Wild canids vary in size from the Fennec fox, which may be as little as 24 cm (9.4 in) in length and weigh 0.6 kg (1.3 lb), to the Gray wolf, which may be up to 160 cm (5.2 ft) long, and can weigh up to 79 kg (174 lb).
All canids have a similar basic form, as exemplified by the Gray wolf, although the relative length of muzzle, limbs, ears, and tail vary considerably between species. With the exceptions of the Bush dog, the Raccoon dog and some domestic breeds of Canis lupus, canids have relatively long legs and lithe bodies, adapted for chasing prey. The tails are bushy and the length and quality of the pelage vary with the season. The muzzle portion of the skull is much more elongated than that of the cat family.
All canids are digitigrade, meaning they walk on their toes. The tip of the nose is always naked, as are the cushioned pads on the soles of the feet.
Canids are found on all continents except Antarctica, having arrived independently or accompanied human beings over extended periods of time.
Most species are carnivorous, but they are often fed with carrion, insects, and plant food.
Almost all canids are social animals and live together in groups. In general, they are territorial or have a home range and sleep in the open, using their dens only for breeding and sometimes in bad weather. In most foxes, and in many of the true dogs, a male and female pair work together to hunt and to raise their young. Gray wolves and some of the other larger canids live in larger groups called packs. African wild dogs have packs which may consist of 20 to 40 animals and packs of fewer than about seven individuals may be incapable of successful reproduction. Hunting in packs has the advantage that larger prey items can be tackled. Some species form packs or live in small family groups depending on the circumstances, including the type of available food. In most species, some individuals live on their own. Within a canid pack, there is a system of dominance so that the strongest, most experienced animals lead the pack. In most cases, the dominant male and female are the only pack members to breed.
Canids communicate with each other by scent signals, by visual clues and gestures, and by vocalizations such as growls, barks, and howls. In most cases, groups have a home territory from which they drive out other conspecifics. The territory is marked by leaving urine scent marks, which warn trespassing individuals. Social behavior is also mediated by secretions from glands on the upper surface of the tail near its root and from the anal glands.
Canids as a group exhibit several reproductive traits that are uncommon among mammals as a whole. They are typically monogamous, provide paternal care to their offspring, have reproductive cycles with lengthy proestral and dioestral phases and have a copulatory tie during mating. They also retain adult offspring in the social group, suppressing the ability of these to breed while making use of the alloparental care they can provide to help raise the next generation of offspring.
Small and medium-sized canids mostly have a gestation period of 50 to 60 days, while larger species average 60 to 65 days. The time of year in which the breeding season occurs is related to the length of day, as has been demonstrated in the case of several species that have been translocated across the equator to the other hemisphere and experiences a six-month shift of phase. Domestic dogs and certain small canids in captivity may come into oestrus more frequently, perhaps because the photoperiod stimulus breaks down under conditions of artificial lighting.
The size of a litter varies, with from one to 16 or more pups being born. The young are born small, blind and helpless and require a long period of parental care. They are kept in a den, most often dug into the ground, for warmth and protection. When the young begin eating solid food, both parents, and often other pack members, bring food back for them from the hunt. This is most often vomited up from the adult's stomach. Where such pack involvement in the feeding of the litter occurs, the breeding success rate is higher than is the case where females split from the group and rear their pups in isolation. Young canids may take a year to mature and learn the skills they need to survive. In some species, such as the African wild dog, male offspring usually remain in the natal pack, while females disperse as a group and join another small group of the opposite sex to form a new pack.