Black-footed Cat

black-footed cat
Black-footed cat. Photo by guppiecat


The name of this diminutive cat, the smallest African cat species, is slightly misleading as the paw pads and undersides of the feet are black but nothing else. Attempts to reaname the cat failed. This secretive wild cat is found in the south west corner of the African continent. It mainly feeds on mice, shrews and gerbils. The black-footed cat lives in a dry open landscape but despite that, they are very successful hunters (60% success rate). The scientific name is Felis nigripes. Other names for this cat are:

  1. Little Spotted Cat
  2. Small Spotted Cat
  3. Sebala Cat (local)
  4. Bont-kat (local)
  5. Miershooptier (Africaans for “anthill” tiger, after the fact that they sometimes burrow and live in termite mounds)
Longer overview on species


I would like to emphasize conservation of this rare cat, the most important topic for all wildcats. The Black-footed cat is listed in Appendix I of CITES. Appendix I lists species that are the most endangered among CITES listed animals and plants. This wildcat is listed as vulnerable in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ (formerly Least Concern). Vulnerable is in the upper mid range of threatened wild species and indicates that this cat’s survival in the wild is threatened

IUCN Red List Vulnerable classification
Black footed cat
Black footed cat photo by corwinok

black footed cat

Both the above links shows us the status of this cat in terms of its survival in the wild. On a scale of 1-10 this cat is at about 5 in terms of its survival. There are no pictures of this cat in the wild that are available for publication as far as I am aware. I keep banging away, but projections as to future survival in the wild of this cat cannot be good. The Red List™ status is getting worse and Appendix I CITES is as bad as it gets. It is no good simply recording the status. Long term strategies need to be formulated to preserve this species and that starts with the question, “do we care”? By “we” I mean the people on the ground in the countries of this cat’s habitat (see below). They are the people who are at the sharp end and responsible.


Black-footed cat
Photo copyright: Anne-Marie Kalus – see more

See Black-footed cat description.

It is the smallest of the African wildcats. This wildcat looks like a small tabby domestic cat. In the above photograph you could not spot the difference (almost – there is always the coarser more functional nature of the fur, for example). This is a small wild cat with black paw pads, hence the name (see photo above). It is not the only wildcat with black feet. The African wildcat has them too. The cat’s size is that of a domestic miniature cat at about 2.9 lbs for females and 4.2 lbs for males averaging 3.5 lbs, which is small even for a domestic cat. See a comparison of domestic cat sizes to wild cat sizes. The rusty spotted cat is another small wildcat of similar small size. On the linked  page, you can see a chart and some more numbers about wild cat species by size.

The coat is a spotted tabby with banding on the legs, the natural markings for a wildcat as it offers the best camouflage. It is also probably the most common coat type for domestic cats. Interestingly, the skin is pink throughout.

Behavior – Habitat – Range

black footed cat

The black-footed cat behaves like most cats, domestic or wild. Shy and solitary this cat hides in the daytime (under rocks, scrubs and in redundant termite mounds) and is active at night hunting small animals such as birds and rodents. This cat inhabits parts of Namibia (the country where the cheetah is most commonly found – see cheetah habitat), South Africa and Botswana (see map right – the red shaded area). Note: this range may be a little smaller than is actually the case – please see the link and map immediately below.

This cat travels relatively long distances to find prey (about 5 miles) and needs to consume a large amount as a consequence (about 18% to 20% of body weight). There is more on the black-footed cat habitat and behavior on this page: Black-footed Cat Range.

Although preferring to steer clear of confrontation this cat will fight ferociously to protect herself if needs must. They would appear to be a little unsociable and contact between the male and female takes place little and mainly when mating.

Below is a better map than the one above. The range is a little different but that does not surprise me. The exact ranges of the all the wildcats are not known exactly or are at least changing all the time. The map below was made by me based on the IUCN Red List™ map and it can be refined by visitors. It can be moved around the window by holding left click and moving the mouse in the usual way.

View Black-footed Cat Range 2009 in a larger map

Black-footed cat feeding and hunting

The habitat in which this cat hunts is not an easy one, being open and dry with some vegetation as cover. Notwithstanding this, the black-footed cat is highly successful at hunting having a success rate of 60%. They are active hunters and instigate a frech hunt every half hour during the night.

