Night stalker, Africa’s smallest feline, the black-footed cat is a shy, nocturnal species rarely seen in the wild
If you spot a black-footed cat in your garden, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s the neighbour’s cat stopping by for a visit. At first glance this feline may look like a cute
domestic tabby, but the black-footed or small spotted cat is truly wild at heart.
Tipping the scales at only a few kilograms and standing less than 25cm at the shoulder, this cat is Africa’s smallest wild feline. The black-footed cat has tawny coloured fur, with dark spots on his flanks and back and large, prominent ears. He also has stripes on his legs, tail and cheeks. These provide camouflage when he hunts at night by the light of the moon. His tail is long, measuring up to 20cm in length, with a dark tip. The black-footed cat is named for the black fur found on the soles of his feet. These black patches are believed to protect the cat’s paw pads from the scorching desert sand. There are two sub-species of the black-footed cat –Felis nigripes nigripes, a smaller cat with lighter coloured fur and Felis nigripes thomasi, foundin a more northerly habitat.
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Felis nigripes
DISTRIBUTION: Arid parts of South Africa, Botswana and Namibia
HABITAT: Savannah, desert and grassland
PREY: Insects, birds, small reptiles and small mammals
NUMBER OF KITTENS IN A LITTER: 1-3
LIFESPAN: 12-13 years
The black-footed cat is a shy, nocturnal predator and despite his diminutive size, is an extraordinary hunter. Black-footed cats have a very high metabolic rate and may
eat as much as 20% of their body weight each night. Prey consists of small mammals, reptiles and birds. They travel long distances at night to find food and have an extensive home range. If the cat is able to secure larger prey, he’ll hide the carcass in termite mounds or abandoned warthog or aardvark dens. Black-footed cats also have to cope with extreme changes in temperature during the seasons – hot summers and plummeting winter temperatures.
Male back-footed cats have a larger range than females and while their territories may overlap, they only meet to mate – spending only a few hours together. Unlike the African wildcat, the black-footed cat cannot breed with feral cats or domestic cats. The female will carry her young for around 68 days. Black-footed cats are known to use abandoned springhare holes for their dens. Between one and three kittens are born, blind, helpless and reliant on their mother to survive. They weigh less than 100g at birth and quickly locate the teat to take in their mother’s nutritious milk. The mother moves her kittens from den to den during their early weeks to ensure their safety and keep predators like eagles, owls and jackals at bay. Just a few days after birth, mom leaves her babies at night to hunt. She won’t stay away too long, but as they get older, she’ll stay away for longer periods. The kittens’ eyes open after about a week. They start to eat meat at around a month old. When the mother does allow them to venture out of the den, she’ll keep a close eye on them. If they sense danger, the kittens hide in the overgrowth or behind rocks until mom gives them the ‘all clear’. She uses a very soft, throaty call to beckon to her youngsters. They learn to hunt quickly. By two months of age the kittens are fully weaned and reach sexual maturity before one year of age. Both male and female black-footed cats mark their territories by spraying or rubbing their bodies against objects in the environment. Males are believed to mark as many as 100 times as they prowl at night.
Black-footed cats are listed on the IUCN Red List as Vulnerable and their population numbers are low. They are rare or absent in many national parks and game reserves and mainly found on private land. Sightings of the species are rare as they are entirely nocturnal. Numbers of the black-footed cat have dropped, mainly due to the loss of their prey base through degradation of their habitats due to over-grazing. Due to his small size, the black-footed cat rarely predates on livestock but may be killed in traps or poisoned when landowners indiscriminately target all predators. Members of the public can assist with conservation efforts by reporting sightings to the Black-footed Cat Working Group. You will need to provide the date and time of sighting, the location (town, closest farm or GPS), the habitat and your contact details. You can email your sighting to: firstname.lastname@example.org.