A cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) and a leopard (Panthera pardus) may look almost identical at first glance. They are similar patterns on their coats, and can both be found in the African wild. They also both belong to the family Felidae.
However, cheetahs and leopards are actually quite different. For starters, a cheetah is a member of the Acinonyx genus while a leopard is a member of the Panthera genus. Upon closer inspection, they also look pretty different too. While a cheetah has back spots, a leopard actually has more of a rosette pattern. Cheetahs have long legs, allowing them to run as fast as they are known to, but leopards have quite short legs and are more muscular.
These are just a few of the differences between the animals. Below we’ll be taking a look in further detail at the key differences and similarities when comparing the cheetah vs leopard, and how you can go about telling them apart!
Cheetah vs. Leopard Overview
- Scientific name: Acinonyx jubatus
- Size: Between 21 and 72 kg (46 and 159 lb)
- Location: Eastern and southern Africa, Iran and Afghanistan.
- Habitat: Savannas, grasslands and open plains for chasing their prey at high speeds.
- Appearance: Long legs for sprinting at high speeds. Oval or round solid black spots.
- Scientific name: Panthera pardus
- Size: Between 37 and 90 kg (81.6 and 198.4 lb) (males), between 28 and 60 kg (61.7 and 132.3 lb) (females)
- Location: Sub-Saharan Africa, some parts of Western and Central Asia, Southern Russia, and on the Indian subcontinent to Southeast and East Asia
- Habitat: Woodlands, grassland savannas, rainforests and forests, preferably covered, for hiding from predators.
- Appearance: Muscular, with short legs. Dark spots grouped in rosettes.
Cheetah vs. Leopard Subspecies
There are nine different sub-species of leopard which differ in their appearance and geographic location, with the African Leopard being the most common and widespread. The others are the rare Amur Leopard, Sri Lankan Leopard, Javan Leopard, Indochinese Leopard, North-Chinese Leopard, Persian Leopard, Arabian Leopard and Indian Leopard.
The cheetah, on the other hand, has only four sub-species: the Southeast African Cheetah, the Asiatic Cheetah, the Northeast African Cheetah and the Northwest African Cheetah.
Cheetah vs Leopard Characteristics
Cheetahs and leopards may look similar at first, but if we really look at them, they are quite different.
Cheetahs are smaller than leopards. Cheetahs typically reach 67 to 94 cm (26 to 37 in) at the shoulder and the head-and-body length is between 1.1 and 1.5 m (3 ft 7 in and 4 ft 11 in). Their weight can vary with age, health, location, sex and subspecies, but adults typically range between 21 and 72 kg (46 and 159 lb). Cheetahs have tails that usually measure around 31 inches (79 cm). While these animals are sexually dismorphic and males are larger than females, they are not to the extent seen in other large cats.
Leopards are also sexually dimorphic with males larger and heavier than females, but the difference in size between the sexes is greater. Males weigh between 37 and 90 kg (81.6 and 198.4 lb), and females weigh between 28 and 60 kg (61.7 and 132.3 lb). Males stand 60 to 70 cm (23.6 to 27.6 in) at the shoulder, while females are 57 to 64 cm (22.4 to 25.2 in) tall. The head-and-body length ranges between 90 and 196 cm (2 ft 11.4 in and 6 ft 5.2 in) with a 66 to 102 cm (2 ft 2.0 in to 3 ft 4.2 in) long tail.
The body shape of these two animals is one of the easiest ways to tell them apart. Leopards are medium sized, muscular animals with short limbs and a broad head. They are built for ambush predating. Cheetahs, on the other hand, are cursorial hunters (the only in the Felidae family), meaning that it hunts by chasing prey at high speed over a long distance.
So, while leopards are stockily built with a lot of muscle, cheetahs have very long legs that allow them to run at very fast speeds. They also have very long bodies with a particularly flexible spine to allow for rapid changes in direction, a small, rounded head, a high chest with a thin stomach, and exposed shoulder blades. The cheetah’s speed is one of it’s best known qualities — it can reach speeds of up to 120 km per hour and is the fastest land mammal.
Color and Pattern
Both the cheetah and leopard has a base color that ranges from pale yellowish to dark golden. While their spots look the same too at first glance, they’re actually quite different.
