Differentiating Big Cats: “What’s the Difference Between a Cheetah and a Leopard?”

If you were given the following clues, could you guess which African animal was being described?

• It is a big cat
• It has four legs
• It has a long tail
• It is golden/yellow with black spots
• It has claws
• It has sharp teeth
• It is a predator
• It has seven letters in it’s name

If you guessed leopard, you are correct! If you guessed cheetah, you are also correct! Both of these African cats fit the above description. To some people with no prior exposure to leopards and cheetahs, these wild cats are unidentifiable. So, what makes them different?

Let’s start with the way the two big cats look.

Leopards have broader, wider faces than cheetahs, and fairly small ears. Cheetahs, conversely, have rounder faces with black marks in the shape of tears running from the inside of their eyes to the corners of their mouth. These black marks are used to deflect the sun from the cheetah’s eyes, as cheetahs are diurnal, meaning they are active hunters during the daytime. In Africa, the sun can get extremely hot and bright, making it hard to see. Leopards, on the other hand, are nocturnal, hunting at night, and have a white outline surrounding their eye to act as natural night-vision goggles.

Additionally, although both cats have spots, leopard spots are actually called rosettes, a dark brown spot surrounded by small clusters of black spots. Cheetah spots, conversely, are solid black spots, with no brown whatsoever. A smaller, less noticeable difference that distinguishes the two big cats is that leopards have retractable claws, similar to domesticated house cat, which they use to catch prey or climb in trees. Cheetah claws, however, are non retractable, which means they are out and ready to be used at all times.

Cheetahs are, on average, longer, and leaner than leopards. An adult cheetah ranges between 110-170 centimeters, with a height of 90 centimeters, and a weight of 34-60 kilograms, whereas a full-grown leopard body length reaches between 90-165 centimes and a height of 78-80 centimeters, with some subspecies weighing up to 70 kilograms. Both animals have incredibly long tails, which both African cats use for balance and navigation. However, the leopard tail is generally longer, growing as long as 60 to 110 centimeters, whereas the cheetah tail reaches a maximum of 60 to 84 centimeters.

As you may know, cheetahs are the fastest animals in the world. They can run up to 93 kilometers while hunting, and up to 120 kilometers per hour when running through the African bush. Leopards are only half as fast as cheetah, reaching a maximum of 58 kilometers per hour. Given these statistics, we can conclude that cheetahs are built for speed, as they are very slender with longer legs. Leopards are built for strength, so they are the shorter, solid, and stockier of the two cats. Aside from their physical characteristics, their hunting habits, prey, and lifestyles are different too.

Leopards hunt from trees, observing their prey from elevated ground. Since they are not as fast as the cheetah, it is required that they keep a close eye on their prey, calculating the perfect time to make a move that will ensure a successful hunt. Cheetah hunt from the ground, and because they are so fast, they are typically able to catch their prey without a problem.

Finally, male cheetahs live amongst one another for majority of their lives and female cheetahs are solitary, living with their cubs for one year when they are newborn. Leopards, both male and female, are solitary animals that choose to live on their own, hunting and caring solely for themselves. When a female leopard has children, she takes care of them for a few months, teaching them how to fend for themselves, and then they go separate ways, essentially becoming strangers, just like the cheetah females.

So, while the two cats may look the same to the inexperienced eye, they are two completely different animals, both with very unique attributes. Comparing cheetah to leopards is similar to comparing apples to oranges; they may fall in the same “Big Cat” category, but at the end of the day, they have more differences than similarities.