Bush Dog

Speothos venaticus

Last updated: September 20, 2023
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff
© Andrei Armiagov/Shutterstock.com

Bush dogs have webbed toes to help them swim.


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Bush Dog Scientific Classification

Kingdom
Animalia
Phylum
Chordata
Class
Mammalia
Order
Carnivora
Family
Canidae
Genus
Speothos
Scientific Name
Speothos venaticus

Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.

Bush Dog Conservation Status

Bush Dog Locations

Bush Dog Locations

Bush Dog Facts

Prey
rodents
Name Of Young
pup
Group Behavior
  • Pack
Fun Fact
Bush dogs have webbed toes to help them swim.
Estimated Population Size
10,000
Biggest Threat
loss of habitat
Most Distinctive Feature
tubby body on short legs
Distinctive Feature
bear-like face and ears
Other Name(s)
savanna dog, vinegar dog, forest dog,
Gestation Period
65-83 days
Litter Size
3-6
Habitat
forest, grasslands, riverfronts
Diet
Carnivore
Lifestyle
  • Diurnal
Number Of Species
1
Location
South and Central America

Bush Dog Physical Characteristics

Color
  • Brown
  • Grey
Skin Type
Fur
Lifespan
10 years

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Bush dogs are sometimes called “vinegar dogs” because of the distinct smell of their urine.

Bush Dog Summary

Found in Central and South America, the bush dog is an endangered species of canine. While they are related to domestic dogs through their wolf ancestors, they are not able to produce fertile offspring when they mate together. Bush dogs live in burrows in forests, grasslands, and river bottoms. They are carnivores feasting mainly on various species of South American rodents. As an endangered species, their historic range has only about 10,000 individuals remaining in the wild.

Bush Dog Facts

  • Bush dogs are the size of a small domestic dog, such as a terrier.
  • They are good swimmers because they have partially webbed feet.
  • They are usually solitary hunters but sometimes work together in packs to bring down larger prey, such as 550-pound tapirs.
  • Rather than digging their own burrows, they often use ones abandoned by other species, such as armadillos.
  • They make high-pitched peeping noises to communicate with one another.
  • These dogs are not suitable to keep as pets both because they are endangered and because their wild instincts are too disruptive to keep them in a family home.

Bush Dog Scientific Name

The bush dog’s scientific name is Speothos venaticus. The name “speothos” means “cave” in Greek. “Venaticus” is from a Latin root meaning “hunting.” Together, the scientific name means “cave hunter” or “cave wolf.” A Danish naturalist found fossils of this species in caves in Brazil and assigned the name in 1842, thinking it was an extinct species. A year later he spotted a living specimen but thought it was a different species and assigned it a different name, iticyon, which was used for the bush dog until this error was corrected in the 20th century. Other common names for this species are savanna dog, forest dog, or vinegar dog. They earned the later name because their urine, which they use to mark their territory, smells strongly like vinegar.

There are three subspecies of bush dogs:

  • South American bush dog, Speothos venaticus venaticus: found in the northern countries of South America.
  • Panamanian bush dog, Speothos venaticus panamensis: found in Panama, Costa Rica, Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador.
  • Southern bush dog, Speothos venaticus wingei: found in Brazil, Paraguay, and a small corner of Argentina.

Bush Dog Appearance

Bush dogs have been compared to a mixture between a dachshund and a corgi, crossed with an otter! The result is a little dog about the size of a pet terrier. They are 22-30 inches long and 8-12 inches high at the shoulder. They have tails 5-6 inches long and weigh 11-18 pounds. Their fur is long, soft, and shaded brown, tan, grey, and black on different parts of their bodies. They have short legs, a short muzzle, and small ears. One of their adaptations to their environment is partially webbed toes, which help them swim better.

Bush Dog Evolution and History

Evolutionary biologists think Speothos originated in Brazil during the Pleistocene Epoch (2.58 million – 11,700 years ago). They have identified fossilized remains of two species, S. venaticus and S. pacivorus (now extinct). Speothos are most closely related to the genus Chrysocyon, which includes the maned wolf. The evolutionary path of these canids may have diverged about 3 million years ago and they entered South America as two different species. Speothos has similarities in its tooth structure to Lycaon (the African wild dog) and Cuon (the dhole).