Cheetah’s bodies are covered with around 2,000 evenly spaced, oval or round solid black spots, each measuring roughly 3 to 5 cm (1.2 to 2.0 in). The leopard, however, is covered in dark spots grouped in rosettes. These are smaller than cheetah’s spots and irregularly shaped. Rosettes are circular in East African leopard populations, and tend to be squarish in Southern African and larger in Asian leopard populations.
The pattern differences between the two animals extend onto their face, too. Cheetahs have “tear marks” — black lines that run from the inside corner of its eyes down its cheeks. It is thought these reduce glare into cheetah’s eyes while hunting, as they hunt during the day. Leopards, on the other hand, show a continuation of their rosette pattern on the face.
There are some similarities between the patterns, though, too. Firstly, they both have the same purpose — to camouflage the animal in their environment against predators. Secondly, the pattern of the spots are unique to each individual. You really won’t see any cheetahs or leopards with the exact same spot patterns!
Another facial difference is eye color. Cheetahs have amber eyes, whilst leopard eyes can be anything from bright blue to bright green.
Feet and Claws
Leopards have retractable claws that they are able to draw into folds of skin on their paws to ensure that they are not blunted whilst they are walking about. These claws make them very good climbers. Cheetahs, however, are one of only three species (along with the fishing cat and flat-headed cat) that have non-retractable claws, like those of dogs. The non-retractable claws function like tire threads by providing tractions for turning at high speeds.
This means cheetahs and leopards can be told apart by their footprints. Cheetah’s prints have visible claw marks, unlike the leopard’s more feline footprints. Cheetah’s footpads are also harder than those of most other cats.
Leopards have tails that are tubular in shape, which helps them to balance when they are climbing trees. Cheetahs have flat and wide tails, which they use as a counterbalance when chasing their prey at high speeds. Their tail allows them to change direction very quickly.
Cheetah vs Leopard Lifespan
Wild cheetahs and leopards have similar lifespans. Cheetahs will live for between 10 and 15 years, and leopards live for between 10 and 12 years.
Leopard cubs have a survival rate of only 41% to 50%. While this is quite low, cheetah cubs have an even lower survival rate. Across some parts of their range, they have only a 17% chance of survival.
Lions, tigers, spotted hyenas and African wild dogs prey upon leopard and cheetah cubs. Cheetah cubs are also at risk from starvation if their mothers abandon them, fires, or pneumonia because of exposure to bad weather.
Cheetah vs Leopard Diet
Cheetahs and leopards have similar diets. Both are carnivores and favor prey that is medium in size, weighing around 40 kg. The most common food for these animals are ugulates, including small antelopes, gazelles, deer, pigs, primates and domestic livestock.
A cheetah eats around 4 kg (8.8 lb) of meat a day, slightly more than male leopards that eat 3.5 kg (7 lb 11 oz) of prey daily, and females that eat 2.8 kg (6 lb 3 oz).
The main difference between the cheetah and the leopard when it comes to diet is the way in which they hunt and kill their prey. We will go into more detail on that below.
Cheetah vs Leopard Behavior
Despite the fact they look quite similar and inhabit the same areas, cheetah and leopard behavior is pretty different.
Leopards are mainly active from dusk till dawn, although in some areas are nocturnal, and rest for most of the day. They usually rest in thickets, among rocks or over tree branches. Over the course of one night, they can travel has far as 75 km (47 mi). They can leap over 6 m (20 ft) horizontally, and jump up to 3 m (9.8 ft) vertically, which means they can get to prey easily from a resting position.
Unlike most cats, cheetahs are diurnal and are active throughout the day. It is thought this is so they can avoid big predators, such as other big cats, that hunt at night. They usually rest from dusk onwards, but keep a watch out for predators. Some of these animals take turns at keeping a lookout for prey at night.
The cheetah is famous for its speed, and are the world’s fastest land animal. They can reach speeds of up to 70 mph. While leopards are not as fast, they can still move pretty speedily — over 58 km/h (36 mph).
Despite the fact that the cheetah and the leopard prey on similar animals, their methods of hunting are very different.
The leopard is an ambush predator. They prey primarily at night and use their excellent vision and hearing to track down prey. The leopard will stalk its prey and tries to approach as closely as possible, typically within 5 m (16 ft), and, finally, will pounce on it and kill it by suffocation. It kills small prey with a bite to the back of the neck, but holds larger animals by the throat and strangles them. They usually hunt on the ground, but have been observed to ambush prey by jumping down on it from trees.
