Pets and People: Discovering The African Wild Dog


As a veterinarian who cares for dogs and cats, a journey to Africa represented an opportunity to be with lions, who remind me of big dogs and leopards who look like big cats.  They are both extraordinarily beautiful and exciting animals to see. 

What surprised me was the difficult search and actual encounter with a pack of a canine species that I knew very little about.  In the process, I discovered dogs with a remarkable social structure, which is very interesting and worthy of respect.

That experience occurred on a photographic safari in the South Luangwa Valley in Zambia.  There, on the southern end of the Great Rift, I lived in a circular, hatch-covered hut overlooking a marsh inside a huge, protected preserve, where getting to know the rhythms of the African wild became a daily routine.  

I had to arise by 5:30 a.m. to begin a journey over vast preservation to be there when the animals would be more likely to be discovered.  In the heat of the day, they would seek shelter and be more difficult to find.

Photographing lions, leopards, and the other “Big Five” provided too many memories to discuss adequately.  However, my guides understood that this small animal veterinarian had a special interest in the African Wild Dog.

When possible, I would prefer to follow the same animals for a while to get to know their behavior and personalities.  This time, I had the rare opportunity to follow a pack of African Wild Dogs.  It was hard keeping up with them: unlike lions and leopards, these canines are constantly moving across a huge territory.  And unfortunately, habitat loss is one of the biggest reasons they’ve become locally extinct in many parts of the African continent.  Luangwa is one of the last landscapes where you have a strong chance of seeing them.

Wildlife photographers can’t count on chance, though.  The more you understand an animal’s behavior, the better you can predict how it will move or act, and you can position yourself accordingly.  My guides had this kind of experience and would communicate with other guides by walkie talkie when animals were observed.  Even with this advantage It took the better part of an afternoon and the next day to be lucky enough to find a pack.

Overall, while both domestic dogs and African Wild Dogs are canids, their differences in habitat, social structure, appearance, hunting behavior, and temperament make them very distinct from each other.  Domestic dogs have been selectively bred and raised by humans for specific purposes, while African Wild Dogs are a wild species that live in a highly specialized and complex social structure.

African Wild Dogs have a distinctive coat pattern, with patches of black, brown, and white fur.  Domestic dogs come in a wide variety of breeds, each with its unique appearance.  African Wild Dogs live in large packs, with a dominant male and female breeding pair.  Domestic dogs are typically kept as individual pets or in small groups of a few dogs.

Domestic dogs may hunt in some cases, but they have been primarily bred for companionship and do not have the same natural hunting instincts.  African Wild Dogs live in sub-Saharan Africa, in various habitats including savannas, forests, and deserts.  Domestic dogs can be found all over the world, in a variety of environments from urban areas to rural farmland.  African Wild Dogs are classified as endangered due to habitat loss, hunting, and disease.  Domestic dogs are not considered endangered and are the most widely distributed carnivore.

African Wild Dogs are highly efficient hunters and use a cooperative hunting technique to take down prey.  They are social animals and hunt in packs ranging from 2 to 40 individuals.  They use their keen sense of smell to locate prey, often working together to surround it. Before the hunt, the dogs engage in a group greeting ceremony, vocalizing, and licking each other to strengthen social bonds.  They communicate through vocalizations and body language to coordinate their movements during the hunt.  After the kill, the dogs will share the food with each other, regurgitating it for the weaker members of the pack, including pups and elderly dogs.

I find that behavior most fascinating.  I did not see them actually pursue their prey, I did observe some of their social and planning behavior.  I observed some keeping a watchful eye or ear tuned in to any information available while others had their noses to the ground, working on a trail of scents to pursue.

Once the prey is located, the dogs will pursue it at high speeds, often running for long distances.  They have incredible endurance and can keep up the chase for several kilometers. When the prey is exhausted, the dogs will take it down and bite it repeatedly until it dies.  They use their sharp teeth and powerful jaws to inflict fatal wounds.  African Wild Dogs have a high success rate in hunting, with estimates ranging from 60 percent to 90 percent of hunts resulting in a kill. Their cooperative hunting behavior and efficient hunting strategy make them one of the most successful predators in the African savanna.

I am home now, returning to the Practice of Veterinary Medicine that I love.  However, there is a part of me still there, and I look forward to continuing that amazing journey sometime in the future.

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