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Status: Endangered, with just over 1,400 mature individuals (IUCN, 2012) in a population of perhaps 5,000 including 2,500 in stronghold populations and 2,500 elsewhere.

Threats: Painted Dog populations continue to decline as a result of ongoing habitat fragmentation, conflict with farmers and livestock, snares, road accidents, and infectious disease.

Naming & Classification:

Names: African painted dog, African wild dog, Painted hunting dog, Cape hunting dog, African hunting dog

The first name denoted to the species from a type specimen in Mozambique was the Cape hunting dog  (Temminck, 1820). Lycaon pictus translates as "painted wolf-like animal," which highlights the multi-coloured patterning of the dogs as well as indicating the similarity in appearance only with true dogs' genus Canis whilst at the same time recognising the uniqueness of the species. The name "wild dog" developed during the era of persecution of all predators when the name was derogatorily applied to feral dogs, hyaenas, jackals and Cape hunting dogs.


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Carnivora

Family: Canidae

Genus: Lycaon (sole member)

Species: Lycaon pictus

Distribution & Habitat

Historic Distribution: Throughout Africa excluding true rain forest and desert.

Current Distribution: Patchily distributed in sub-Saharan Africa. Stronghold populations in Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Botswana, South Africa. Additional known populations in Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, Zambia, Namibia. Senegal, Cameroon and Ethiopia. 

Habitat: From semi-desert to grassland although savanna woodland mosaic and forest is preferred. Painted dogs have been recorded in widely varying environments. Where habitat is suitable and good resident prey populations exist, Painted dog densities average only one pack per 400sq km (150sq mi), while in less optimal habitats, densities as low as one per 2,000sq km (770sq mi) are not uncommon.

Territories: In keeping with the nomadic nature of the dogs, territories are not fixed in space though they may remain constant over a  wet or dry season, and then shift as circumstances change. Consequently, on the whole, territories do not overlap at any point in time and just drift seemingly in relational avoidance with neighbouring packs.  This drifting territoriality has dogs seemingly avoiding one another.

The mobility  of the dogs is impressive with the dogs easily ranging 20-30 km in a day and often at speed.  On record from Zimbabwe was a pack that traveled 43 km in two and a half hours with full stomachs bringing food back to the den. Long distances have also been recorded with animals dispersing with distances in the order of 250 km as the crow flies from the last territory being recorded.

Physical Characteristics

Size: Head–body length 75–120cm (30–47in); tail length 30–44cm (12–18in); shoulder height 75cm (30in): weight 20–32kg (44–71lb). No variation between sexes. Dogs from Southern  African populations are larger than East African ones and consequently approximately 3-5 (6-11lb) kg lighter.

Coat: Variable in length with each individual having a unique pattern comprising of black, gold and white.  There is no bilateral symmetry in the pattern. While the pattern is random, it does show inherited characteristics in various signature markings and the percentage of the various colours. All individuals have a dark muzzle, a central sagittal stripe, dark ears with characteristic hair tufts inside, and most individuals having a white tip to the tail. Dogs from East African  populations are generally darker than those in Southern Africa.

Pups are born black and white with the white remaining with the individual for the rest of their lives whilst some of the black turning to gold.  By the age of two and a half the colour pattern has finished evolving.

Reproduction & Longevity:

Development: Gestation 70–73 days. Eyes open at 10-14 days with the ears becoming erect at 2-3 weeks. The ears grow rapidly to the point at 12-14 weeks when they are even more seemingly disproportionally large. By the age of two years the dogs have finished growing skeletally however they do not seem to complete filling out  muscularly until two and a half to three years which interestingly coincides with the completion of the coat color development.

Longevity: About 8 years in the wild with the oldest dog known being from Zimbabwe and at least 11 years old when last seen. 


The social system of painted dogs can only be described as exemplary and at the top of the social pinnacle.  In contrast to wolves and most social primates, fighting is rare to non-existent with hierarchies being reinforced by etiquette rather than dominance.  Alphas seem to be ‘chosen/accepted’ for leadership qualities rather than by physical stature. This was borne out in research in Zimbabwe where on two occasions the alpha male had only three legs as a consequence of being snared and the dogs chewing their legs off in order to escape. Another alpha was also recorded as having no tail. Were physical dominance the selecting criteria, such handicapped dogs would never have made alpha status. Overt conflict is rare in the dogs and is seemingly resolved before it occurs given the dogs’ constant reinforcing of bonds without there being any obvious reason to do so other than to maintain cohesion.

In many ways this behaviour could be classed as pre-emptive conflict resolution which is rarely recorded in any other species. Greeting ceremonies are undertaken when pack members wake up prior to activities such as meeting the pups or going hunting. Such ceremonies comprise of each dog actively seeking out other pack members and with head lowered and back arched greeting each pack member in a seemingly submissive fashion with the mouth slightly open. This is reinforced by ‘spooning’ where the head is placed under the belly of the other dog and it will be partially lifted. These interactions may be accompanied by soft high-pitched yelps and begging squeals which form part of the dogs’ enormous repertoire of vocalizations.  This expansive auditory language is supported by numerous visual postures and cues by the ears, tail, mouth and back positions. Consequently, the combined effect is an ability to communicate at a very high level as would be required to operate at such a high level of social complexity.