Because leopards are so strong, they can drag their prey to safety, and will even drag carcasses heavier than themselves up into trees. It eats small prey immediately but will drag larger prey to trees, caves or bushes.
The cheetah, on the other hand, is a cursorial hunter. It is the only cursorial hunter in the cat family. Cheetahs use their very high speed and their ability to change direction while moving so quickly to chase their prey. Once their prey is in striking distance, the cheetah brings it down by striking it with its front paw and delivers the killing bite to the throat, suffocating the animal. They cannot kill their prey as quickly as leopards, and usually spend about 5 minutes suffocating the prey.
Preying is usually done in one habitats where the cheetah can see a long way ahead of them, unlike the leopard that can easily hunt within a tree covered or enclosed environment. Cheetahs also hunt throughout the day, unlike leopards. This allows them to avoid other large nocturnal predators, such as lions.
Cheetahs often have their prey taken by other, larger animals, because they do not have the strength that leopards do to drag their prey to safety.
Leopards are solitary animals that only really associate in the mating season. Female leopards will interact with their offspring even after weaning, and have been observed sharing kills with their offspring when they can not obtain any prey, but it is uncommon to see other leopards interacting. Males interact with their partners and cubs at times. Most leopards tend to keep 1 km (0.62 mi) apart.
Cheetahs live in three main social groups: females and their cubs, male “coalitions” and solitary males. Females especially are not social and have minimal interaction with other individuals, except for the interaction with males when they enter their territories or during the mating season. However, generally mother and offspring or siblings will stay together and live together. Young females often stay close to their mothers for life but young males leave their mother’s range to live elsewhere.
Male cheetahs, on the other hand, can be social. Some males are territorial, and group together for life, forming coalitions that collectively defend a territory. A coalition will consist of brothers born in the same litter who stayed together after weaning, but biologically unrelated males are often allowed into the group. These males are affectionate toward each other and will groom each other.
The leopard produces a number of vocalizations, including growls, snarls, meows and purrs. Cubs call their mother with a urr-urr sound. The whiteish spots on the back of leopards ears are thought to play a role in communication, too, although it is unsure what exactly for.
Cheetahs are also vocal animals, but, unlike leopards, they cannot roar. Instead they chirp, churr and purr, amongst other sounds such as bleating, coughing, meowing and moaning. Mothers can use a repeated “ihn ihn” is to gather cubs.
Leopards and cheetah’s often share the same home range, and can overlap. However, as species, the size of their range is different.
A leopard’s home range size varies depending on the habitat and the food available but those of male leopards are significantly larger than those of females. Female ranges often overlap the ranges of a number of both males and other females. They are territorial animals within the species, and they mark their territory with urine, feces, and claw marks. Leopards will often hunt at different times to other big cats within the area, and will take smaller prey to avoid confrontation with these animals.
Unlike other felids, female cheetahs tend to occupy larger areas compared to males. The size of their home range depends on the distribution of prey in a region. Females typically disperse over large areas in pursuit of prey, while males are less nomadic than females and, in coaltions, establish territories.
If a female cheetah happens to walk into male’s territory, the males will surround her — if she tries to escape, the males will bite or snap at her. Generally, the female can not escape on her own; the males themselves leave after they lose interest in her.
Cheetah vs Leopard Reproduction
Leopards have no distinctive breeding season and females are able to reproduce every couple of months. Breeding usually peaks during the rainy season in May. In China and southern Siberia, leopards mainly breed in January and February. Cheetahs also breed throughout the year.
Female leopards have a 46 day long cycle and are in estrus for 7 days, while cheetahs are in estrus for 12 days. Both cheetah and leopard males and females have multiple mates throughout their lifetime. Female leopards attract potential mates by excreting pheromones in their urine. Females initiate mating by walking back and forth in front of a male and brushing up against him or swatting him with her tail. In cheetahs, however, mating begins with the male approaching the female, who lies down on the ground.
The gestation period for leopards is 96 days, after which two to three cubs are born. Leopard cubs weigh less than 1 kg at birth, and their eyes remain closed for the first week. The gestation period for cheetahs is also around three months, after which a litter of one to eight cubs is born. The cubs’ eyes are also shut at birth, and open in four to 11 days.
