Class: Mammalia (Mammals)
Body length: about 3 feet (almost 1 meter) plus 15 to 18 inches (40 to 45 centimeters) for the tail
Shoulder height: 20 inches (50 centimeters)
Weight: males, 33 to 44 pounds (15 to 20 kilograms); females, 22 to 29 pounds (10 to 13 kilograms)
Life span: about 10 years, up to 16 years in zoos
Gestation: 60 to 62 days
Number of young at birth: 3 to 4 is common, but can produce up to 12!
Age of maturity: fully grown at 1 year; reproduce in the wild at about 3 years old
Conservation status: endangered
The dhole makes some extraordinary sounds: it can
whistle, scream, mew, and even cluck like a chicken!
The whistling sound the dhole is known for is so distinct it can be used to identify individual animals!
A dhole can jump over 7 feet (2.1 meters) straight up into the air!
When hunting as a pack, dholes can catch prey over 10 times their own body weight and can even fend off a tiger!
The only North American pack of dholes lives at the Safari Park and has produced pups. The Park also funds and supports dhole conservation efforts in Asia.
San Diego Zoo Safari Park: Chinese dholes Cuon alpinus lepturus live in an off-exhibit area.
Listen to an excited dhole!
Listen to dhole's whistle!
Mammals: Dhole, or Asiatic Wild Dog
Dholes are dogs!
The dhole (pronounced "dole") is also known as the Asiatic wild dog, or red dog. It is about the size of a German shepherd, but looks more like a long-legged fox. Dholes are classified with wolves, coyotes, jackals, and foxes in the taxonomic family Canidae.
Dholes vary in color from charcoal gray to rust red to sandy beige, depending on their habitat. Their tails are brushy and fox-like, often with a black tip. These wild dogs usually have white feet, bellies, and chests, but not always. Adults have long tails and rounded ears, and males tend to be larger and heavier than females. They are also very good at adapting to their surroundings, like most dog species, and can be found in all sorts of different habitats. They also maintain very large territories—up to 34 square miles (88 square kilometers)! One of the reasons for keeping such a large home range is the need to find prey to eat.
The dhole is an unusual dog for a number of reasons, though. It doesn't fit neatly into any of the dog subfamilies (wolves and foxes, for instance). Dholes have only two molars on each side of their lower jaw, instead of three, and have a relatively shorter jaw than their doggie counterparts. Also, females have more teats than other canid species and can produce up to 12 pups per litter.
It takes a village
Like other dogs, dholes are social, living in groups called packs. The pack works together to feed and care for itself. Each pack has 5 to 12 members, but they will also work or play with dholes from outside of their own pack. Sometimes dhole packs get together to form super packs of up to 30 or more animals. They will hunt together, share their prey, then separate again into the original smaller groups. Inter-pack aggression is rare, perhaps because neighboring packs tend to be related to one another.
Dholes are similar to African wild dogs: there is one dominant monogamous pair, and the entire pack contributes to the care and feeding of the pups. This is called cooperative breeding. Other pack members will bring food to the nursing mother and pups by thorwing up food from their stomachs after a hunt. Once the pups are old enough to join the main pack, they are allowed "first dibs" on the kills. When the pups reach about three years of age, it is the females that head off to live with other packs. This results in an unusual and skewed male/female mix in dhole packs: sometimes there is only one female in a pack full of males!
The whistling hunter
Dholes are great communicators and use an eerie whistle to communicate with each other. They also use a variety of other noises, including clucks and high-pitched screams, that are not found anywhere else in the canid families. Dhole packs often hunt as a group, with one "lead dog" in charge. The dholes use these sounds when hunting together. Such communication helps them take down prey many times their own body weight. Then they swallow meat in large chunks and actually carry it back to pack members that way! They have been known to hunt ibex, mountain sheep, various deer species, rodents, rabbits, and even turtles in some parts of their range. Dholes will also eat berries, bugs, lizards, rabbits, and wild pigs and they even hunt well on their own if needed. At the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, the dholes are fed carnivore diet, with bones to chew on twice a week and thawed rabbits once a week.
Like other dogs, dholes use their keen sense of smell to track prey. They are also very good swimmers and have even been seen chasing their prey into water to help slow it down! And, just like dogs you may know, dholes will happily wag their tails at one another in greeting!
Disease and human conflict threaten the dhole, which is now listed as an endangered species. Their supply of prey is also running out in several areas. Dholes can easily catch diseases like distemper and rabies from domestic dogs brought by humans moving into the wild dog's habitat. In some places, dholes are trapped and poisoned, and their dens destroyed, because they are viewed as dangerous pests.
Their primary threat, though, is habitat loss. As dholes lose places to live and reproduce, so do their prey. If there is nowhere safe to live and nothing to eat, then the dhole will slowly die out. The Safari Park has the only breeding dholes in managed care in the United States as part of its long-range conservation science efforts. We fund and support dhole conservation efforts in Asia and are involved in a detailed study aimed at increasing our understanding of vocal communication in dholes, the whistling hunters of the wild!