A LITTER of highly endangered African Painted Dog puppies were all smiles when they were taken outside for the first time, so they could play.

The litter of four girls and one boy were born at the end of January and have been in seclusion in a den with their mother since.

Because this was the first litter for the two-year-old mother, Little Foot, extreme caution was taken at Zoo Miami in Florida, US, to make sure that mum and puppies were not disturbed for the first several weeks of their lives.

Until now, the litter and their mum were only observed through a surveillance camera but have been doing so well zookeepers have been able to examine the family.

A spokesman for Zoo Miami said: "Until now, mother and puppies have been observed through a closed circuit television camera.

"After it was felt that the mum was doing an excellent job of caring for her puppies and everything was progressing normally, the decision was made to do the neonatal exams on each of them yesterday.

"This was the first time that anyone had been able to handle the puppies to perform a variety of procedures including collecting blood, general physical exams, deworming treatment, and the placement of a microchip for identification.

"At six weeks of age, the puppies ranged in weight from six to 7.5 pounds. There will be another appointment in the near future to administer vaccinations."

After their exams the puppies were allowed to go out into the habitat for the first time with their mum and also first-time dad, Evander.

Although they were a little nervous they followed Little Foot out, and spent some time playing in the sunshine.

The spokesman said: "Though the father showed extreme interest, the mother did not allow him to get close to the puppies so he observed them intently from a distance as they stayed close to mum and explored.

"Eventually, some of the puppies went into an area that required assistance from the staff to get out of but this is all a learning process for the puppies and they are expected to have limited exhibit access each day under close observation until they have learned to navigate the exhibit without any issues."

African Painted Dogs, also known as painted hunting dogs, painted wolfs, and African hunting dogs, are cooperative hunters found in isolated pockets of Eastern and Southern Africa and travel in packs that can range from six to over 20 members.

With less than 6,000 individuals left in the wild, they are one of the most endangered carnivores on the continent.

The largest threats to the species are being shot by land owners who consider them a threat to their livestock, fragmented habitat, and disease transmission such as rabies and distemper that is introduced by domestic dogs.

Only the alpha pair reproduce within the pack and the female can have as many as 20 puppies which are all raised by the other pack members.

As cooperative hunters, they are able to take down prey much larger than themselves such as wildebeests and other large antelope - prey species include warthogs and smaller antelope such as impala and gazelles.