The black-footed cat, also called small-spotted cat (Felis nigripes), is the smallest African cat, and is endemic in the southwest arid zone of the southern Africansubregion. It is one of the lesser-studied African carnivores, and is listed as vulnerableby the IUCN since 2002.



Jungle cat (F. chaus)

Black-footed cat (F. nigripes)

European wildcat (F. silvestris silvestris)

Sand cat (F. margarita)

African wildcat (F. silvestris lybica)

Domestic cat (F. catus)

The Felis lineage[4]

The black-footed cat is a member of the genus Felis. The species was first described by English naturalist William John Burchell in his 1824 publication Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa.

Two subspecies have been nominated:

  • F. n. nigripes Burchell, 1824 : Found in Namibia, Botswana, Mpumalanga, Gauteng, Northwest Province and Northern Cape.
  • F. n. thomasi Shortridge, 1931 : Found in Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Free State and Lesotho.

According to Shortridge's description, F. n. nigripes is smaller and paler than F. n. thomasi, but since specimens with characteristics of both assumed subspecies are found close to Kimberley in central South Africa, the existence of subspecies is questioned, as no geographical or ecological barriers to their ranges occur.


The black-footed cat is the smallest wild cat in Africa and one of the smallest wild cats in the world. Adult resident males weigh on average 1.9 kg (4.2 lb) and a maximum of 2.45 kg (5.4 lb). Adult resident females weigh on average 1.3 kg (2.9 lb) and a maximum of 1.65 kg (3.6 lb). Males reach a head-to-body length of 36.7 to 43.3 cm (14.4 to 17.0 in) with tails 16.4 to 19.8 cm (6.5 to 7.8 in) long. Females are smaller with a maximum head-to-body-length of 36.9 cm (14.5 in) and tails 12.6 to 17.0 cm (5.0 to 6.7 in) long. The shoulder height is about 25 cm (9.8 in).

Despite its name, only the pads and underparts of the cat's feet are black. The cat has a stocky build with round ears, large eyes, and short black-tipped tail. The fur varies in color from cinnamon-buff to tawny, and is patterned with black or brown spots that merge to form rings on the legs, neck, and tail. These patterns help the animal camouflage. However, the back of their ears are the same color as the background colour of their fur. They have six mammae and, unlike other species of spotted cats, non-pigmented skin.

Distribution and habitat

The black-footed cat is endemic to southern Africa, and primarily found in South Africa, Namibia, marginally into Zimbabwe, and likely in extreme southern Angola. Only historical but no recent records exist in Botswana. It lives in dry, open savanna, grassland and karoo semidesert with shrub and tree cover at altitudes up to 2,000 m (6,600 ft), but not in the driest and sandiest parts of the Namib and Kalahari Deserts. During the night, they need sparse shrub and tree covers to hunt but spend the daytime in burrows or empty termite mounds.

Ecology and behaviour

Black-footed cats are solitary and strictly nocturnal, thus rarely seen. They spend the day resting in dense cover, in unoccupied burrows of springhares, porcupines, and aardvarks, or in hollow termite mounds. They emerge to hunt after sunset.

They are typically found in dry, open habitat with some degree of vegetation cover. Apparently, they get all the moisture they need from their prey, but will drink water when available.

Unlike most other cats, black-footed cats are poor climbers, and will generally ignore tree branches. Their stocky bodies and short tails are not conducive to tree-climbing. They dig vigorously in the sand to extend or modify burrows for shelter.

Black-footed cats are highly unsociable animals that seek refuge at the slightest disturbance. When cornered, they are known to defend themselves fiercely. Due to this habit and their courage, they are called miershooptier (anthill tiger in Afrikaans) in parts of the South African karoo, although they rarely use termite mounds for cover or for bearing their young. A San legend claims that a black-footed cat can kill a giraffe by piercing its jugular. This exaggeration is intended to emphasize the bravery and tenacity of the animal. The only times this behaviour differs is when it is time to breed or they are a female with dependent kittens.

