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the web of life in southern Africa

Lycaon pictus (African wild dog, Painted hunting dog)

Cape hunting dog, wild dog, painted hunting dog [English]; wildehond [Afrikaans]; Hyanenhund, Afrikanischer Wildhund [German]; cynhyenè [French]; mbwa mwitu [Swahili]; iganyana, iketsi leKapa [isiNdebele]; ixhwili [isiXhosa]; inkentshane, inkontshane [isiZulu]; lehlaerwa, letaya [Sepedi]; lekanyana, lekênyane, leteane, letlhalerwa, letlharelwa, lekayana [Setswana]; mhumhi, mhumi [Shona]; budzatja, budzatje, inkentjane [siSwati]; hlolwa [Xitsonga]; dalerwa [Tshivenda]; liakanyani [Lozi]; umenzi [Yei]; !Gaub [Nama] [Damara]

Life > Eukaryotes > Opisthokonta > Metazoa (animals) > Bilateria > Deuterostomia > Chordata > Craniata > Vertebrata (vertebrates)  > Gnathostomata (jawed vertebrates) > Teleostomi (teleost fish) > Osteichthyes (bony fish) > Class: Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fish) > Stegocephalia (terrestrial vertebrates) > Reptiliomorpha > Amniota > Synapsida (mammal-like reptiles) > Therapsida > Theriodontia >  Cynodontia > Mammalia (mammals) > Placentalia (placental mammals) > Laurasiatheria > Ferungulata > Ferae > Carnivora > Family: Canidae (foxes, dogs and jackals)

Lycaon pictus (African wild dog, Painted hunting dog)

Lycaon pictus (African wild dog), Kruger National Park, South Africa. [photo Arno Meintjes ©]

Lycaon pictus (African wild dog, Painted hunting dog)

Lycaon pictus (African wild dog) near N'watimhiri Causeway, Kruger National Park, South Africa. [photo Bernard Dupont  ©]

Once widespread in subsaharan Africa, the distribution of the African wild dog is now limited to a few large game reserves and wild areas, and is classified as endangered by the IUCN. It lives and hunts in packs with a dominant male and female in each pack. The pack assists the alpha female in rearing and protecting her litters of puppies. Packs require large home ranges and hunt down prey such as antelope over long distances, eventually dragging the exhausted prey to the ground and tearing it open.


It is easily identified by its irregularly heavily blotched coat, in patches of white black, and yellow-brown. Its scientific name is well suited as Lycaon pictus means “the painted or ornamental wolf”. Similar in size to the domestic German Shepherd dog, the muscular body is slender with long legs. It has large, dark, rounded ears, that indicate how important sound is in communication between the pack members and also probably aid cooling. The short powerful muzzle is black and a black line continues between the eyes to the ears. The tail has a white plume of long hair. The wild dog is the least typical of the canids, its muzzle is relatively short, the last molar is poorly developed and it has lost the fifth digit – or dew claw- from the front feet. The dentition is well-adapted for holding and shearing meat, but not for chewing and grinding.


Total Body Length: 105-150 cm; height at shoulder 65-80 cm; weight range 20-30 kg.

Dental Formula

 I C P M = 42

Distribution and habitat

Previously occurred widely in Africa from the Sahara to South Africa, outside the equatorial forests. In southern Africa it occurs permanently in the Kruger National Park, other larger reserves and uninhabited areas. It has been reintroduced to parks in KwaZulu Natal. Prefers open grassland, avoids dense woodland, forest and extensive areas of tall grass. Woodland scrub is a preferred habitat as it offers sufficient shelter and concealment but is open enough for pursuit while hunting.

General behaviour

The wild dog lives and hunts in packs, with usually 10 -15 animals in a pack. Each pack has a dominant (alpha) male and female, their recent offspring, and non-breeding adults who are siblings or offspring of a member of the dominant pair. Dominance is tested continually within the pack members, but this is usually by ritual rather than direct aggression. During the mating season the males will fight vigorously for dominance and the right to breed but the dominant female will remain the matriarch. Wild dogs do not establish territories and have a very large home range - for instance the average home range of packs in the Serengeti is about 1500 km2 a although home ranges of adjacent packs do overlap. If the habitat is arid and below optimal then the ranges will be larger.


Wild dogs are primarily diurnal, and will usually hunt early in the morning and evening avoiding the heat of the day. They are also known to hunt at night when there is good moonlight. These dogs are adapted to capture medium sized antelope such as Impala and Springbok. The primary method of hunting is to chase the prey until it tires and can then be caught and pulled down. In pursuit over open ground the dogs can reach speeds of 50-60 km/h. Smaller prey is killed immediately but larger animals are kept running while the dogs continue to bite and tear at it, eventually it will tire and is then held, usually at the upper lip, tail and flank while other members of the pack disembowel it. The prey then dies of shock or loss of blood. While this may appear a rather grizzly method of hunting, it enables the dogs to secure prey large enough to feed the pack, and they only kill when they need food. The hunt is carefully strategized and highly cooperative with the dogs remaining in communication throughout the pursuit. Chases may cover several kilometres until the prey tires, there are always additional pack members following or running parallel to take up the chase or to assist. Some packs in different areas specialize in hunting particular species - for instance, in northern Botswana its Warthog and Ostrich.

Prey includes a wide range of mammals, from Steenbok to African buffalo, also includes rodents, hares and birds.

Lycaon pictus (African wild dog, Painted hunting dog)

Lycaon pictus (African wild dog, Painted hunting dog)

African wild dog pack successfully taking down a Blue wildebeest, Tanzania. [photos Chris van de Berge ©]


After a gestation period of 72 days the female gives birth to a litter of 6 – 14 puppies in a burrow. Litters are usually born during the dry winter months. Initially the puppies suckle milk from their mother but after a few weeks they start to eat meat. This meat is obtained from the pack members who gorge themselves at a kill and then regurgitate the partially digested meat for the pups (see image below), as well as the mother and older members of the pack that have remained behind to guard the litter. The pups remain in the immediate vicinity of the den for the first 3 months. As they grow older they will accompany the pack on hunts although they will not participate until they are old enough. Adults in the pack will go back and find the young stragglers and escort them to the kill to feed. Juveniles are given priority to feed at a kill while the obviously hungry adults wait. Despite the nurturing that the puppies receive from the pack, in the end generally only a few of them will survive.

Lycaon pictus (African wild dog, Painted hunting dog)

African wild dog pups eating some food regurgitated by the alpha female, Tanzania. [photo Chris van de Berge ©]

Life span

4-8 years


The African wild dog is probably the rarest carnivore in Africa. Only an estimated 5 500 of them remain, in a few substantial but isolated populations remaining in eastern and southern Africa. This total also includes the smaller populations in sub-Saharan Africa. Exclusively carnivorous and as active hunters requiring an extensive habitat the wild dog is constantly in competition with humans, resulting in conflict with game and stock farmers. Other factors that contribute to the decline of populations include road kills, snaring, habitat fragmentation, loss of prey and a vulnerability to a large number of infectious diseases including rabies, parvo-virus enteritis, anthrax and canine distemper. The future of this species is dependent on conservation of areas with its particular requirements in mind, the prevention of direct persecution, and captive breeding programmes with subsequent reintroductions. Currently the species is classified as endangered.


Text by Denise Hamerton