There are lots of different names for these dogs, and here are some of them: African Wild Dog, African Hunting Dog, Cape Hunting Dog, Painted Dog, Painted Wolf, Painted Hunting Dog, Spotted Dog, and Ornate Wolf. And those are just the names in English! The scientific name is Lycaon pictus, and it comes from the Greek word for "wolf" and the Latin word for "painted."
The Wild African Dog is a canid, just like wolves and foxes and basenjis and golden retrievers are, but it is the only canid that's still left of the Lycaon genus. That genus decided to branch off from the doggy family tree about 3 million years ago and do its own thing. And the result is that now the Wild African Dog has such different genes that it can't even mate with a regular wolf or dog. It can only mate with its own kind.
Painted Dogs are tall and kind of skinny. They usually weigh between 40 and 75 pounds, and they are about 30 inches tall at the shoulder. The dogs in southern Africa are mostly bigger than the ones in eastern or western Africa. They are the only canids with no dewclaws, and that's not because their breeders cut them off when they are puppies!
Every Wild African Dog has a different pattern of spots, so it is pretty easy to tell them apart. These dogs like to live in packs because they are very social animals. And just like in wolf packs, only the alpha male and female make puppies, but the whole rest of the pack helps feed and take care of the pups. In fact, the whole pack is so nice and thoughtful that everybody shares food with any weak or sick members, and not just with the puppies.
Mating can happen at any time of year, but it's more usual between March and June, which is the last half of the rainy season. Then after about 70 days, the litter is born, and it can be anywhere between 2 and 19 pups. When it's time for puppies to be born, the pack finds a den that was dug by some other animal, usually an aardvark. The pups are weaned when they are about 10 weeks old. Then when they are 3 months old, they leave the den and start running with the pack. They learn to kill small animals by the time they are 8-11 months old, and they get really good at hunting by the age of 12-14 months. The life span for a Wild Dog is about 4-8 years.
The diet of African Wild Dogs is all made up of meat, and their favorite animals to eat are gazelles, springboks, kudu, and wildebeest calves. When they are hunting animals like this, they work together as a pack, and they communicate by making weird little chirping and squeaking sounds. They don't try to sneak up on their prey. They just find a herd of animals and make them start running. Then they pick one animal to kill that is maybe old or sick, and they just keep on chasing it until it can't run anymore. After that, they kill it by ripping its gut open, which is kind of bloody, but at least the prey dies quickly.
Wild Dogs are really good runners. They can go as fast as 35 m.p.h. for 3 miles or maybe more. Some packs are able to kill bigger, scarier animals such as zebras or warthogs by using a special strategy. One dog grabs the tail of the prey, and another one bites its nose. Then they hang on while the rest of the dogs try to rip open the animal's tummy. This way of hunting may actually be something that the younger dogs are taught by the older ones, and not one that is learned by instinct. At least that's what the researchers think who have studied this matter.
Anyway, the African Wild Dog pack hunts at least once a day, usually at dawn or dusk, because they hunt by sight. In the middle of the day, they mostly hang out in the shade and sleep. African Wild Dogs are probably the best hunters in the whole world because they kill almost 80% of the prey they go after. Everybody thinks that lions are good hunters, but lions only kill 30% of their prey.
There used to be lots and lots of Painted Dogs in Africa, like about 500,000 in 39 countries. But now there are only between 3,000 and 5,500 in maybe as few as 14 countries. This means the species is ENDANGERED. And there are several reasons for how they got that way. One reason is that the Wild African Dog needs a really huge hunting range of 150 to 500 square miles. Well, except for when the pack is busy raising puppies in a den. And because they need so much territory, they don't fit very well into the African national parks. So this means that the packs start running through ranches and farmland, which makes people unhappy, and then they want to shoot the dogs.
Game hunters sometimes also kill African Wild Dogs, and so do lions and hyenas. Also there are diseases that might kill Wild Dogs, such as rabies, distemper, and parvovirus. People are working to save the Wild African Dogs, which is a good thing. There is something called the Painted Dog Conservation effort, which is based in Hwange National Park, in western Zimbabwe. This group is working with local communities to try to keep some nice habitat for the Wild Dogs to live in.
Of course, there are a bunch of Wild African Dogs in zoos, but none of the information I read even mentioned them, so I don't know how many there are. We have some here in the Kansas City Zoo, like probably 5 or 6. They are one of Mom's favorite animals to see because she likes their spots and markings and giant ears. But it's also sad to see them in a little fenced area instead of running around on the plains of Africa. I wish there didn't have to be so many sad things in life, but there are, and I don't know how to make them be happy!