Within one year, a female covers an average range of 10 km2 (3.9 sq mi), a resident male 22 km2 (8.5 sq mi). The range of an adult male overlaps the ranges of one to four females. On average, the animal travels 8 km (5.0 mi) per night in search of prey. The cats use scent marking throughout their ranges, with males spraying urine up to 12 times an hour. Other forms of scent marking include rubbing objects, raking with claws, and depositing faeces in visible locations. Their calls are louder than those of other cats of their size, presumably to allow them to call over relatively large distances. However, when close to each other, they use quieter purrs or gurgles, or hiss and growl if threatened.

Diet and hunting

Due to their small size, black-footed cats hunt mainly small prey species, such as rodentsand small birds, but may also take the white-quilled bustard and the Cape hare, the latter heavier than itself. Insects and spiders provide less than 1% of the prey mass consumed. They are unusually active hunters, killing up to 14 small animals in a night. Their energy requirements are very high, with about 250 g (9 oz) of prey per night consumed, which is about a sixth of its average body weight.

Black-footed cats hunt mainly by stalking, rather than ambush, using the cover of darkness and all available traces of cover to approach their prey before the final pounce. They have been observed to hunt by moving swiftly to flush prey from cover, but also to slowly stalk through tufts of vegetation. Less commonly, they wait outside rodent burrows, often with their eyes closed, but remaining alert for the slightest sound. In common with the big cats, but unlike most other small species, black-footed cats have been observed to hide some of their captured prey for later feeding, rather than consuming it immediately.

Reproduction and lifecycle

Black-footed cats have lived for 10 years in captivity. Females reach sexual maturity after 8 to 12 months. They come into estrus for only one or two days at a time, and are receptive to mating for a few hours, requiring males to locate them quickly. Copulation occurs frequently during this period. Gestation lasts from 63 to 68 days. A litter consists usually of two kittens, but may vary from one to four young. Kittens weigh 60 to 84 g (2.1 to 3.0 oz) at birth. They are born blind and relatively helpless, although they are able to crawl about after just a few hours. They are able to walk within two weeks, begin taking solid food after about a month, and are fully weaned by two months of age.

Females may have up to two litters during the spring, summer, and autumn. They rear their kittens in a burrow, moving them to new locations regularly after the first week. In general, kittens develop more rapidly than other similarly sized cats, quickly adapting them to a relatively hostile environment. They become independent by five months of age, but may remain within their mother's range.


Felis nigripes is included on CITES Appendix I and protected by national legislation across most of its range. Hunting is banned in Botswana and South Africa. Threats to this species include methods of indiscriminate predator control, such as bait poisoning and steel-jaw traps, and habitat deterioration from overgrazing.

In situ research

The Black-footed Cat Working Group carries out a research project at Benfontein Nature Reserve and Nuwejaarsfontein Farm in central South Africa, where seven black-footed cats have been radio-collared. This project is part of a multidisciplinary effort to study the distribution, ecology, health, and reproduction of black-footed cats over an extended period. In November 2012, this project was extended to Biesiesfontein Farm located in the Northern Cape Province.

In captivity

Wuppertal Zoo acquired black-footed cats as long ago as 1957, and succeeded in breeding them in1963. In 1993, the European Endangered Species Programme was formed to coordinate which animals are best suited for pairing to maintain genetic diversity and to avoid inbreeding. The International Studbook for the black-footed cat is kept in the Wuppertal Zoo in Germany. As of July 2011, detailed records exist for a total of 726 captive cats since 1964; worldwide, 74 individuals were kept in 23 institutions in Germany, United Arab Emirates, USA, UK, and South Africa.

A range of zoos have reported breeding successes, including the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, Fresno Chaffee Zoo, the Brookfield Zoo and Philadelphia Zoo.

The Audubon Nature Institute' Center for Research of Endangered Species is doing advanced genetics work with cats, and in February 2011, a female kept there gave birth to two male kittens - the first of their species to be born as a result of in vitro fertilization using frozen and thawed sperm and frozen and thawed embryos. In 2003, the sperm was collected from a male and then frozen. It was later combined with an egg from a female, creating embryos in March 2005. Those embryos were frozen for almost six years before being thawed and transferred to a surrogate female in December 2010, which carried the embryos to term, resulting in the birth of the two kittens. The same center reported that on 6 February 2012, a female black-footed cat kitten, Crystal, was born to a domestic cat surrogate after interspecies embryo transfer.

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