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African Wild Dog: Characteristics, Diet, Facts & More [Fact Sheet]

The African wild dog (Lycaon pictus), also known as the painted dog, African hunting dog, or Cape hunting dog, is one of Africa’s most intriguing and yet misunderstood carnivores.

Characterized by their patchy coat of multiple colors, large rounded ears, and social hunting tactics, these wild dogs captivate the hearts of many wildlife enthusiasts, myself included.

In this article, we will delve into the world of the African wild dog, exploring its unique characteristics, behaviors, threats, and conservation efforts, along with some fun facts and frequently asked questions.

The African Wild Dog at a Glance


Class:Mammalia (Mammals)
Species:L. pictus

Essential Information

Average Size:24-30 in (60-75 cm) at the shoulder
Average Weight:39-79 lbs (18-36 kg)
Average Lifespan:10-12 years in the wild
Geographical Range:Sub-Saharan Africa
Conservation Status:Endangered (IUCN Red List)

Species and Subspecies

There’s only one species of African wild dog, Lycaon pictus. Some sources consider this species to be further divided into multiple subspecies. These subspecies were traditionally defined based on their geographical location and slight variations in color and size.

However, the current consensus among scientists is that there are no distinct subspecies due to significant overlap and interbreeding among populations.

African Wild Dog face


African wild dogs stand out with their mottled fur of red, black, white, brown, and yellow patches – a characteristic that earned them the name “painted dogs.” Each individual has a unique pattern, making them easily identifiable within their pack.

They stand about 24-30 inches (60-75 cm) at the shoulder and weigh between 39 and 79 pounds (18-36 kg), with males typically being larger and heavier than females.

One of their most distinctive features is their large, rounded ears, which aid in heat regulation and provide excellent hearing capabilities.

They also have a lean body and long, powerful legs built for endurance during long chases. Unlike other canids, African wild dogs have only four toes on their front feet instead of the usual five.

Habitat and Distribution

African wild dogs are found mainly in sub-Saharan Africa. They are versatile in habitat preferences but tend to favor grasslands, savannas, and woodland areas. They avoid dense forests and deserts.

Their distribution is patchy and largely fragmented due to habitat loss and human activities. Some of the largest populations today can be found in southern African countries, especially Botswana, Zimbabwe, and parts of Tanzania and Northern Mozambique.

Pack of African Wild Dogs


African wild dogs exhibit diurnal behavior, meaning they are primarily active during the day. Their lives are heavily centered around their pack, which typically consists of 6-20 dogs, but some packs can number more than 40. Packs are usually dominated by a monogamous breeding pair, and the entire pack shares responsibility in caring for the young.

Communication in African wild dogs involves a variety of vocalizations, body postures, and social behaviors. Vocal communications include high-pitched twittering during greetings, growls during aggressive encounters, and a hoo call used to regroup the pack.

Diet and Hunting/Feeding Behavior

African wild dogs are carnivores with a preference for medium-sized ungulates, such as gazelles and impalas. They will also eat rodents, birds, and large insects when other food sources are scarce.

They are cooperative hunters, using strategic maneuvers to pursue and exhaust their prey before making the kill. Unlike many other predators, African wild dogs have a high hunting success rate, up to 80% in some regions.


African wild dogs have few natural predators due to their pack’s size and cooperative nature. However, lion and hyena attacks can pose a threat, especially to young pups or injured individuals.

Lions are a particularly significant danger as they can kill wild dogs with ease but also because they compete for the same food resources. Additionally, crocodiles may pose a risk to dogs when they are crossing water bodies.

African Wild Dog yawning

Reproduction and Life Cycle

In a pack of African wild dogs, typically only the dominant female and male breed, enhancing pack unity and reducing conflict. The breeding season can vary depending on the region, but births usually coincide with the second half of the rainy season when food is more plentiful.

The gestation period lasts approximately 70 days, after which the female gives birth to a litter of 6-16 pups, though larger litters of up to 20 pups have been reported.

Pups are born in a den, often an abandoned aardvark hole, where they remain for the first few months of life. All pack members participate in the care of the young, including regurgitating food for them once they are weaned.

Conservation and Threats

The African wild dog is currently classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List. The primary threats to their survival include habitat fragmentation and loss due to human encroachment, conflict with human activities, disease (particularly rabies and canine distemper), and competition with larger predators like lions and hyenas.

Conservation efforts are underway across Africa, focusing on large-scale habitat protection, community-based conservation projects, and disease management.

Establishing wildlife corridors to connect fragmented populations is also seen as a vital strategy for their conservation. Despite these challenges, African wild dogs are incredibly resilient and adaptable, giving hope for their future survival.

Fun Facts

  1. African wild dogs are also known as ‘painted dogs’ due to their unique, mottled fur, which is as individual as a human’s fingerprint.
  2. These dogs have the largest and most rounded ears in the canine family, which help them hear prey and pack members from great distances.
  3. African wild dogs have only four toes per foot, unlike most other dogs which have five on the forefeet. The missing digit does not affect their speed or agility.
  4. They are exceptional runners, capable of maintaining speeds of up to 44 mph (70 km/h) for up to an hour.
  5. African wild dogs are highly social and demonstrate an altruistic behavior rare in the animal kingdom: they assist the weak, ill, or old in their pack, and will even feed and care for orphaned members of their group.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long do African wild dogs live?

In the wild, they typically live for 10-12 years. In captivity, they can live up to 15 years due to better access to food and medical care.

How fast can an African wild dog run?

An African wild dog can reach speeds up to 44 mph (70 km/h).

Why are African wild dogs endangered?

African wild dogs face numerous threats including habitat fragmentation and loss due to human encroachment, disease, conflict with human activities, and competition with larger predators.

What do African wild dogs eat?

They primarily eat medium-sized ungulates, like gazelles and impalas. They will also eat smaller animals like rodents and birds if necessary.

How big are African wild dogs?

Adult African wild dogs typically weigh between 40-70 lbs (18-32 kg) and stand about 30 inches (75 cm) tall at the shoulder. They can be up to 40 inches (102 cm) long from head to tail.

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