Apparently there are three styles of hunting:

  1. Fast
  2. Slow
  3. Sit and Wait

Fast: the cat moves fast at about 2-3 kilometers per hour and forces prey out from under cover.

Slow: this is more a stalking activity in which the black-footed cat slinks between areas of cover at under one kph, ever alert to potential prey. The video shows the slow stalk and late plunge.

Sit and Wait: this is what is says. The cat will sit near the den of a rodent and wait for activity. The cat appears to be at rest but is ever alert for the slightest sound or movement.

Birds are stalked and in the final couple of metres the cat leaps high and long to grab the bird either on the ground or in the air. The bird is killed in classic domestic cat style by a bite to the vertebra severing the spine. Some cats pluck birds before eating. The black-footed cat just eats the lot and quickly (2-4 minutes), although it might pluck some feathers.

As mentioned, hunting takes place at night, all night and in all weathers. Prey consists of:

  • gerbils (75% of all prey)
  • mice
  • shrews
  • small birds, larks, pipits
  • relatively large birds such as the black bustard
  • insects (this makes up a tiny percentage of the weight of all prey eaten) such as locusts and grasshoppers
  • Cape hares

In one nights hunting the black-footed cat will kill and eat about 20% of its body weight. This is in stark contrast to the big cats such as the tiger that will eat 20% of its body weight in one sitting but then go several days without eating at all.

This cat probably needs to make some big kills (e.g. bustard or hare) as this is more efficient and they will gorge on these kills and eat a quarter of its body weight in one go. They also scavenge.

Their highly effective hunting is based in part on their known attitude, which is of a certain ferocity, courage and tenacity. There is anecdotal evidence of this cat successfully attacking sheep and goats by piercing the jugular vein of the animal, hanging on until the job is done. No doubt this is very rare, however.

Social Organisation

This section refers to how the black-footed cat relates to other cats and how and where it finds a home (home range).

In this regard this cat is pretty typical, which means the male cat has a home range that is bigger than that of the female and his range overlaps several female ranges. Their range is surprisingly large, traveling on average 8 kms during a single night in winter and less in summer as their is less of a need to feed.

Home Range Table:

Sex Range Size
Male 3.1 to 11.9 km²
Female 10.4 to 16.8 km²

In terms of density of population, in a study in South Africa (North Cape Province) this was found to be 13 cats per 100 km².

Communication is typical of the cat too including scent marking and scraping the ground and objects, although they have some particular vocalisations. They have a miniature tiger roar (to communicate over a large distance), a gurgle (at close range), the usual hiss, which as I recall seems to be preceded by a spit (the cluck sound) and a purr. The hiss is the similar to that of the sand cat.

We know that both females and males spray urine to mark territory as a form of communication. It tells others where they are and when they were around (by the age of the odor). Well, the Sunquists recite the observation of a male black-footed cat that sprayed no less than 585 times the night before he mated! For a cat that gets its water exclusively from its prey (when necessary) that is rash behaviour in respect of water conservation!

Mating – Reproduction – Development

The period when the female is sexually receptive (estrus or oestrous) is shorter than usual at 1-2 days. This is thought to place a need on the cats to communicate over large distances hence the mini-tiger’s roar mentioned above. The mother rears her young in burrows such as in termite mounds. The quick development of the young, the short period of estrus indicate a vulnerability.

Thereafter the timetable for mating and pregnancy is as follows:

Event Time frame – duration etc.
Pregnancy (gestation) 63 – 68 days (this is one week longer than the domestic cat)
Size of litter 1 – 4 kittens (average size is 1.78 kittens)
Weight of each kitten at birth 60 – 90 grams
Kittens eyes open 2 – 10 days of age
Walk 14 days
Playing and interest in solid food One month of age
Kittens eat live prey 5 weeks of age
Leave den and run well 6 weeks of age
Mother moves kittens Every 6 – 10 days to a new nest – thought to be defensive as this is very small cat and therefore more vulnerable
Kittens weaned 2 months of age
Black-footed cat dies 10 years in captivity (but caught in wild)


Threats and Conservation

It is difficult to classify any wild cat it seems to me in respect of its survival in the wild because of a scarcity of information. This certainly applies to the black-footed cat. It is very secretive which makes studies difficult, which in turn makes reliable current data hard to come by.

As mentioned it is classified Vulnerable by the Red List. This may be an under classification. What might save it is its size. It is not able to pose a threat to farmer’s livestock and is therefore not persecuted like the larger cats.

