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Last Updated: 21-Jan-2010

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About the Cuon Alpinus

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Canidae
Genus: Cuon
Species: Cuon alpinus

The dhole (Cuon alpinus) is a species of wild dog from southern Asia. It's an unusual canid, living in highly social packs. Though threatened with extinction, so far it has received very little attention. Unlike the wolf or African hunting dog, few people have even heard of it!

Some people may have come across the dhole, featured as the 'red peril' in 'The Jungle Book' by Rudyard Kipling. This rather unsympathetic portrayal reflects the history of prejudice that the dhole and many other wild canids have suffered. Only with a better understanding can we fully value these unique dogs and their integral role in the forest ecosystem.


As of yet, there are no officially recognized subspecies of dhole. The subspecies below are mostly decided based on one or two dead carcases.

C. a. alpinus -- Eastern Russia
C. a. adustus -- Northern Myanmar & Indo-China.
C. a. dukhunensis -- India, south of the Ganges river
C. a. fumosus -- Western Szechuan, China & Mongolia.
C. a. hesperius -- Eastern Russia & China
C. a. infuscus -- Southern Myanmar, Malaysia, Thailand & Vietnam.
C. a. javanocus -- Java
C. a. laniger -- Kashmir & Southern Tibet
C. a. lepturus -- China, south of the Yangzhe river
C. a. primaevus -- Himalayan regions of Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan.
C. a. sumatrensis -- Sumatra

Hunting Strategies

Dholes are active chiefly during the day, although hunts on moonlit nights are not uncommon. Most hunts involve all adult members of a pack, but solitary dholes often kill small mammals such as a chital fawn or Indian hare. Prey is often located by smell. If tall grass conceals their prey, dholes will sometimes jump high in the air or stand briefly on their hind legs in order to spot it.

Dholes have evolved two strategies to overcome the problems posed by hunting in thick cover, both depending heavily on cooperation in the pack. In strategy 1, the pack moves through scrub in extended line abreast, and any adult capable of killing when it locates suitable prey may begin the attack. If the prey is small it will be dispatched by one dhole. When the prey is larger - for example a chital stag - the sound of the chase and the scream of the prey attract other pack members to assist. It is rare for two large animals to be killed in one hunt in the scrub.

In strategy 2, some dholes remain on the edge of dense cover to intercept fleeing prey as it is flushed out by the other pack members. In thick jungle the chase seldom lasts more than half a kilometer (0.3 mi).

Larger mammals are attacked from behind, usually on the rump and flank, and immediately disemboweled. The resultant severe shock and loss of blood kills the prey - dholes seldom use a throat bite. Small mammals are caught by any part of the body and killed with a single head shake by the dhole. Even before their prey is quite dead, dholes start eating. In general they are efficient killers - two or three dholes can kill a deer of 50 kg (110 lb) within two minutes. Interference at this stage by human observers will prolong the death throes, thus fueling the prejudice that dholes are cruel hunters.

Did you know?...

The dhole has some extraordinary vocal calls - it can whistle, scream, mew, and even cluck like a chicken.
It's been a distinct species for several million years.
It can urinate while doing a handstand on its front two leg.
Sometimes it forms temporary packs of over 40 animals.
It breeds communally with most pack members helping to feed or guard the pups.
When hunting as a pack it can subdue prey over 10 times its own body weight, and can even fend off a tiger!
It exploits a variety of habitats from tropical rain forest and dry-deciduous jungle, to cold alpine forest and open plains.
It has amazing jumping powers and can reach a vertical height of at least 2.3 metres (7.5 ft).
Its dental formula is unique among the dog family.
It is a capable swimmer and often drives its prey into water

Geographical Range

Palearctic, Oriental: From the Altai Mountains in Manchuria in Central and Eastern Asia, its range spreads southwards through the forest tracts of India, Burma, and the Malayan Archipelago. Three races of the dhole exist in India alone.

Physical Description

The dhole or Asiatic Wild Dog (Cuon alpinus) is about the size of a border collie (12-18 kg), but looks quite different. The coat is usually a rusty red colour, but varies regionally from sandy yellow to dark grey. Usually it has a black bushy tail and white patches on its chest, paws and belly. Its ears are rounded, and its hooded amber eyes portray an intelligent nature. A dhole is born with a sooty brown colour, acquiring an adult colour at three months of age.

Within the canid family the dhole is something of an enigma. It doesn't fit neatly into any of the sub-families (i.e. the foxes or wolf-like dogs) and is classified in a genus of its own - Cuon. Among its unusual features is a strange whistle call which it uses to re-assemble the pack when animals become separated in dense forest. The dhole also has more teeth than most other dogs and has a shorter jaw with one less molar on each side of its lower jaw.

Average size:
Head/body length 90cm (35")
Tail length 40-45cm (16"-18")
Shoulder height 50cm (20")
Pups are born November - March
Gestation: 60-62 days.
Litter size: 8-9, but 3-4 common.
Lactation: At least 8 weeks.
Age at sexual maturity: 1 year.
Longevity: 10 years, up to 16 years in captivity.

Dholes like open spaces and can often be found on jungle roads, river beds, jungle clearings, and paths, where they rest during the day. Their hunting range is about 40sq km (15sq mi). The dhole can also be found in dense forest steppes, and the thick jungles of the plains as well as the hills. They are never found in the open plains and deserts.

Social Behaviour

Dholes live in packs which are an extended family unit of usually 5-12 animals with aggregations of up to 25 animals occasionally noted. Packs are territorial. Pack continues to care for pups after they leave the den, by regurgitating meat and allowing them access at kills. They are similar to the African Wild Dog in that they engage in cooperative group hunting and group care of young.

Dholes are very fond of water. After meals they race to a water site, and sometimes, if the water is near their kill, dholes will leave their food for a small drink of water. They have also been spotted sitting in shallow pools of water regardless of the temperature. Just as domestic dogs, dholes wag their tails. There is rarely any evidence of aggressiveness among pack members ( except for the cubs, who like to play fight) and there is almost never any bullying.

Population & Status

Burma: Still believed to be widespread in the forested tracts of Burma, but the geographical boundaries of the subspecies are unknown (Johnsingh 1987).
Soviet Union: Very rare.
Thailand: Present in Thailand, including Khao Yai National Park (Lekagul and McNeeley 1977) but status is unknown.
China: Occurs very sparsely in the forested mountains of western Sichuan, southern Gansu, eastern Qinghai, and in eastern Tibet.

Diet & Hunting habits

Dholes will eat spotted deer, samber deer, wild sheep, small deer, rodents, and rabbits. They hunt the larger animals in a pack unit, and kill their prey in a method similar to the African wild dog, which disembowels its prey while it is still alive. They will defend their kill very violently, and have been seen killing tigers and bears! However, dholes are not any more malicious than anything else, and pose no threat to humans. In fact, like any other canid, they tend to avoid humans.

Dholes are endangered due to habitat loss, prey base loss, as well as poaching by humans. They are most commonly poisoned.