Bush Dog Behavior

Because the species is so rare and scattered over such a large area, they have not been thoroughly studied and few details are known about their behavior in the wild. We know that they often make their burrows inside hollow logs or abandoned burrows of other animals, such as armadillos. They are active during the day, hunting, playing, and marking their territory with urine. They form packs of up to 10 animals centered on a single mated pair and their relatives. Like other canids, they establish a dominance hierarchy. Members of the pack communicate in the thick woods where visibility is low by whining and making high-pitched peeping sounds.

Bush Dog Habitat

Bush dogs live in semi-deciduous forests up to an elevation of about 6,200 feet. They also like grasslands, seasonally-flooded forests, and river banks. They always try to stay close to water. Their range includes parts of Costa Rica, Panama, and most countries of South America, in most of the Amazon River basin. The species has been spotted in a small northern corner of Argentina but there are none in Chile and Uruguay – the only two South American countries that don’t have them.

Bush Dog Diet

These canids are carnivores, roaming around a home range with an area of 1.5-3.9 square miles. Most often they prey upon large rodents like capybaras, acouchis, pacas, and agoutis. They hunt during the day. However, sometimes they will cooperate in packs of up to six dogs to bring down larger prey, such as a 550-pound tapir or a rhea bird. One of their interesting behaviors when eating is that the parent dogs position themselves at the head and tail of the carcass, leaving the pups at the soft belly to disembowel the prey.

Bush Dog Predators and Threats

In their habitats, bush dogs have no natural predators. A possible exception is the leopard, which could take down an individual wild dog or a puppy or wounded animal if it had the chance. In practice, though, these dogs spend most of their time in packs of up to 10 animals, which a leopard would not dare take on.

Human beings are the biggest threat to their survival, due to poaching and the the fragmentation and destruction of their habitat through farming and development. They are also vulnerable to diseases spread by feral domestic dogs.

Bush Dog Reproduction and Life Cycle

Bush dogs mate throughout the year. Females are in heat every 15-44 days. After fertilization, gestation lasts 65-83 days. Litters are usually 3-6 pups but can include as many as 10. Their pups are born blind but open their eyes after 14-19 days. They are weaned at four weeks. Females reach sexual maturity at about 10 months old and males at one year. Bush dogs are genetically distinct enough from other canids that they are unable to produce fertile hybrids with them.

Bush Dog Population

The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums estimates that there are less than 10,000 bush dogs remaining in the wild. Their population has decreased by approximately 25% in the past decade or so. According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, they are classified as a Near Threatened species. Surprisingly, trained domestic dogs are helping preserve the bush dog population. Bush dogs are shy and elusive and live in densely forested areas. Tracking dogs are able to identify their burrows and lead researchers to them to study their population levels and health.

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About the Author

Drew Wood is a writer at A-Z Animals where his primary focus is on mammals, dinosaurs, and geography. Drew has worked in research and writing for over 20 years and holds a Doctorate in Religion, which he earned in 2009. A resident of Nebraska, Drew enjoys Brazilian jiu-jitsu, reading, and caring for his four dogs.

Bush Dog FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

What countries have bush dogs in the wild?

The range of the bush dog includes Panama, Costa Rica, and every country in South America except Chile, Argentina, and Ecuador.

Do bush dogs make good pets?

No. They look like dogs but they are wild animals. Even when trained to be with people from puppyhood, bush dogs still have powerful wild instincts that can cause mayhem in a family home. They are an endangered species, so attention should focus on maintaining as many as possible in the wild so they can breed and increase their numbers.

Do people in South America hunt bush dogs?

Most countries prohibit hunting bush dogs, but Guyana and Suriname do not have any laws against it. Even in places where they are protected, there are few resources to enforce the hunting ban, so poachers are able to pick them off without being caught.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.

Sources
  1. IUCN Red List, Available here: https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/20468/9203243
  2. Wikipedia, Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bush_dog
  3. Britannica, Available here: https://www.britannica.com/animal/bush-dog
  4. Journal of Anatomy, Available here: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/joa.13804
  5. Digimorph, Available here: http://www.digimorph.org/specimens/Speothos_venaticus/
  6. Wolf Education & Research Center, Available here: https://wolfcenter.org/how-do-dogs-help-with-bush-dog-conservation/

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