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What is the Difference Between Leopards and Cheetahs?

Updated on April 9, 2010

Leopard and Cheetah

At first glance, the casual observer may confuse leopards and cheetahs. But there are significant differences between these two big cats.

Physical Differences


A leopard’s spots are shaped like a rosette with a brown center and a dark outer ring. In addition, it has white half-moon marking under its eyes. These marking reflect light that, which helps with night vision.

A cheetahhas solid spots and black tear lines that run from its eyes to the corners of its mouth. These tear lines help its distance vision. A cheetah has very few spots on the faces.

Physical Characteristics

Leopards are physically similar to other cats. They have stocky, muscular bodies and relatively short legs and wide paws that allow them to climb trees. Like most other cats, all the claws on a leopard’s paws are retractable. In addition, they have powerful jaws and teeth that can crush the bones of their prey.

Cheetahs are built more like a greyhound. They are tall, lean and can run at speeds of up to 70 miles per hour over short distances. They have small heads compared with their bodies and they have tails that are longer than a leopard’s. This long tail flattens at the end and is used like a rudder when they run. Unlike other cats, only a cheetah’s dewclaw is retractable. The others are not. The dewclaw is a small claw higher on the paw than the other claws and the cheetah uses it to hook onto its prey to pull it down. The cheetah’s other claws are fixed, like a dog’s, and help give it traction when running. Cheetahs do not have the jaw strength of leopards because their nasal cavity and nostrils are much larger. This allows them to take in the oxygen necessary to run at high speeds.

Leopards can roar and growl like lions but not as loudly.

Cheetahs are the only large cats that cannot roar. But they can make a variety of other sounds like growling, chirping and purring. A mother cheetah and her cubs will use the chirping sounds to locate one another when they get separated.

The Predator Conservation Trust web site has an excellent photo that shows the physical differences between cheetahs and leopards.

Habitat Differences

Leopards live mainly in woodlands and grasslands. They can also live in desert and foothills. Their habitat extents from Africa to southeastern China. Adult leopards are solitary animals. They prefer shaded areas with trees and tall grass.

They hunt at night and prefer small to medium size grazing animals such as gazelles and tufted deer. They hunt by quietly stalking their prey and then pouncing on it from a short distance away. After they make a kill, they will drag it up into the branches of a tree before eating it. This protects their food from other predators and scavengers like lions and hyenas.

Cheetahs live in the grasslands and plains of the savannas. They use large ant hills or rock piles as look out positions to spot other predators and the small grazing animals that are their main source of food. They use their great speed to run down and kill gazelles, impala’s, hares and some birds. They hunt during the day and the black tear lines on their faces help absorb the bright sunlight. Their habitat ranges from Africa to southwestern China.

Like leopards, cheetahs are solitary animals, although two or three may hunt together. This allows them to go after larger grazing animals. In addition, it is not uncommon to see a mother cheetah and her cubs on the open grasslands.

Photo credits

Leopard photoby Jan Erkamp. Used with permission

Cheetah photo by Schuyler Shepherd. Used with permission

This article is part of dchinn1’s Bibelot Spot series. A bibelot is a small object of curiosity, in this case, knowledge.


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