if even one animal is infected by disease the infection will quickly spread through the whole pack.

It's hard to create a fence that's foolproof against African wild dog attacks on livestock. One researcher has discovered that urine obtained from another pack is a deterrent to the animals, however. Artificial scent marking may be useful as a repellent in the future.

Conservation of the Animals

Conservation organizations are studying African wild dogs, working to preserve the population, and trying to educate the public about ways to protect livestock. In addition, they are training local people to monitor and protect the animal's population. Anti-poaching, rehabilitation, and re-introduction projects are underway.

Conservationists are also trying to increase the amount of land available for wild dogs. When the animals are confined to a small area, it may be harder to find suitable prey. There is also a higher chance that they will come into conflict with humans or pick up diseases from domestic or feral dogs.

A promising initiative is the creation of the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA). The University of Zurich says that this is the world’s largest terrestrial conservation area. It’s located in southern Africa, has an area of 520,000 square kilometers, and spans five countries. GPS collars on some African wild dogs have shown that KAZA covers a large part of their habitat in the region. Although the coverage of the animal’s habitat isn’t complete, the KAZA project aims to eventually incorporate the missing sections.

Protecting the African Wild Dog

The University of Zurich says that about 6,000 African wild dogs exist. They don’t differentiate between adults and juveniles. Their estimate is a little lower than the IUCN’s. Both organizations say that Lycaon pictus is an endangered species. Conservation efforts such as the creation of a region in which the species is protected are therefore very important. Hopefully, the efforts to help the wild dog will be successful and this unique and beautiful animal will survive for a long time to come.


  • Lycaon pictus information from the World Wildlife Fund
  • Information about the animal from the African Wild Dog Foundation
  • Saving Africa's wild dogs with urine from the ScienceDaily news service
  • Storm Ciara and the canids at the West Midlands Safari Park from the Guardian newspaper
  • The African wild dog in the world’s largest terrestrial conservation area from the news service (via the University of Zurich)
  • Lycaon pictus status on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List

© 2011 Linda Crampton


Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 15, 2013:

Thanks for the comment, Pet Artist.

Pet Artist on April 15, 2013:

Very interesting read, thanks.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 07, 2012:

Thank you for the comment and the votes, sgbrown. I appreciate your visit. I think that painted dogs are very interesting animals too!

Sheila Brown from Southern Oklahoma on March 07, 2012:

Very interesting hub. I enjoy learning new things about animals. I have heard of the "painted dog" before, but really didn't know anything about it. Very interesting animals. I enjoyed your hub! Voted up and interesting. :)

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 31, 2011:

Thank you for the comment and the information, Suhail and my dog. It is very interesting to see how African wild dogs are similar to - and also different from - domestic dogs and wolves!

Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent from Mississauga, ON on December 31, 2011:

They are one step away from dogs *Canis Lupus Familiaris) than the Gray Wolf (Canis Lupus), but it is interesting to see how closely they resemble dogs and wolves in behaviour. Many of these fine canids are killed by lions who see them as competitors. Also, hyenas give them a tough time over their hunts. Very informative hub. Thank you for sharing.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 31, 2011:

Thanks, CMHypno. Yes, it would be very sad if African wild dogs disappeared from the world.

CMHypno from Other Side of the Sun on March 31, 2011:

Great hub on African Wild Dogs, Alicia, they are such beautiful creatures. It will be such a loss to our planet if they do go extinct

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 22, 2011:

Hi, Leafblade. I agree - it is fascinating to see that African wild dogs have such different behaviors from other social predators, and I'm sure that there's still much more that we can learn about them. Thanks for the comment.

Leafblade from Philadelphia on March 22, 2011:

Ever time I read and watch documentaries about them I become more fascinated by how different they are from other social predators. Think it has been close to a year since I read or watched anything on the animals and am very grateful to you for posting this.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 21, 2011:

Hi, Minnetonka Twin. I know that African wild dogs need to catch and eat other animals in order to survive, but I was hoping that the gazelle would escape too when I first saw the video! Thank you for the comment.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 21, 2011:

Hi, Fossillady. Yes, I think that the lives of African wild dogs and their problems should be publicized more. Thanks for visiting.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 21, 2011:

Thank you very much, Lucky Cats. It’s nice to meet you!

Linda Rogers from Minnesota on March 21, 2011:

What an incredibly beautiful animal. I can't believe the colors on them. What a hard life they have trying to survive the elements and humans. Hopefully we can take care of this population of African Wild Dogs. Great and interesting hub. Loved the videos. The music really created some anxiety. I have to admit, I was glad the gazelle swam away to safety.

Kathi Mirto from Fennville on March 21, 2011:

Very interesting, I think these animals are amazing and they haven't received as much recognition as they deserve!

Kathy from Independence, Kansas on March 21, 2011:

Amazing video and interesting information about this animal about whom I have heard very little. Excellent hub! Thank you AliciaC!!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 21, 2011:

Hi, A.A. Zavala. Yes, some people confuse hyenas and African wild dogs, although hyenas don't belong to the dog family. Thank you for your comment.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 21, 2011:

I agree, BkCreative - African wild dogs are beautiful animals! Thanks for visiting my hub and for the rating.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 21, 2011:

Hi, kashmir56. I'm glad that you enjoyed the hub. Thank you very much for the vote!

Augustine A Zavala from Texas on March 21, 2011:

They look like a hyena hybrid. Fascinating, thank you for sharing.

BkCreative from Brooklyn, New York City on March 21, 2011:

What a beauty. Love that painted coat. Thanks for all this information.

Rated up!

Thomas Silvia from Massachusetts on March 21, 2011:

Hi AliciaC, very interesting information about the African wild dogs and great video !

Awesome and vote up !!!