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African Black-Footed Cat: A Small Feline and a Fierce Hunter

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

An African black-footed cat in captivity

An African black-footed cat in captivity

A Small and Secretive Animal

The black-footed cat is the smallest wild cat native to Africa. It’s a beautiful but uncommon animal whose population is classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It's nocturnal, unsociable, and a fierce hunter. Modern research techniques are slowly allowing us to understand its life in the wild. The scientific name of the animal is Felis nigripes.

Black-footed cats inhabit southern Africa and are found mainly in Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa. They live in both savanna and semi-desert areas. They are present in some zoos, which allows visitors to see the animals at close range. Zoos are often controversial institutions, but some have benefits. The best ones provide a good environment for their charges and also play a role in wildlife reproduction and conservation. The latter functions are important when a species is in trouble.

Although Felis nigripes is often referred to as a "cat", it belongs to a different species from the house or domestic cat (Felis catus). Both animals belong to the family Felidae, which is often referred to as the cat family.

Physical Features of the Species

Although it’s not a domestic cat, the face of a black-footed cat may remind some people of one. The animal has black spots and stripes on a buff or light brown background. The stripes are especially noticeable on the shoulders, legs, and tail. The soles of the feet are black, which gives the animal its name (although other types of wild cats also have black soles). The soles can often be seen as the animal moves because the cat is digitigrade. This term means that it walks on its toes.

Black-footed cats are small and lightweight animals. Males may reach a little over five pounds in weight but are usually in the four pound range, while females generally weigh around three pounds. Males are fourteen to seventeen inches long, not including the tail, and eight to ten inches tall at the shoulder. Females have slightly smaller dimensions.

Black-footed cats are small, but they are not the smallest wild cat in the world. This honour goes to the rusty-spotted cat of India and Sri Lanka. The latter animal weighs between two pounds and three-and-a-half pounds.

The Life of a Black-Footed Cat

The black-footed cat is a solitary animal. In the wild, it spends its day sleeping in a burrow dug by an aardvark, a porcupine, or another animal. It's a good digger and enlarges the burrow if necessary. It may also occupy an old termite mound, giving the cat the alternate name of anthill tiger. The animal reminds people of a tiger not only because of its stripes but also because of its ferocity.

At night, the cat comes out to hunt. Whenever it can, it moves under cover of shrubs and trees to hide from its prey. The colour and pattern of the coat help to camouflage the animal in dim light. It travels between five and twelve miles a night to find food.

The cat has a tapetum lucidum in its eyes. This layer of tissue is located behind the retina. The retina is the layer that sends a signal to the brain when stimulated by light, allowing an animal to see. The tapetum lucidum reflects light that travels through the retina back to the retinal cells, giving them a second chance to be stimulated. This process is important in improving sensitivity to light during the night. It also produces the glowing eye effect when light is shone on some animals in the dark.

Research suggests that black-footed cats catch between ten and fourteen prey animals every night. This provides a very high energy intake in proportion to their body size compared to the situation for other wild cats. The animals don't seem to require much water. They will drink water if it's available, but they seem to get by with the moisture obtained from the bodies of their prey.

During one night they travel distances of 8-20 km, leaving up to 600 urine spray marks.

— WAZA (World Association of Zoos and Aquariums) with respect to black-footed cats

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Hunting for Food

Black-footed cats hunt mainly by stalking and pouncing on their prey at the last moment. They sometimes chase the prey, however. In captivity, they've been observed flattening themselves against the ground when they are close to potential prey and creeping forward until they are near enough to pounce.

In the wild, the cats have been seen sitting patiently by a rodent's burrow, even closing their eyes as they wait for their prey to emerge. Their large, flicking ears move almost constantly to pick up sounds. Their quick response when any activity occurs indicates that they are definitely not sleeping.

Since the cats are so small, they generally catch small animals such as mice, gerbils, shrews, insects, and spiders. They also catch small birds and reptiles. They sometimes kill larger prey, however, such as Cape hares and bustards (large birds that can fly but prefer to live on land). They kill bustards with a bite to the back of the neck. They scavenge prey killed by other predators in addition to killing animals themselves.