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ quotes the usual threat, namely habitat loss and degradation. Persecution is indirect through being killed by general pest control by the use of poisons etc.

As to conservation, CITES lists this cat in Appendix I as mentioned but this is little more than paper protection (see CITES in relation to cats). They say it is protected by legislation across most of its range but hunting is only prohibited in Botswana and South Africa.

There are a number of reserves that fall within this cat’s range, one of which is marked on the map above.


Apparently it is known that the Black-footed cat will breed with the Desert cat or African Wildcat and the domestic cat (in captivity).

To Wild Cat Species

  • Black footed cat – main photo: Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic
  • Small Map: Published under Wikimedia® creative commons license  = Attribution-ShareAlike License
  • Wikipedia® Click on this link to see the Wikipedia® License src: Wikipedia® published under GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version, November 2002 Copyright (C) 2000,2001,2002 Free Software Foundation, Inc. 51 Franklin St, Fifth Floor, Boston, MA 02110-1301 USA – – no other conditions to the license are added.
  • Sources: Wild Cats Of The World by the Sunquists, IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™
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Black-footed Cat — 22 Comments

  1. At the start of 2011 my mother brought home this amazing kitten, since then I have learned that this kitten is in fact a Black Footed Cat. I have called him Theo. The only person who he has not attacked is me, rather he jumps into my lap and sleeps, or when I am reading a book, he jumps up and says “hello”. When I say “attacked” I mean play with. He always waits until I come home from work or if I am out with friends and then he is docile as a typical cat but when I away he raises hell so to speak. I am glad that you have contributed this information about the range, location, prey and conservation.

  2. Hi Jason, I found your comment very interesting. Please tell us more! I would love to know more. I guess you live in South Africa. Your story tells us that the Black-footed cat can be domesticated. What has happened to you is a bit like what happened when the wild cat was first domesticated about 9,500 years ago or less (we are not sure when exactly). I guess the fact that Theo was socialised as a kitten means he is somewhat domesticated. And he is attached to you. He likes you. The small wild cats can be domesticated but some are more suitable for domestication that others. The leopard cat (Asian leopard cat) is said to be too independently minded but the Margay (South America) is friendly.

  3. I have a black footed cat, with long hair & bushy tail -found in the Wild Frontier in Mpumalanga south africa – it looks very like your pictures.

    • Wow, I would love to hear more. Is your Black-footed cat domesticated? They are said to be quite fierce when wild. What is it like living with a Black-footed cat? Thanks for visiting and commenting.

  4. I have 6 cats and a yellow lab, believe it or not! The 2 youngest cats appeared from under our concrete front porch the week of easter 2 years ago. Scooter and Chester(sister and brother, respectively) are extremely rambuncious and Chester has some behavioral issues- apparently the little box is acceptable only half the time, and noses and blankets must be delicious- and some weight issues. Scooter, and to a lesser extent, Chester, are also extremely affectionate. For example, when they aren’t bringing Christmas trees and decorations down to the beautiful, scuffed up, scratched hardwood floors, Chester becomes my mom’s cat shaped shadow. If I leave for even just a week,upon returning, I am greeted by Scooter ignoring me-but, within the hour, there she is, ramming her head into me, bitting my chin, licking my ears, sticking razor sharp claws into my neck, and climbing under my blanket! They are extremely similar in color to the pictures above, and have similar patterns, though they are more striped than the black footed cats above. I can’t help but wonder if one of their parents had a slight trace of a wild cat in them, they are so crazy!

    • Nice story. I sense a lot of love in your house. The Black-footed cat is a tabby cat and you have tabby cats, which originated in the African wildcat. The tabby coat is present throughout the entire cat world, wild and domestic. You have a nice cat/dog household. I like the little vignette of cat life when you return after a week away. Scooter fist ignores you and then adores you. She does adore you. Thanks for stopping by and sharing.

    • Well all wild cats can become pets to lesser and greater extents. Some are more accepting of domestication (serval, margay) others are not (leopard cat) but no wild cat should be a “pet”. You won’t like it. They always retain their wild nature and you have to put in a lot more effort to care for a “domesticated” wild cat. There are lots of great unwanted domestic cats.

      As far as I know the black-footed cat is rarely if ever a pet cat. It can be very fierce even if he/she looks like a domestic tabby cat.

