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The Difference Between Leopards, Panthers, Pumas, Jaguars, and Cheetahs

Updated on October 28, 2015

How to Tell the Difference Between the Big Cats

Among experts, "big cats" refers to those animals of the genus Panthera, where a genus is a group or category of organisms of similar characteristics that can contain one or more species.

  • The Panthera genus contains the main roaring cat types, also known as "the big four" — tigers, lions, jaguars and leopards.
  • The general cat family is the genus Felidae and contains more animals which are also often referred to as big cats, which include pumas, cheetahs, and lynx.

Below, you will find the main characteristics and differences between the animals people usually consider as the main big cats: lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards, panthers, pumas, lynx and cheetahs.

I hope you find this useful and that it helps you spot the difference easily from now on!



The tiger is the largest cat species, with several subspecies including the Bengal and Siberian. The sizes of tigers varies greatly between different populations.

Tigers are most recognisable by their vertical black stripes on a background of orange. The stripe pattern is actually on the skin of the animal, and it is unique to each tiger (much like fingerprints on humans).

Tigers are able to swim well, along with jaguars. They also generally hunt alone.

Tigers can live to around 25 years old, both in the wild or in captivity. Tigers in the wild can be found in many different locations — though they are mainly spread across Southeast Asia, China, and India.



Lions are the second largest big cat, after the tiger. They don't have any discerning skin/fur patterns, although the male adult lions do have a signature, recognisable mane of fur around their face.

Female lions do most of the hunting, often at night. However, only 1 in 5 hunts end in a kill. Therefore scavenging for food (in other words, stealing from other predators) is also vital. They mainly prey on wildebeest, zebra, and gazelle, though they will attack other animals too, including buffalo and hippos. Lions are the only big cats to hunt cooperatively, working together to find food.

In the wild, lions live for about 14 years, and in captivity they can live up to several years longer. Lions are found in Asia and in sub-Saharan Africa.



The leopard is the smallest of the four big cats, among the tigers, lions, and jaguars. Leopards are found mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, but they also exist in South Asia (India, China, Malaysia, and Indonesia).

Leopards have a comparatively long body and short legs, with a large skull and powerful jaw. They look similar to the jaguar, however they are smaller and lighter and the fur patterning is slightly different. On a leopard, the rosettes (circular markings on their fur/skin) are smaller and more closely spaced together, and don't usually have black spots in the centre of the rosettes like jaguars do. The leopard's rosette pattern and overall colour can vary slightly, however, depending on where they live.

Leopards are very adaptable, they can exist in a range of different habitats, they can hunt and eat many different animals, run very fast, are very stealthy hunters, and are excellent tree climbers.



The jaguar is the only big cat in the Panthera genus that can be found living in the Americas. The jaguar is the third largest cat (after tigers and lions) and they can be found in southern United States, Mexico, most of Central America, and across the north of South America.

The jaguar is often confused with the leopard due to the markings on the coat. Jaguars are, however, heavier, larger, and sturdier than leopards. Also, the rosettes on their patterning are larger, less closely packed, and usually have black dots in the centres. Jaguars also live in America, while leopards live in Asia and Africa.

The jaguar, just like the tiger, is a good swimmer. It also has a very powerful bite, more so than the other big cats. This allows jaguars to kill prey by biting through their skulls. Jaguars have short tails and legs and are quite stocky, but they are powerful and sturdy.

Panther (Leopard)

Melanistic leopard.
Melanistic leopard. | Source

There is no actual species called the panther, however "panther" is a name given to either leopards or jaguars that have all black coats, due to an excess of the dark pigment melanin. They can also be referred to as melanistic leopards or melanistic jaguars.

While the coat is usually all black, sometimes the rosette markings can just be seen if you look closely (not recommended in real life!)

Panther (Jaguar)

This is a melanistic jaguar. Compared to the melanistic leopard shown in the photo above, you can tell this is a jaguar because of the large head.
This is a melanistic jaguar. Compared to the melanistic leopard shown in the photo above, you can tell this is a jaguar because of the large head. | Source



Pumas are also known as cougars, mountain lions, catamounts, and over 40 other local names. They can be found all over — from Canada all of the way down to the southern Andes of South America. The puma is in the feline family, and is native to the Americas. It is more closely related to the domestic cat than to a lion.