Black-footed cats have a high metabolic rate and big appetites. They have been observed gorging themselves on large animals. If they are unable to finish a meal, they bury it or take it to their den to eat later.

In one night, a black-footed cat kills between 10 and 14 rodents or small birds, averaging a kill about every 50 minutes.

— Luke Hunter, Panthera organization, via Live Science


Captive black-footed cats produce a very loud meow that travels for long distances. This sound is thought to be useful in the wild when a male and female need to attract each other for mating, since they normally roam far apart.

The animals also purr and make a gurgling sound. In addition, they growl and hiss when they are in an aggressive mood. The ears are flattened and lowered to the sides of the head during aggression.

Territories, Mating, and Reproduction

Each cat establishes a territory, which it marks with urine, feces, and scent glands. The males have larger territories than the females. A male's territory may overlap the territory of several females.

According to most researchers, a female is reproductively mature at somewhere between eight and ten months. The only time that male and female black-footed cats come together is to mate. Mating usually takes place in August or September. The female is able to reproduce for only one or two days in this time period and is receptive to a male for just five to ten hours. In some areas, the female has two litters a year. Gestation lasts for a little over two months.

Black-footed cats live for up to thirteen years in captivity but probably have a shorter lifespan in the wild.

Kitten Development

The kittens are born in November or December in an underground burrow or an old termite mound. The litter consists of one to four kittens, but generally two are born. In the wild, the male takes no part in raising the youngsters. The mother frequently transfers her kittens to a new den as they mature, most likely to avoid attracting the interest of predators.

The young cats develop rapidly. One researcher observed that even a five-week-old kitten could kill and eat a live mouse brought to it by its mother. The short mating time of the adults and the rapid development of the youngsters probably make the cats less vulnerable to attack by larger animals. These animals include jackals, caracals, hyenas, and birds of prey.

Some Notable Zoo Births

Brookfield Zoo

On Valentine's Day in 2012, a four year old black-footed cat named Cleo gave birth to a kitten at Brookfield Zoo. The zoo is run by the Chicago Zoological Society in the United States. Unfortunately, the kitten was underweight at birth and his mother didn't provide the necessary care. When the zoo staff saw that the kitten wasn't nursing and discovered that his temperature was very low, they became concerned about his chances for survival. As a result, they removed him from his mother to hand rear him. The video above shows the kitten when he was very young.


Other zoos and conservation organizations are breeding black-footed cats, sometimes using assisted reproduction techniques. In 2012, an embryo was created from an egg and sperm in a laboratory and then implanted into the uterus of a female house cat named Amelie. The embryo developed normally. The kitten was named Crystal and was born on February 6th, 2012, at the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species (ACRES). This facility is located in New Orleans. Crystal is shown in the video below.

Philadelphia Zoo

On April 8th, 2014, three black-footed cat kittens were born at the Philadelphia Zoo. Both parents came from the Kansas City Zoo. The male kittens were named Drogon and Viserian and the female kitten was named Rhaegal.

San Diego Zoo Safari Park

In April, 2020, Ryder (a male) and Skyler (a female) were born in the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Their births brought the number of black-footed cats in the facility to six.

The Deadliest Cat on Earth

The black-footed cat has recently attracted the media's attention because of its hunting ability. The animal is being called "the deadliest cat on Earth". It's not deadly to humans and large animals, but it is dangerous for small prey.

Although it's small, the cat kills many animals. The BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) and the Panthera wild cat conservation organization say that the black-footed cat has a 60% success rate when hunting. In contrast, a lion is said to have up to a 25% success rate.

The attention bring paid to the cat might be useful if it also draws people's attention to the animal's population status. As is true for so many animals on Earth today, one of the reasons for the vulnerability of the cat's population is habitat destruction and degradation by humans.

With a 60 percent success rate, black-footed cats are about three times as successful as lions, which average a successful kill about 20 to 25 percent of the time.