Most of the vocal communication is high frequency which can only be heard at very close range and probably serves to avoid being detected by other predators such as lions and hyaenas which have been known to kill both adults and pups should they detect them.  Intriguingly, the dogs do have a long distance “hoo” call which can even be heard by humans as far as 2 km away. This call serves as a distress signal and can either be given by an individual that is lost or one that is looking for another.  Pups also seem to use it for some days after the loss of a same sexed sibling. Every dog has a unique signature to its “hoo” call thus enabling pack members to know exactly who is lost and most importantly if it is another member of their own pack. Pack members soon reassemble after tracking the direction and distance of the calls. Such is the need to maintain pack integrity, painted dogs are one of the few species that will look after their sick and old.  In the case of injured individuals, it has been noted that on the whole, one individual seemingly assumes the role of “doctor” when it comes to cleaning wounds and guarding the injured dog.  Every pack member will however regurgitate food to injured or old dogs as appropriate.


Painted dogs do everything together whether foraging, resting, or caring for pups. The average pack comprises an alpha pair, who initially are supported by their brothers and sisters, and later by their own pups when they reach yearling age class. The average pack is 6 -12 adults and yearlings with pups.  Very occasionally packs swell to 30 - 50 individuals when they are established and have a couple of years with good litters and high pup survival. However, this is usually only for very short periods as the pack then usually reduces in number sometimes by fission, but more usually with the sibling males and females born into the pack dispersing to try and form a pack of their own. This normally happens just after the mating season or shortly after the litter of the year is weaned. Dispersers leave in single sexed units with females leaving when they are two to three years old and males leaving when they are three to four years old. Males disperse much greater distances and have been recorded 240 kms from their natal home range whilst females are more prudent and generally disperse into familiar territory.  The difference of dispersal strategies is of great consequence genetically as it greatly reduces the likelihood of inbreeding. Packs are formed when a group of females accepts an unfamiliar group of males and then an alpha pair forms. Occasionally, females that do not take the alpha position secondarily disperse, however the males usually stay with the pack for the rest of their life.

The alphas generally are the only ones that breed though occasionally a second litter is born to a subordinate female, though it is rare.  Sometimes subordinate males will gain mating access to the alpha female and this may be more common than is presently suspected. As males in general show much greater fidelity to the pack, this is one of the possible reasons that they stay.  The dogs can have very large litters with 21 pups being the maximum recorded, though on average litter sizes are 8-12 pups.

The literature always reports a male bias in packs which studies have now discovered is a consequence of males showing more fidelity to the pack and a bias in the sex-ratio of the litters. Litters born to maiden bitches are called primiparous and contain a higher proportion of males.  Second litters to new multiparous females are half and half, with subsequent litters being biased towards females with this trend increasing as females get older.  The implications of this are two-fold. Firstly, this system may have developed as an evolutionary stable adaptation. Because males show more fidelity to the pack, the birth of males will ensure a supply of helpers, and in particular, when they reach the age of two to three, provide experienced hunters. This will facilitate the long-term survival of a new founded pack, whilst at the same time ensuring that once it has reached stability, dispersing females will ensure it doesn’t get too large for its own good. The tragedy however, is that this evolutionary stable strategy could well be undermined by human induced mortality.  It could increase pack turnover to the point that the majority of females would only have one litter and then the pack would be extirpated. This scenario could upset the fine-tuned natural strategy with devastating consequences as females could become in very short supply.

In most places pups are born to synchronize with the coldest time of the year.  They are born in a underground den which is often very deep and sometimes has multiple entrances. The dens always bend so that no light enters the denning chamber and consequently it is impossible to see inside. Painted dog dens are easily recognized even from the air as because the dogs work as a team to excavate or modify the hole, and consequently they are characterized by a long sand piles that can extend several metres from the den mouth.  The den is accessed by only the alpha female who stays down there for most of the first two-week period after the pups are born.

Usually at this age the pups first emerge and are shown to a very expectant pack.  After this period the pups will be cared for by the whole pack, and when the pack is out hunting, the pups will usually be guarded by a subordinate dog who will either alert the pups to danger and send them scurrying down the den or will even chase away the danger. There is on record an instance where the presence of a lion caused a yearling male baby-sitting 12-week-old pups to move them a distance of 1.8 km away from the danger. Other potential advantages of baby-sitting are that the mother, who is often an experienced hunter, may be allowed to go back sooner to hunt if a subordinate dog guards the litter. This enables the alpha female to get back into vital body condition post-whelping.

This is essential as she is the only breeder with the remaining females being reproductively suppressed. Unless disturbed, painted dogs will only move the den once, maximum twice during the whole denning period, however they are easily disturbed by humans and sometimes lose pups when moving them at this vulnerable period. As long as there is plenty of provisioning power from the adults and yearlings who all contribute to feed the pups by regurgitation, the pups, which have one of the shortest suckling periods of any mammal of this size, are often totally weaned onto solid food by three weeks of age.  On average, packs stay at the den for 10-14 weeks after which they become nomadic again and will hide the pups when out hunting. This is known as caching and the pups will be guarded by a baby-sitter.

