The black-footed cat, also called the small-spotted cat, is the smallest wild cat in Africa, having a head-and-body length of 35–52 cm (14–20 in). Despite its name, only the soles of its feet are black or dark brown. With its bold small spots and stripes on the tawny fur, it is well camouflaged, especially on moonlit nights. It bears black streaks running from the corners of the eyes along the cheeks, and its banded tail has a black tip.
The first black-footed cat known to science was discovered in the northern Karoo of South Africa and described in 1824. It is endemic to the arid steppes and grassland savannas of Southern Africa. In the late 1960s, it was recorded in southern Botswana, but only a few authentic records exist in Namibia, southern Angola, and southern Zimbabwe. Due to its restricted distribution, it has been listed as a vulnerable species on the IUCN Red List since 2002. The population is suspected to be declining due to poaching of prey species for human consumption as bushmeat, persecution, traffic accidents, and predation by domestic dogs and cats.
It usually rests in burrows during the day and hunts at night. It moves between 5 and 16 km (3.1 and 9.9 mi) on average, in search of small rodents and birds, mostly moving in small circles and zig-zagging among bushes and termite mounds.
It feeds on 40 different vertebrates and kills up to 14 small animals per night. It can catch birds in flight, jumping up to 1.4 m (4 ft 7 in) high, and also dares to attack mammals and birds much heavier than itself. A female usually gives birth to two kittens during the southern-hemisphere summer between October and March. They are weaned at the age of two months and become independent after four months of age at the latest.
Its body is covered with dark spots and stripes
The black-footed cat has tawny fur that is entirely covered with black spots. Its head is darker than the rest of the body but paler above the eyes. Its whiskers are white, and its ears bear grizzled dark brown hairs. On the neck and back, some spots are elongated into stripes. On the shoulders, the spots form transverse stripes. The fore legs and the hind legs bear irregular stripes. Its tail is confusedly spotted. The underparts of the feet are black.
The throat rings form black semi-circles that vary in colour from dusky blackish brown to pale rufous and are narrowly edged with rufous. Some individuals have a pure white belly with a tawny tinge that blends into the tawny colour of the flanks.
The ears, eyes and mouth are lined with pale off-white. Two black streaks run from the corners of the eyes across the cheeks. Individuals vary in background colour from a sandy and pale ochre to dark ochre.
The black-footed cat is the smallest cat species in Africa. The African wildcat is almost three times as large as the black-footed cat and has longer legs, a longer tail and a mostly plain grey fur with less distinct markings.
The serval resembles the black-footed cat in coat colour and pattern but has proportionately larger ears, long legs and a longer tail.
The Black-footed Cat faces several man-made threats. Overgrazing by livestock is prevalent throughout its range, leading to a reduced prey base.
These desert dwellers are difficult to keep in captivity outside their native range. They have very specific habitat requirements and must be kept under dry conditions.