— Luke Hunter, Panthera organization, via Live Science

The International Union for Conservation of Nature maintains a Red List for animals and plants. This list classifies organisms according to their nearness to extinction.

LC: Least Concern

NT: Near Threatened

VU: Vulnerable

EN: Endangered

CR: Critically Endangered

EW: Extinct in the Wild

EX: Extinct

Population Status and Threats

The latest assessment of the black-footed cat population was performed in 2016. The IUCN has placed the population in its "Vulnerable" category. The researchers caution that the assessment may not be accurate due to the difficulty in finding the cats. Their patchy distribution, low density, and nocturnal and secretive habits make them hard to find them. The IUCN suspects that the population is decreasing, however.

One probable threat to the animals is habitat destruction and degradation due to livestock grazing and agriculture. In some places, the cat's habitat is being destroyed in order for farmers to grow crops. The animals that the cats eat may be decreasing in number as a result.

Since it's such a small creature, farmers don't consider the black-footed cat to be a threat to their livestock. However, it's killed in traps designed for larger animals and is also killed when it eats poisoned bait food set out for other predators. The IUCN mentions predation by domestic animals as a possible threat as well as road collisions. The cat's main predators in nature are black-backed jackals and caracals. Habitat shifting due to climate change may also be affecting the animal.

Protection for the Future

It's important that more information is obtained about the black-footed cat population. The animal's population status may be better than suspected, but on the other hand it may be worse. Conservation efforts in the wild are important and should be encouraged, but many researchers consider breeding efforts in zoos to be vital. This is why they are excited whenever healthy kittens are born in captivity. Hopefully, the species will survive for a long time.


  • Information about the black-footed cat from the International Society for Endangered Cats (ISEC) Canada
  • Black-footed cat facts from Oxford University Press
  • The world's deadliest cat from Live Science
  • Felix nigripes entry from the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List

Questions & Answers

Question: What is being done to save the black-footed cats?

Answer: Zoos and conservation organizations are breeding the cats. This may help to preserve the species, though life in captivity is not ideal. The IUCN Red List web page for the species says that hunting the animal is banned in South Africa and Botswana. The web page also says that although the animal is classified as "protected" in some areas, the effectiveness of the protection methods is unclear. More data needs to be collected in the countries where the animal lives, and conservation plans need to be established and followed in those countries.

Question: What are the benefits of the black-footed cat in its ecosystem?

Answer: One benefit is the fact that the black-footed cat helps to keep the rodent population under control. A single cat may eat several thousand rodents in a year. The cat also serves as food for other predators, which helps to sustain them.

© 2012 Linda Crampton


Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 16, 2012:

Thank you for the comment and vote, moonlake. Yes, black-footed cats are small, but I agree with you - they are pretty!

moonlake from America on April 16, 2012:

How interesting about this cat. They are really small, so pretty. Enjoyed your hub. Voted Up.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 10, 2012:

Thank you very much, Tina! I appreciate your comment and the vote. It is sad that so many animals are in trouble and that humans are often responsible for their plight. There is a lot of work that needs to be done to protect wildlife.

Christina Lornemark from Sweden on April 10, 2012:

This is a wonderful hub Alicia and I enjoyed reading about this beautiful and interesting cat. It is so sad that there are so many animals struggling for their survival. A wild cat like this is so special and well adapted to its natural environment as it was before. Thank you so much for this hub, you always manage to design the hubs well and share so much interesting information! Voted up, and more


Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 06, 2012:

Thank you very much for the comment, the votes and the share, sgbrown! I love animals too. Learning about them is fascinating! I hope that you have a great day as well.

Sheila Brown from Southern Oklahoma on April 06, 2012:

Wonderful hub! I love the videos. I am an animal finatic. I love learning about different species. You have a lot of very good information here and great pictures too! Voted up, interesting and sharing on my blog! Have a great day! :)

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 02, 2012:

Hi, Tom. Thanks for the visit! I think that all the wild cats are interesting and beautiful animals. The black-footed cat is fascinating because it's so secretive in the wild!

