The black-footed cat is one of the smallest species of cat. With a shoulder height of approximately 22cm and a body length of 50cm, the average male weighs in at about 2.2kg – however the female often weighs as little as 1.5kg and as such can be classified as the smallest of all wildcats. In appearance the cat has a large broad head in proportion to its small body – its coat colour varies from light sandy brown to reddish brown and is covered with dark spotted patches which sometime coalesce into broken stripes. The legs of the black-footed are bared with dark horizontal stripes and the tail is broken with dark rings and terminates in a black tip. The pads of its feet are black and are surrounded by long black hairs which give the small felid its name as well as protecting its feet from the heat of the semi-desert habitat.
The black-footed cat is found only in parts of South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Southern Angola. It is classified in the genus Felis and has just two named sub-species. Felis nigripes nigripes displaying a paler coat is found in the northern parts of its range (Botswana, Namibia and Angola) and Felis nigripes thomasi having a darker coat, is native to the Eastern Cape Provence and the southern parts of South Africa.
By way of adaptation to its arid habitat it is thought that the black-footed cat can go without water, instead gaining all its moisture requirement from its food – this is also seen in the Sand Cat which inhabits the arid lands to the northern of the African continent.
Black-footed cats inhabit arid brushland and semi-desert and are known to make their dens in disused Cape Hare burrows, under the cover of rocks and boulders and occasionally within old anthills for which the cat earns the local name of ‘Anthill Tiger’. Most reports are of nocturnal hunting although in some parts of its range, most notably in protected areas such as National Parks and Reserves, an increase in crepuscular activity is common. As with many of the small felid species of Africa the main prey species are rodents – such as gerbils, ground squirrels and pouched mouse – small mammals (although capture of an equally sized Cape Hare has been observed) and birds. Reptiles, spiders and insects also constitute a small part of the black-footed cat’s diet. Hunting technique varies depending on the prey species sought – rodents have been seen to be caught by waiting at the entrance to their hole until they emerge and birds have been observed being taken by the leaping black-footed cat in mid air just as they take off. It is common for the black-footed cat to cache larger prey and return to the carcass later and also to scavenge on the meat of larger dead mammals such as lambs.
In the wild it seems that the black-footed cat develops more quickly than the domestic cat but unlike the similarly sized sand cat, young black-footed cats become independent much later. The litter size is usually small, between 1-3 (typically two) kittens and they are born after a gestation period of approximately 65 days. The kittens weigh between 60-90g at birth – have a daily weight gain of approximately 8g per day and reach maturity as late as 20 months of age.
Several distinct mannerisms and vocalisations have been observed regarding the female black-footed cat. At times of danger, after an alert by the female, the kittens will freeze rather that returning to her and only after a low, short call accompanied by vertical movements of the mothers ears will they return to her. The male black-footed cat has a particularly load call for a cat of its size and is often likened to a high pitched ‘roar’.
Black-footed cats are described as a rare species by many experts, whilst other reports suggest that they are common in parts of their range. Although not generally threatened by hunting, pest control by local farmers may well present a problem – poison and traps, indiscriminately laid for the African Wildcat and Jackal are reported to be affecting black-footed cats in certain areas. The black-footed cat is listed as ‘Least Concern’ in the IUCN Red Book of Endangered Species and is listed in CITES Appendix I.