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African wild dog. © Thomas Retterath / iStock

African wild dog. © Thomas Retterath / iStock

African wild dog

Painted pack hunters


African wild dogs – also known as painted dogs due to their exquisitely patterned coats – are among the most effective predators in the world. The mere sight of a pack of wild dogs can instil panic in their prey. They use extraordinary cooperation and teamwork to pursue, overhaul and bring down their target. An incredible 80% of their hunts end successfully.

To put that in perspective, lions have a one-in-four success rate. This is nearly all a result of their pack coordination, which is still a rich source of zoological research. It was only recently discovered that they use sneezes to ‘vote’ on hunting decisions – just one of many fascinating African wild dogs facts. Despite their unmatched hunting prowess, African wild dogs are in steep decline and staring extinction in the face.

Fascinating facts about African wild dogs

    Missing toe

    Unlike other canine species, African wild dogs have only four toes on each foot.

    African wild dogs. © Quinn Kloppers / Shutterstock

    © Quinn Kloppers / Shutterstock

    Litter size

    A wild dog litter may contain as many as 16 pups. 


    The weight of a wildebeest that a pack of wild dogs are capable of bringing down.

    African wild dog. © Matt Rice

    African wild dog. © Matt Rice

    Don't fence me in

    African wild dog packs need huge territories, bigger than those of almost any other land-based carnivore in the world.

    Call of the wild

    Painted dogs communicate while they hunt, using calls and body language to signal to each other.

African wild dogs. © Roger de la Harpe / Adobe Stock

African wild dogs. © Roger de la Harpe / Adobe Stock

The African wild dog’s scientific name means ‘painted wolf', a reference to its beautiful markings.

How do African wild dogs hunt?

Once painted dogs have singled out their victim, they pursue it relentlessly, like a many-headed hunting machine. Communicating with each other throughout the chase, they take turns to lead.

With their loping stride, unvarying pace and unswerving focus, wild dogs are meat-seeking missiles locked onto their target. Dappled death, silent and implacable, gaining inexorably on the hindquarters of a hapless antelope.

African wild dogs are notorious for eating their prey alive. Cruel though this sounds, it is a necessity. They have to gulp down a meal as quickly as possible before they are driven off their kill by more powerful predators such as lions or scavenging hyenas.

How fast can African wild dogs run?

These pack predators have a top speed of around 45mph (as fast as a greyhound), but a wild dog hunt is a marathon, not a sprint. They are endurance athletes, with long legs and large lungs that enable them to keep going until they have run their exhausted quarry to a complete standstill.

African wild dog family life

Wild dog cooperation extends to their social structure; they have complex hierarchies in which only the alpha male and female – literally, the top dogs – breed. Wild dogs give birth underground, often in abandoned aardvark burrows. Pups are born blind, usually between March and June. The pack regurgitates food for the young, but this action is also extended to adults, to the point of being the bedrock of African wild dogs’ social life.

Painted dogs hold a ‘meet and greet’ ceremony every morning or after a siesta. This is believed to reinforce social bonds and prepare the pack for the hunt. On the whole, they are surprisingly non-aggressive; for example, they do not fight over food but instead beg to indicate their wish to eat. Adults will allow younger pack members to eat before them.

African wild dogs. © Henk Bogaard / Adobe Stock

African wild dogs. © Henk Bogaard / Adobe Stock

Younger members of an African wild dog pack waiting for the adults to return from a hunt.

What do African wild dogs eat? 

Wild dogs will hunt anything from a warthog to a wildebeest, but their preferred prey are medium-sized antelopes such as impala that are no more than twice their own weight. Individual dogs will also opportunistically catch and eat smaller animals such as rats, hares and birds. 

Where do African wild dogs live? 

African wild dogs need vast home ranges covering hundreds of square miles, far bigger than those of any other African predator. They inhabit open plains and sparse woodlands in sub-Saharan Africa. Painted dogs used to be found in nearly 40 countries. They have disappeared from large parts of their original range, including most of West Africa, and their populations have been decimated. Most of their remaining strongholds are in Tanzania, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique and South Sudan. 

How many wild dogs are left? 

Today, fewer than 7,000 African wild dogs survive in the wild, and only 1,500 of these are adults. It is thought that just 700 packs of wild dogs remain, scattered across the entire continent. African wild dogs are officially classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

Why are African wild dogs endangered? 

African wild dogs are struggling to cope with habitat fragmentation caused by the rapid increase in human settlements and infrastructure development that are encroaching on their traditional range. They are perfectly adapted to their natural environment, but they need far more space than most other carnivore species. Increased exposure to humans poses numerous threats to the wild dogs’ survival.

Conflict with humans

Whilst they normally prefer wild prey, wild dogs may attack domestic livestock if the opportunity arises, leading to conflict with farmers that may result in pack members being shot.

Road hazards

Wild dogs often cross high-speed roads. There are even several instances of packs using roads to rest on and travel along. This leads to numerous accidents – especially where roads cut through dense wildlife areas.

Canine disease threat

Painted dogs are susceptible to most of the same diseases as domestic dogs, and contact with human settlements exposes them to deadly infectious diseases such as canine distemper and parvovirus. This has recently led to major population crashes in several locations. Rabies in particular has been a major factor in recent local extinctions, and infection from domestic dogs remains a huge risk.

Conservation efforts are focused on coexistence, conflict resolution, and accident and disease prevention. For example, domestic livestock killed by dogs is purchased at a fair price to deter farmers from shooting dogs, warning signs are being put up on roadsides, and rabies vaccines are being distributed to nearby communities.

African wild dogs on a road. © Mark Hunter / Adobe Stock

African wild dogs on a road. © Mark Hunter / Adobe Stock

African wild dogs travelling on roads unwittingly put themselves at great risk from speeding traffic.

How can we help save African wild dogs? 

Fauna & Flora is supporting wild dog conservation in Kenya, Mozambique and South Sudan. 

In Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy, we witnessed remarkable success before the local resident packs were hit by a devastating distemper outbreak that decimated the population. This reversal in fortunes (and the ongoing disease threat in particular) are a reminder of just how precarious the lives of these animals are. The good news is that wild dog populations can rebound quickly, especially with access to larger areas of range. 

Wildlife corridors have been opened to connect wild dogs with nearby protected areas in order to minimise contact with humans. The strategic deployment of fencing has reduced the risk of wild dog packs encroaching on community land and preying on domestic livestock. Ol Pejeta has also employed teams of vets, who are helping wild dogs to recover from diseases. 

Fauna & Flora hopes to replicate its earlier success at other project sites where wild dogs still occur and improve the survival prospects of Africa’s peerless pack hunter. 

Mozambique’s vast Niassa National Reserve, where Fauna & Flora is working with local partners, harbours globally important populations of African wild dogs.  

South Sudan’s Southern National Park covers an area the size of Wales and has the potential to be a key stronghold for African wild dogs, which we have recently captured on camera in the area.

Wildlife rangers setting up a camera trap in Southern National Park. © Fauna & Flora

Wildlife rangers setting up a camera trap in Southern National Park. © Fauna & Flora

Fauna & Flora is working to support African wild dog conservation in South Sudan's Southern National Park.

African wild dog pups, Kenya. © Ian Aitken

The dogs that need your help

The African wild dog is struggling to cope with increasing pressure from rapid human development. Populations of these supremely well-adapted predators are being devastated. You could help us work with local people to ensure that wild dogs have a place in our new, modern world.

Donate today

African wild dog pups, Kenya. © Ian Aitken