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What’s the difference between a cheetah and a leopard?

Updated: Dec 20, 2023

Do you know how to tell the difference between a cheetah and a leopard? It’s true that they both have spots and are big cats, but there’s a lot more to know about these majestic cats.

Read time: 5 mins

Cheetahs have some very distinctive features that will catch your eye immediately. If you take a close look at their face, you’ll notice they have black ‘tear’ marks along their nose starting at the inside corner of their eyes. 

Look for markings around a cheetah’s eyes

When telling the difference between a cheetah and a leopard, the tear marks running from their eyes down is a good indication of a cheetah.

It’s believed that these black lines are there to help reflect sunlight out of the cheetah’s eyes. This is very important as cheetah’s hunt mostly during the day in order to avoid other predators such as the leopard, which hunts at night. A leopard’s eyes are well adapted to night-time hunting as their eyes absorb more light making them successful hunters.

The patterns on their coats is one way to tell the difference between a cheetah and a leopard. Cheetahs have unbroken, solid black spots which are usually oval or round in shape.  Leopards have rosettes which are rose-like markings with spots on their face and neck. 

Rosettes on leopards vs spots on a cheetah

Leopards often look like they’re wearing jewelry, with their necklace-like patterns around their chest.

The spots on a leopard’s neck look as if they have a necklace on. Aside from the different patterns they are also built in unique ways. The cheetah has a small, slender build with long legs and a rudder-like tail – they’re built to run at high speeds. In contrast, the leopard has a short, muscular build. This benefits them when it comes to climbing trees and swimming.

An interesting fact about cheetahs is that they are the fastest land animals and can run at speeds of up to 100km/h within just three seconds and average about 87km/h while hunting. They cannot maintain these speeds for long as it may cause their brain to overheat. 

Cheetahs are built for speed and agility

A cheetah’s long lean legs are built for speed.

The leopard is more of an endurance hunter. They usually reach speeds of about 58km/h while hunting, but they maintain these speeds for a longer period while hunting.

Due to these cats having been built for such different lifestyles, their claws do differ (although you might not want to get close enough to tell the difference between a cheetah and a leopard by looking at their feet!). 

Like all house cats, the leopard has retractable claws. This is beneficial in taking down prey and climbing trees, which is one distinctive characteristic for the leopard as they are the only big cats that can climb a tree with their prey. 

Leopards are built to climb trees and stalk prey

One easy difference between a cheetah and a leopard is that leopards love to climb trees.

The cheetah has dog-like claws, they are only semi-retractable. This makes them not as sharp as the rest of the cat family as they are not able to fully retract their claws – this is an amazing characteristic as these claws help the cheetah to keep grip when running at high speeds. These are two mesmerising and unique cats.

Have you ever wondered why the elusive leopard is part of the African Big 5 but the cheetah isn’t? Well, if you think about it, the Big 5 were originally seen as the most dangerous and potentially deadly animals to hunt on foot. It makes sense to think that this bulky, deadly clawed, spotted cat would be one of them. 

Are cheetahs a part of the Big 5?

Cheetahs are passive and fearful of humans, while leopards are much more willing to stand and fight. This is one big difference between a cheetah and a leopard.

But why not the cheetah? Well, the thing is, cheetahs are more passive cats that tend to avoid situations that could potentially put their own life in danger thus they are less likely to become a problem for hunters. By contrast, the leopard could quickly defend itself against a human, if it felt threatened or cornered. 

If you think about the type of prey both these cats hunt, it will make more sense. Cheetahs are known for their speed as they do not have the same strength as a leopard when it comes to taking down prey. Though you will find both cats prey on antelope, it is the size that matters in this case.

What about the prey difference between a cheetah and a leopard?

If a leopard’s teeth are any indication, you want to respect distance when it comes to this predator!

A cheetah is more likely to go for the smaller antelope, like impala, springbok or duiker but may also go for rabbits, birds and warthogs. This prey is fast but small so makes their chances of success much higher. 

The leopard is not prey specific, they will hunt just about anything that makes an easy meal, be it antelope, warthog or even jackals. Their prey is mostly dependent on what they come across due to the type of vegetation they hunt and live in.

Where do leopards and cheetahs hunt?

Cheetahs enjoy open spaces where they can reach top speeds. Their territory is one way to tell the difference between a cheetah and a leopard.

A leopard can hunt on almost any terrain due to their stalking method of catching prey. They are known as elusive which means they can sneak up on any unsuspecting animal and also disappear within a matter of minutes. This as well as their ability to camouflage in most vegetation makes them the ideal hunter. 

The cheetah does not have the same luck. Due to their high-speed way of chasing down prey, they thrive in open grasslands and bushy areas. This gives them the space they need to reach their speeds and hunt successfully.

Which is your favourite?

Leopards often patrol through thicker bush and shrubs, while cheetahs prefer open spaces. 

Next time you go into a game reserve and you come across a beautiful, spotted big cat, will you be able to tell the difference between a cheetah and a leopard? Always remember to look at the type of vegetation that is around as well as their spots and body structure. These are some fun tools to help you surprise many people with your knowledge!

Interested in learning more interesting facts about wildlife? Make it your career – apply today for a Bushwise course!

Words by Kirsty Greer, Bushwise student, with photos by Annie DuPre


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