At about 18weeks, the pups follow the dogs on the hunt and are cached as soon as the chase starts and then are led to each kill as soon as it is made. There, the pups are allowed to eat first until they have had their fill. Only then do the adults feed on whatever is left of the carcass. This pup privilege is ceased as soon as the new litter is born.


The species is best described as diurnal to crepuscular, hunting in the cool of early mornings or late evenings and when there is sufficient light for them to hunt by the moonlight. The hunt usually commences with a pre-hunt greeting ritual after which all dogs will set off in a seemingly determined direction.  Classically the dogs have been labelled sight hunters, and whilst they are light limited, their ability to operate in dense woodland and low light levels would indicate that they are using auditory cues at a much greater level than currently believed. Packs generally only hunt when their stomachs are empty or nearly so and will often be seen to regurgitate the last stomach content to un-accompanying pups. It is estimated that each dog consumes 2.5 -3.5 kg live prey weight per day, and as the dogs have very elastic stomachs, if the dogs eat to capacity on a large animal, they may not hunt for two to three days. 

Painted dogs regularly hunt most non-defensive antelope species, though will occasionally opportunistically ‘test’ and if lucky take a vulnerable member of defensive species such as buffalo calves, sable and rarely zebra. Consequently, proportional to abundance, in southern Africa, the bulk of the dogs’ diet is comprised of impala, kudu, nyala and duiker. In East Africa, impala, Thompson’s gazelles, and wildebeest form the main prey with dik dik being taken heavily where they are locally abundant. Some packs occasionally become specialists in more unobtainable defensive prey such as warthog or zebra, however when this occurs, it seems to be a result of one individual learning the behaviour and then relaying the information by cultural transmission. Such a tradition was recorded in East Africa with one dog in a pack in Hwange, Zimbabwe that became a warthog specialist.  This behaviour stopped as soon as the dog in question died.

The dogs do not scavenge and will forage over large distances to ‘select’ those individuals that are compromised either due to age, injury or environmental stress. Yearlings participate in the hunt and assist in the kill, though they are often a hindrance as they misjudge chases, with the consequence that the pack either fails, aborts, or has to deal with greater chase distances. During the hunt periods, the dogs walk large distances interspersed by chases in an attempt to secure prey. There is no such thing as the ‘average hunt”, for in the same way that each species has its own anti-predator strategy, the dogs have different strategies to capture different species.  The dogs do however try to decrease the ‘flight distance’ between them and the prey and they will either achieve this by using the vegetation as cover, or decrease the distance by stalking with ears laid flat in plain view of the staring prey. This latter strategy at least seems to gain them 50-100 metres before the prey takes off.

The dogs which weigh 25-30 kg and are competent hunters are regularly able to tackle large prey such as kudu bulls (230 kg) and when they are in large herds, wildebeest, which outweigh them by factors of 8:1 and 6:1 respectively. To subdue such large prey, painted dogs use the 'twitch'  or nose hold very effectively. The success of this is hold is believed to be a consequence of b-endorphin release caused when the 1st cranial nerve is damaged. This technique which is used by humans with bulls and horses, creates an almost trance like state called catatonia which makes the animals tractable.

Sensationalistic historic comments such as painted dogs ‘chase their prey until it is exhausted’ and ‘prey die from loss of blood caused by pieces taken off the animal whilst running’ are unfounded.  Outstanding teamwork on behalf of the dogs ensures that prey is rapidly intercepted in flight and as soon as the prey has been secured either by the flank, throat or nose, it is disemboweled and usually dead within 60 seconds. Due to the exceptional strength of the dogs, smaller antelope weighing <30 kg are killed instantaneously as they are dissected into several pieces.  The dogs dispatch the carcass with astonishing speed, as they cooperate in the most astounding way, with there being no selfishness and each individual assisting the other to maximize meat retrieval.  Such a system ensures that should lions or hyaenas arrive to steal their prey, there is not much left.

In the human dominated environment, the dogs were reported to be putative cattle killers and as a consequence under this auspice they were mercilessly persecuted throughout Africa and were eradicated from National Parks. In Rhodesia, a 10-shilling bounty was paid on surrender of the tail and the skin of the head and neck (Rhodesian Agricultural Journal, 1906). They were classified as vermin from 1906 until 1975 and slaughtered. For example, in Zimbabwe alone, during the 5-year period 1956±1961, at least 2674 dogs were destroyed with the impetus for such slaughter being fueled and justified by irrational, unfounded, prejudicial comments about “cruel” killing tactics. With figures for real predation on domestic livestock being biased or unobtainable. More recently in Zimbabwe and Kenya, real figures for the impact of painted dogs on livestock were obtained and it was found that the whilst the dogs do occasionally take stock, it was the exception rather than the rule with wild game seemingly being preferred by the dogs.  In fact, in one cattle region of Zimbabwe the dogs were responsible for just 1.7 % of all losses whereas poor management accounted for 43.9% of the cattle lost!

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