Leopards and cheetahs are two very different cats and yet so often people get them mixed up. What I’d like to do is share some of the obvious and not-so-obvious differences so that you won’t have a problem telling them apart again.
Size and body shape:
Although cheetah are taller at the shoulder than a leopard and therefore stand higher above the ground, they are substantially more slender in build. The weight of a male cheetah is about 54kg and a female about 43kg. Male leopards in this area weigh closer to 60-70kg and the females 30-40kg. These rather insignificant weight differences may make you think that they look very similar but this is not the case.
Remember that a cheetah is the fastest land mammal and is built for speed. As such, a lot of their muscle has been sacrificed to make them more stream-lined. They have very long bodies with an unusually flexible spine to allow for rapid changes in direction when following prey and their head and forequarters are petite. These cats will capture their prey by tripping them using their dew claws rather than leaping on them and therefore do not need as much strength. A leopard on the other hand is a stalk-and-pounce predator and needs to get close to its prey before leaping on it. It often has to crouch, low to the ground, for long periods of time and is therefore much more stocky and strong, with much bigger muscles around the shoulders and neck.
Shape of tail:
A cheetah’s tail is also much more flat in shape. Almost think of it as a rudder that the cheetah can use to steer itself when it’s running at top speeds. A leopard’s tail is much more tubular in shape. The importance of the tail for a leopard is balance, particularly when they’re hoisting carcasses, climbing up and down trees or teetering on spindly branches high above the ground.
Cheetah have spots where leopards have rosettes. The spot of a cheetah is a clear, single, black spot separated from the other spots on the cat’s body. A leopard however, has smaller irregular shaped spots that group together in circles to form rosettes. Have a look at the photographs below to see the difference.
Another fairly obvious distinction is the markings on the face of a cheetah. Cheetah have black ‘tear marks’ that streak from the inner corner of their eyes and down their cheeks. We are not sure what the reason for these markings is but one theory suggests that it helps to absorb sunlight and reduce glare into the cat’s eyes while it hunts during the day. These markings are completely missing from a leopard’s face. A cheetah also has more amber coloured eyes as opposed to the more green-blue colour of a leopard’s eyes.
Leopards have bigger front feet than back feet due to their large heads and necks, necessary for hoisting carcasses. The front feet carry the weight of the heavy forequarters of the leopard and are therefore bigger to compensate for this. The cheetah on the other hand requires explosive speed and therefore has really big back feet that allow for massive acceleration.
This leads us onto their claw structure. Because cheetah require rapid acceleration and because they are turning at such high speeds, they have non-retractable claws to give them extra traction. Leopards on the other hand, do not need this as much and so their claws retract. Leopards will only use their claws when necessary, such as when climbing trees, jumping on prey or fighting for example. Even if you only look at the tracks of these animals, you should see this difference immediately.
These animals also favour fairly different habitats. Because a cheetah hunts at speeds of 114km/hr, they need fairly open spaces to get to those speeds safely. Leopards on the other hand, hunt by using their camouflage rather than sheer speed and so they prefer to roam through areas that are much more densely covered and which make it easier for them to hide in. Although the habitats of these cats do overlap, there are definitely areas that are more suitable for one than for the other.
Leopards also spend a lot more time in trees than cheetah. Although a cheetah can climb a tree, they are not nearly as strong as a leopard and certainly wouldn’t be able to hoist a kill into a tree. Sometimes they will leap onto fallen over trees or scramble into the lower, more sturdy branches of a tree to gain a good vantage point but they are not nearly as comfortable above the ground as leopards are.
Cheetah are diurnal cats meaning they move about more during the day than at night and leopards are nocturnal cats, moving about more frequently at night than during the day. Again, this is not always the case and cheetah may well be found hunting under the light of a full moon but typically they will avoid moving around when larger predators are more likely to be active.
Because cheetah are physically weaker than leopards and are lower down on the predator hierarchy, they also have a lower survival rate with their cubs. As a result cheetah normally give birth to 4-6 cubs, hoping that they will be able to get some of these to independence. Leopards on the other hand normally give birth to 2, sometimes 3 cubs because they have a slightly better chance of raising them successfully.
Relationship to humans:
Although both species are generally quite fearful of humans in the wild; cheetah are even more so than leopards. Although there are many records of leopards killing humans in the wild, there is not a single report of a cheetah having done so. In fact in the past, cheetah were even domesticated by Indian sheiks and kept as pets where this is not possible with a leopard.