The puma is nocturnal and hunts a large variety of prey, including deer, moose, cattle, horses, and even rodents. Pumas are the largest of the small cats and have a recognisable facial characteristic of a black ring reaching from the corners of the mouth and around the nose.



The cheetah is a large-sized feline found in Africa and southwestern Asia, and is the fastest land animal in the world. They can reach speeds of around 72mph in short bursts but cannot run long distances.

Cheetahs are slender in build with a narrow waist, deep chest, and a proportionally small head. Their fur is short and coarse, and has a pattern of evenly spaced black spots. They have black stripes on their faces, which run from the inner corners of their eyes down to the corners of the mouth. These dark areas help keep the sun out of their eyes to help them with their vision for hunting.

Cheetahs usually hunt during the day, when lions are not very active. Their success rate is good, with a kill being made for every other attempt.

Big Cat Videos

Watching documentaries and wildlife programmes are the best way of seeing the big cats in action, and learning more about them.

Big Cats Hunting

Cheetah at Full Speed

Lioness Adopts a Baby Antelope

Jaguar Attacks Crocodile

In Search of Jaguars

Other Big Cats

Although not in 'the big four' category, the following cats are all interesting creatures with their own unique characteristics. Read on if you'd like to learn more:

Your Favourite Cat?

See results

Please Leave a Comment!

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    • profile image


      2 months ago

      puma can to15 feet

    • profile image


      4 months ago

      Tiger hunts alone

    • profile image


      10 months ago

      Loved the cougar pun :)

    • profile image

      Terry Wilson 

      10 months ago

      Big cats are the most fantastic animals in the world. Black Jaguars are my personal favourites.

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      lions RULE!!!! They are the king of beasts for a REASON people!

    • zaton profile image


      2 years ago from California

      The leopard is an absolutely devastating cat, truth be told. Truly mighty and fearsome because of how stealthy it is. It cannot, however, match the kingly lion, though.

    • profile image

      Indra christian 

      3 years ago

      My favorites is a cougar

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      nice one

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      love black Jaguar .. u see the design in it when u focus .. actually they are epic and unique

    • profile image

      Tiny D 

      3 years ago

      Melissa A Smith-- Taranwanderer-- Cheetahs are not big cats. Leopards and pumas definitely are.

      Not quite right, actually neither Puma is a big cats, the rest is correct.

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      my favourite cat is cheeth

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      It's really useful and detailed! Thanks a lot.

      p.s. cheetahs are the best!

    • profile image

      Kathleen Ball 

      3 years ago

      I love tigers but I have a minature black leopard who is a black cat.

      Tigers used to be my favorite zoo animal because of their coloring but now my favorite is a giraffe.

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      really helpfull!!

    • Melissa A Smith profile image

      Melissa A Smith 

      4 years ago from New York

      Taranwanderer-- Cheetahs are not big cats. Leopards and pumas definitely are.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Very nice description Lens! You distinguished them very well. I bookmarked this page also if I forget but that time would be last to visit this page.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Leopards are awesome! they should be everyone's favourite animal. If you don't like leopards, then i think you should because they're AMAZING!!!

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      I also think leopards are epic! Why don't they have a lot of votes. They look awesome!

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      The leopard is brilliant. They look epic! I think when the leopard hunts, most kills come out successfully.

    • Taranwanderer profile image


      5 years ago

      I dont think the puma is considered a Big Cat - nor the leopard - but these are beautiful pictures and an informative hub. Thanks for taking the time! I have my own lion hub if you have a minute -

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Wow very informative

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      All the species of Cat family are fabulous for their individual characters, but Cheeta, the best. Of course we can not ignore Lion and Tiger for their habits.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Great work sir.....i was always confused with jaguar and leopards, but now everything is clear. This kind of poll is very tight sits as all the big cats are my favourite...specialy Tigers, Lions and awesome lens

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Stunning photos and great descriptions. I'm quite familiar with all these cats but it was still well worth reading. Thank you.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I love cats! Great lens!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Very nice lens - I've always loved cats, of any variety. When visiting a zoo, the cats are always on the must see list. :-)

    • sierradawn lm profile image

      sierradawn lm 

      6 years ago

      Your lens is excellent!

    • efriedman profile image


      7 years ago

      The big cats are fascinating (little one are, too, for different reasons :-)


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