Whilst at first glance cheetahs and leopards may seem similar, they are in fact two very different cats.
The below guide lists the key differences between leopards and cheetahs, so next time you’re on safari you’ll be able to distinguish the two cats like a pro. Some of the differences will help you tell the difference from a distance – body shape, behaviour, or habitat, whilst other differences you’ll need to get a little closer to make out, such as markings and claws.
So here’s our guide to the cheetah vs leopard question – know which one are you looking at with ease:
Size and body shape differences
Cheetahs are taller at the shoulder than leopards and stand higher above the ground, but they are far more slender animals. Weighing in at up to 72 kg, much of their muscle has been sacrificed to make them streamlined, with a body shape built for speed, and evolved to help them become the fastest land animal, reaching top speeds of 120km per hour.
Their aerodynamic build is made up of 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.
Leopards are the shortest of the big cats, although they are bulkier and more robust than cheetahs (weighing up to 100 kg). Leopards are much more muscular cats than cheetahs, using their extreme strength to stalk and ambush prey, then carry their kill up trees to protect their meal.
This difference in strength between the two cats means that a leopard will chase away any cheetah that approaches its territory in the wild (though neither animal makes it into our list of the 15 strongest animals in the world!).
Cheetah vs leopard coat
Cheetah vs leopard print may be the fashionista’s way of understanding the difference between cheetah and leopard, but coat pattern is certainly one obvious difference, once you know what you’re looking for.
At first glance, it can look like both cats have black spots on a yellow coat, but look closer and you’ll see that:
- Cheetahs have a solid round or oval spot shape, clearly separated from the other spots on their body.
- Leopards have smaller, irregular shaped spots that are grouped together in circles to form what are known as ‘rosettes’ (rose-like markings).
In both cases, the cat’s spots are used to help camouflage them from other animals, which allows them to get close to their prey before striking.
Clear difference between cheetah and leopard facial markings
If you’re close enough, one clear distinction between a cheetah and a leopard is the markings on their faces.
Whilst a leopards’ face is covered in a continuation of their rosette pattern, cheetahs are immediately identifiable by the black ‘tear line’ that run from the inner corner of their eyes down to the sides of their mouths. One theory supposes these tear marks help absorb sunlight and reduce glare into the cheetah’s eyes whilst hunting.
One other facial difference is eye colour. Cheetahs have amber eyes, whilst leopards can be anything from bright blue to bright green.
Cheetah tails are somewhat flat and wide in appearance. When chasing their prey at high speeds, cheetahs use these rudder-like tails as a counterbalance to help them change direction very quickly.
Leopard tails are a tubular shape. Leopards use their tail to help with balance – particularly when walking in trees or pulling kills up trees.
Feet and claws
Leopards have larger front feet than back feet to support the large and muscular forequarters they have to help hoist carcasses up trees. As is standard with all almost all cats, leopards have retractable claws, only using them when necessary – when climbing trees, fighting, or pouncing on prey.
Cheetahs on the other hand require explosive speed, so have large back feet that help them with their massive acceleration. Another adaption for acceleration and turning at speed is that cheetahs are not able to retract their claws fully – they are only semi retractible, giving them extra traction.
Looking at the tracks of cheetah vs leopard clearly shows this difference in feet and claws (see more on safari animal spoors).
There’s an ongoing debate as to whether cheetahs are big cats or medium-sized cats. One school of thought says that big cats are defined by having the ability to roar. Jaguar, leopard, lion, and tiger all have an adapted larynx and a unique part of the throat called a hyoid apparatus which gives them the ability to make a deep, loud roaring sound.
Whilst leopards are able to growl and roar, cheetahs are only able to purr:
Although both cats can be found in overlapping terrain, because of their different hunting behaviour cheetah and leopard tend to favour fairly different habitats.
Cheetah need large open spaces to safely complete a hunt at 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. And, of course, leopard also favour carrying any kill up into a tree to eat at their leisure, safe from the threat of hyenas or lions taking it from them.
Whilst cheetah can climb trees – and are often spotted off the ground on fallen trees or termite mounds scanning for prey and predators – they are nowhere near as comfortable in trees as leopard, and are not strong enough to hoist a kill into a tree.
Leopards are nocturnal cats, tending to be more active – and hunting more frequently – at night. They have a large number of light-sensitive cells in their eyes to help detect movement and shape in the dark, along with large pupils to maximise the amount of light absorbed.
Cheetahs are diurnal, meaning they hunt primarily during the day time. This said, cheetahs are often found hunting by the light of a full moon, and leopards occasionally hunt during the day if the opportunity presents itself.
Leopards are stalk-and-pounce predators. They spend long periods of time crouching low to the ground, creeping up on their prey, needing to get close enough to leap on it to kill it, using the element of surprise.
Cheetahs chase their prey at high speed and bring prey down by tripping them with a swipe at their hind legs rather than leaping on them.
Once a kill is made cheetahs usually drag their prey across land to an area that’s secluded or has some cover. They eat fast as they don’t have the strength to fight off larger predators such as lions and hyenas that will try to steal their kill. Leopards instead use their muscular bodies to drag their prey along the ground and up into a tree, where they can eat at their leisure, safe from other predators.
Cheetah vs leopard questions:
Which is stronger, a cheetah or leopard?
Although leopards are the smaller of the two cats, they are actually heavier animals – more muscular, and stronger than cheetahs.
Can a cheetah kill a leopard?
A cheetah could kill and eat a leopard cub, but comparing like for like – a female leopard vs a female cheetah or a male leopard vs a male cheetah – the leopard’s greater weight and power would ensure that they won any fight.
Can a cheetah and leopard mate?
There is some interest in whether cheetahs and leopards could mate and produce offspring. It’s not known that this has ever happened, though some sources claim the cheetahs and leopards are similar enough genetically to produce hybrid animals.
Brief leopard overview:
Group name: Leap.
Size: 1 meter high, weighing up to 100 kg.
Speed: 56 km per hour.
Range & Habitat: Leopards live in more places than any other big cat, and are comfortable in almost any habitat, including deserts, rainforests, woodlands, grassland savannas, mountain, scrub, and swamps. Leopards are one of the few big game species found outside national parks.
Brief cheetah overview:
Group name: Coalition.
Size: 0.9 metres, weighing up to 72kg.
Speed: With a maximum speed of 92 kilometers per hour, the cheetah is the fastest land animal in the world.
Diet: Cheetahs hunt small and medium-sized mammals such as hares, impalas, wildebeest calves, and gazelles, either on their own or in small family groups.
Range & Habitat: Cheetahs are found in Eastern and Southern Africa (though are also found in Iran and Afghanistan), generally confined to very small, fragmented habitats of in savannahs, dry and scrub forests, and grasslands.
And that’s the lots for this round-up of cheetah vs leopard. What do you think – any difference between leopard and cheetah that surprise you? Or any differences we should add to this post? Let us know in the comments section below!