Thomas Silvia from Massachusetts on April 02, 2012:

Hi my friend, thanks for making a hub about this very beautiful wild cats.I enjoyed reading all the interesting facts and information about them .

Vote up and more !!!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 31, 2012:

Thank you so much for your lovely comment, Prasetio! I appreciate your visits and your votes very much. There are certainly some beautiful and fascinating animals in this world, and it's wonderful to study them. I hope that you have a great weekend!

prasetio30 from malang-indonesia on March 31, 2012:

Dear, Alicia. I love the way you introduce this animal with us. You still my favorite hubbers who always share useful knowledge about animal kingdom. The world so beautiful, doesn't it? Thank you very much. Rated up and pushing all buttons, expect funny.


Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 31, 2012:

Thank you for the visit and the comment, drbj. Yes, the black-footed cat is an interesting creature, and it does seem to like being a squatter!

drbj and sherry from south Florida on March 31, 2012:

What an interesting animal, Alicia. The black-footed cat likes to be a tenant in a borrowed burrow or an old anthill even though it can burrow when it desires on its own. Guess there's a little 'squatter' in its makeup. Thanks for the black-footed cat education.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 30, 2012:

I agree, Maren Morgan - the kittens are adorable! Thanks for the visit.

Maren Elizabeth Morgan from Pennsylvania on March 30, 2012:

Those kittens are adorable.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 30, 2012:

Thank you for the votes, Joyce. I hope the zoo looks after the kitten too! In their press release they sounded quite confident that the kitten had passed the danger period now. I guess they didn't say much about the kitten's birth before now because they were afraid that it wouldn't survive.

Joyce Haragsim from Southern Nevada on March 30, 2012:

Beautiful kitten, I hope the zoo looks after him. votred up and beautiful.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 30, 2012:

Hi, Randall. I think the sound that you're referring to is played in the first video. It's often called a meow or a call instead of a roar. It is higher in pitch than a tiger's roar, as you say, and it can travel for long distances when it's produced in the wild.

Randall on March 30, 2012:

I've heard that this cat can roar like some of the big cats, only higher in pitch. It's been described as a soprano tiger's roar, but I can't find a sound clip of it anywhere.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 29, 2012:

Thanks for the visit and the comment, Nettlemere. The successful captive breeding programs are encouraging. Hopefully the wild population can be helped too.

Nettlemere from Burnley, Lancashire, UK on March 29, 2012:

Love the different footage you've managed to gather and the successful captive breeding reports.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 29, 2012:

Thanks for the visit, teaches12345. The young kitten at the zoo is very cute! People who work with these cats say that even the kittens may be fierce once they pass the very early stage of life. They are beautiful animals, though.

Dianna Mendez on March 29, 2012:

This is a beautiful cat. The claws are so long and I can understand how this cat can catch 14 prey each night. I love the Brooklyn Zoo video of the kitten, very charming.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 29, 2012:

Hi, CMHypno. Thanks for commenting. Yes, I noticed the long claws in the young kitten! It is good that zoos and other institutions are breeding black-footed cats.

CMHypno from Other Side of the Sun on March 29, 2012:

He is certainly a cute little kitten in the video Alicia, but even at such a young age he has long claws! It such a shame that wildcats such as these are under threat in the wild, but it is good that they seem to have an active breeding programme set up

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 29, 2012:

Hi, James. Thank you for commenting and for the vote. Yes, it's worrying that so many of the wild cat populations are in trouble. The cat in the third video was certainly confident, but the dog wasn't so happy!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 29, 2012:

Thank you, Eric. I think that the black-footed cat is beautiful, too!

James Kenny from Birmingham, England on March 29, 2012:

Interesting hub, Alicia. The African Black Footed Cat is definitely a typical wildcat, not willing to back down to anything. Most cats run a mile from my Jack Russell. It's a shame that its just one wildcat out of many that are endangered. Great work. Voted up.

Eric Prado from Denton, Texas on March 28, 2012:

Wow, what a very interesting hub and such a beautiful cat! Voted up =)

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