      • This is an old post, but in case you get a reply – not all small wildcats can be domesticated. Scottish wild cat is completely un-tameable and so is European wildcat in spite of their being much closer genetically to our cats and their tabby looks than these guys. The BBC documentary “Tiger of the Higlands” says Scottish wildcat is the only mammal on earth that cannot be tamed, but I read European wildcat is just as fierce. Even bred in captivity for generations they still remain wild even if they interbreed with domestic ferals and produce fertile offspring.

        But their close relative African wildcat is easily tamed. Our domestic cats by the way descended from Near Eastern wildcats, I am not sure how tameable they are.

        These are our cat’s closest relatives – subspecies of Felis Silvestris:

        • Even the most domesticated wild cat of any species is not truly a domestic cat. The domesticating is a veneer. You can feel it. I have been with domesticated servals and they are domestic cats.

          • True. Our cats are just tame wildcats. If they aren’t socialized as kittens, they just stay wild. One reason I like to watch small wildcat videos especially our cat’s closest relatives like various wildcats is because they are so similar in looks and genetically. With wildcats, most of us wouldn’t even be able to see the difference.

            I saw a Serval at a cat show, they did a presentation on Savannahs when it was still a very new breed and also brought a Serval on a leash. I thought a Serval was much better behaved than my very domestic cat would’ve been in similar circumstances.

            I find it fascinating actually that Servals that are bigger than domestics are so easily domesticated whereas Scottish wildcats that look so similar to our cats and are so close genetically remain wild even if bred in captivity for generations.

            • Yes, that is an interesting point that the Scottish wildcat is meant to be totally untameable and fierce while a serval and indeed the cheatah are quite easily tamed. The truth is, though, that I’m not sure the Scottish wildcat is as fierce as they say the cat is. After all, the African wildcat is the ancestor of the domestic cat. The African wildcat and the Scottish wildcat are subspecies of the same cat. Why should the Scottish version of this species of cat be wilder than the North African version? I wonder if the experts have talked up the wild nature of the Scottish wildcat? I have held and played with a tame serval and been in close contact with them in enclosures. They are not as tame as the domestic cat and have a very different character but nonetheless they do have many characteristics of the domestic cat.

              • Our cats came from “felis silvestris lybica”. Some place call this cat African wildcat, others call it Near Eastern wildcat and call identify African wildcat as Felis Silvestris Cafra. Interestingly, the African wildcat is very tameable. The same articles that say that Scottish wildcat remains wild say that African wildcats are easily tameable. One article I read said that they are tameable if raised from kittenhood, but another one said they are tameable even as adults.

                I trust the information about Scottish wildcats “remaining resolutely wild” because the information about them being wild came from the same article that said that African wildcats are tameable. The Scottish wildcat is studied very well by the Scottish wildcat preservation society, they have places where they try to breed them, and they all agree that this cat just doesn’t care for humans. They say it’s the only animal that cannot be tamed so they clearly agree that Servals, ALC and even bigger cats can be.

                Some place say that all of them as well as our cats are subspecies of Felis Silvestris and call our cat Felis Silvestris Catus while others tell our cat is considered a separate species – Felis Catus. But regardless of how they call it, the fact that all sub-species of Felis Silvestris interbreed freely with domestic cats and produce fertile offspring shows how close they are genetically.

    • A couple of things I read about these guys – a) they are fierce, maybe not as fierce as European and Scottish wildcats, but still fierce b) they need low humidity or they can’t breathe and need temperatures above 40 degrees Farenheit. c) in captivity they often die early from kidney failure, nobody knows why d) they eat a lot. e) they spray…

  5. I recently found a Domesticated Black-Footed Adult Female with four kittens in tow living in my neighbor’s abandoned shed. I was wondering if these ‘cross-breeds’ are a rarity, or just your run-of-the-mill domestic feline–only because they all will be in need of adoption just as soon as the kittens are old enough. Thanks,

    • Hi Vincent. The domesticated cats you refer to are semi-domesticated random bred cats with black paw pads and fur around the pads, I guess, just like the wild cat species the black-footed cat but they are not wild cat hybrids in my opinion. There are no known examples of black-footed wild cat hybrids and they only live in Africa. I guess someone could have imported one or two and tried to mate them with a domestic cat. That is a possibility but it is far more likely that the cat in the photo is a handsome tabby cat with black feet. Thanks for sharing.

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