This rare and secretive cat is one of the world’s smallest cats, and is Africa’s smallest wild cat. Its coat varies from tawny to cinnamon buff, and has patterns of brown or black oblong spots, which provide effective camouflage. The spots merge into bars which cover the legs, shoulders, and short tail. Feet of Black-footed cats are black on the undersides, which is where their common name comes from.
Black-footed cats live in Namibia, South Africa, marginally into Zimbabwe, and can also be found in extreme southern Angola. Steppe and savannah habitats are their preference, such as the Karoo and Kalahari Deserts. They need tree cover and sparse shrub for hunting purposes, and hollowed-out termite mounds or burrows for sleeping in during the day.
Black-footed cats live solitary lives and are only found in the company of others when breeding or in the case of a mother with dependent offspring. They are strictly nocturnal, hunting only at night, sleeping during the day in abandoned termite mounds or unoccupied springhare, porcupine or aardvark burrows. Males have territories that are much larger than the females’ ones, and will overlap with as many as four females’ ranges. They mark their territory with scent and the rubbing of scent. Female territories also often overlap with the areas of other females, but they always hunt on their own. In one night, they can travel as far as 16 km in their search for food. Their hunting is by a method of stalking, running and pouncing, or they wait outside rodents’ holes for their prey.
Black-footed cats are probably polygynous, because male territories overlap with those of up to five females, while the female ranges generally only overlap one male range. The mating season is from July to March. Females can have two litters per year, with often 1 to 3 kittens in each litter (though 1 to 2 is more usual). The gestation period is 59 to 68 days. The kittens start to venture outside their den when they are 3 weeks old, and at about 6 weeks old they are fully weaned, and can start to hunt their own prey. By five months old kittens are independent, but they may remain inside their mother's range. These cats are sexually mature at 1 - 2 years old.
The most important threat comes from traps and poisons set for other animals. Farmers target the African wildcat, and so the Black-footed cat can easily become a victim of poisoned bait and steel-jaw traps, and carcasses poisoned to control locusts and jackals could kill Black-footed cats feeding on them. Furthermore, overgrazing from cattle causes habitat degradation throughout the Black-footed cat’s range, and can impact them by reducing the amount of small vertebrates which they eat.
According to the IUCN Red List, the total population size of the Black-footed cat is fewer than 10,000 mature individuals. This species’ numbers are decreasing today and currently it is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List.
Black-footed cats are primary predators of birds and small mammals in the areas they inhabit, controlling their populations in this way.