Perhaps the smallest species of cat, black-footed cats average only three pounds (1.4 kilograms) at maturity, with males being considerably larger (by 50 percent) than females. Black-footed cats are buff-colored with heavy black markings. The soles of their feet are black, which is where their name comes from. Some sources list a southern subspecies, Felis nigripes thomasi, but many authorities question the validity of this subspecies.
Black-footed cats are native to arid regions of southern Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa.
See range map
Black-footed cats are nocturnal inhabitants of the arid lands in southern Africa. They are typically found in open, sandy, grassy habitats with sparse scrub and tree cover. Although poorly studied in the wild, their optimal habitat seems to be areas with long grass, and high rodent and bird densities. During the day, they live in the holes in termite mounds or in burrows dug by springhaas (a type of rodent that looks like a small kangaroo).
In the wild, their diet consists mainly, 30 percent, of birds and their eggs. They also eat small rodents, insects, arachnids, frogs, and lizards. In zoos, many cats eat commercial feline diets and mice. We need further investigation into their nutritional requirements. Because some black-footed cats in captivity die earlier than other small felids, research into their overall biology is underway.
Scientists don't know much about this species, but like most other small cats, black-footed cats are solitary and come together only for breeding. Females have one to three kittens, which are weaned at about four months of age. In the wild, they've been observed attacking other, much larger, animals. However, some of these accounts, and the alleged ferocity of the cats, may be exaggerated.
Little is known about their real status in the wild, and farmers seldom report capturing black-footed cats in problem animal surveys. Indiscriminate methods of predator control may be a significant threat as poison baits and traps set for African wildcat and jackal could threaten black-footed cats, because they are ready scavengers. A similar threat is the poisoning of locusts and other pests, which are a preferred food of the black-footed cat.
They have few natural enemies in agricultural areas except jackals and caracals, and they may be more common than originally suspected. Habitat deterioration due to overgrazing by livestock is prevalent throughout the species' range and may be their biggest threat, as overgrazing decreases the amount of available prey in an area. The recent conversion of sheep and cattle ranches to game farming may help sustain their population levels..
The IUCN lists the black-footed cat as vulnerable on their 2008 Red List, while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists them as endangered. They are listed on CITES Appendix I.
An international studbook and European zoo management plan (EEP) is supported by the Wuppertal Zoo in Germany. A North American Regional studbook has been established at the San Antonio Zoological Park and a Species Survival Plan (SSP) is supported by Riverbanks Zoological Park. The goal of the North American Regional Collection Plan is for this species' population to increase to 75 individuals.
This cat hasn't been well studied. The only field study was conducted over the last decade by Alexander Sliwa. Sliwa studied black-footed cats on a South African game park managed for antelope rather than domestic livestock. He found that higher population levels of these cats correlated with the conversion from domestic livestock that degraded sensitive lands, to native ungulates that promoted the return of natural grasses and the cat's prey.