While leopard mothers leave their cubs in the protection of dense bush, rock clefts, or hollow tree trunks for up to 36 hours while hunting and feeding, cheetah mothers stay within 1 km (0.62 mi) of the lair, frequently visits her cubs. Cheetah cubs are highly vulnerable to several predators during the first few weeks of their life, more so than any other big cat.
Mothers of both species move their den sites frequently, which helps prevent the cubs from falling prey to lions and other predators. Leopard cubs learn to walk at 2 weeks of age and regularly leave the den at 6 to 8 weeks old, around which time they begin to eat solid food. Juveniles have woolly fur, and appear to be dark-colored due to the densely arranged spots. Cheetah cubs are thickly covered with long bluish grey hair, called a mantle, which gives them a mohawk-type appearance.
Cubs of both species are weaned by 3 months old and independent at just under 20 months old. Often, siblings maintain contact during the early years of independence.
Males usually do not have much to do with their partners or cubs after copulation.
Female leopards usually give birth once every 15 to 24 months and stop reproducing around 8.5 years old. They reach sexual maturity at around 2.5 years old. Female cheetahs can conceive again after 17 to 20 months from giving birth and reach sexual maturity at around 2 to 3 years old.
Cheetah vs Leopard Location and Habitat
Cheetahs and leopards often live in the same areas. Leopards are the widest ranging of all the big cats and are found throughout sub-Saharan Africa, in some parts of Western and Central Asia, Southern Russia, and on the Indian subcontinent to Southeast and East Asia. Cheetahs occur mostly in eastern and southern Africa. They can also be found in Iran and Afghanistan.
Cheetahs need large open spaces to hunt at their top speed, so are often found in wide grasslands and savannas. Leopards, on the other hand, hunt by stalking and camouflage, so tend to prefer thicker vegetation and more densely covered areas such as forests, woodlands, and scrub, where it’s easier for them to hide.
Leopards also spend much more time in trees than cheetahs, often lounging and sleeping in a tree all day, before heading out to hunt at night. Leopards also carry their kill up into a tree to eat at their leisure, safe from the threat of hyenas or lions taking it from them.
Cheetahs can climb trees and are often spotted off the ground on fallen trees or termite mounds scanning for prey and predators. However, they are nowhere near as comfortable in trees as leopard, and are not strong enough to hoist a kill into a tree.
Cheetah vs Leopard Conservation Status
Both the leopard and the cheetah are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. In 2016, the global cheetah population was estimated at around 7,100 individuals in the wild. A 2014 survey indicated that there are around 12,000 to 14,000 leopards existing in the wild today.
Both of these animals are threatened by the same issues. These include habitat loss and fragmentation, and hunting for trade and pest control. They are often killed by farmers for wandering onto their land, as they are thought to prey on livestock.
Humans are the biggest threat to leopards and cheetahs. These animals are often captured for the pet trade and are targeted by trophy hunters as well. Both the leopard and the cheetah are kept in captivity, too.
Both leopards and cheetahs have been protected under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) since 1 July 1975 which means commercial international trade in wild-sourced cheetah and leopard is prohibited. In Iran, the Asiatic cheetah is completely protected, although only 40 individuals of this sub-species remain.
Leopards are protected throughout most of their range in west Asia. While habitat reserves and national parks exist throughout their geographic range in Africa, unfortunately, the majority of leopards live outside these protected areas. They are extinct in many countries in which they used to live, and, despite being one of the big cats, 5 of 9 subspecies are listed as endangered or critically endangered.
Cheetah vs Leopard Predators
Adult leopards are apex predators and therefore do not have many predators of their own. They are very well camouflaged in their environment thanks to their spots. Generally, the biggest natural threat to leopards are other leopards, although they have been known to be killed by occasional lions and tigers if they can get close enough.
Adult cheetahs are also rarely preyed on, primarily because they are so fast and are able to get away from their prey. Big cats, such as lions and tigers, have been known to prey on cheetahs.
Leopard young and cheetah young, however, are susceptible to being preyed on. They can be taken by hyenas, lions, tigers, snakes, jackals and birds of prey. This usually happens when their mother is off hunting for food and they cannot defend themselves.