The Big Cat Diaries, Leopard vs Cheetah

The Big Cat Diaries

The Big Cat Diaries, Leopard vs Cheetah With Go Places Magazine

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Like the rest of the big cats, leopards can roar but they can only purr while they’re exhaling.

Leopards and cheetahs are two very different big cats, yet people often mix them up. Both of these cats can be found across Africa, South Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. When viewed (from a safe vantage point with a qualified guide) there are a number of physical and behavioral characteristics that set these two cats distinctly apart.

Leopards found in eastern Africa have circular rosettes, while those from southern Africa have square rosettes. Leopards are also noticeably bulkier looking than cheetahs as they are built for sneak attacks rather than speed hunting. Thanks to their superior strength, leopards can easily drag their prey all the way up trees, where they hide their kill and feed at their leisure. Leopards walk using their legs in diagonal pairs (i.e. left front and right back leg, then right front and left back leg).


Both cats favour different habitats. Cheetahs need fairly open spaces because they normally hunt at incredible speeds of 114km/hr. This makes it easier for them to hunt and stay safe because they are more likely to spot larger predators from far away and can then make a hasty escape. Leopards tend to rely on camouflage rather than sheer speed thus they prefer to roam through more densely covered areas which make it easier for them to hide. However, their habitats can overlap, but they tend to stay nearer to the sides that are more suitable their hunting styles.

Leopards spend a lot more time in trees than cheetahs. Although cheetahs can climb, they are not nearly as strong as leopards and certainly cannot carry any kill into trees. At most, cheetahs leap onto fallen over trees or scramble into the lower, sturdier branches of trees to gain a good vantage point but they are not nearly as comfortable above the ground as leopards are.

Size and Body Shape

Cheetahs are taller at the shoulder and therefore can stand higher above the ground. They are substantially more slender in build, with smaller heads, longer bodies, thinner stomachs, higher chests and more exposed shoulder blades. A male cheetah weighs approximately 54kg with the female at about 43 kg. Male leopards weigh closer to 60-70 kg and the females between 30-40 kg. These rather insignificant weight differences may confuse the eye to believe it is looking at the same animal.

Shape of Tail

A cheetah’s tail has a flatter shape. It acts as a sort of a rudder that the cheetah can use to steer itself when it’s running at top speeds. In contrast, a leopard’s tail is much more tubular in shape. This shape of tail is important for a leopard mainly for balance, particularly when they’re hoisting carcasses, climbing up and down trees or teetering on spindly branches high above the ground.


Cheetahs have spots where leopards have irregular shaped groups of patterns that look flower like — called rosettes — in large numbers with a slightly different color inside makes for an excellent camouflage. The fur color is usually different inside the rosette. The spots on a cheetah are clear, single, black spots separated from the other spots on the cat’s body.

Facial Markings

Cheetahs have rounder faces, with dark ‘tear marks’ running down from the inside of the eyes to the corners of the mouth while leopards have broader faces. A theory suggests that these markings are there to help absorb sunlight and reduce glare into the cats’ eyes while hunting during the day. These markings are not present on leopard faces. A cheetah also has more amber coloured eyes as opposed to the more green-blue colour of a leopard’s eyes.


Leopards have bigger front feet than back feet due to their large heads and necks. The front feet carry the weight of the heavy forequarters of the leopard and are therefore bigger to compensate for this as they drag carcasses up trees. The cheetah on the other hand has really big back feet that allow for massive acceleration.


Because cheetahs require rapid acceleration they have non-retractable claws to give them extra traction. Leopards don’t need speed so their claws retract at will. Leopards only use their claws when necessary for instance during climbing trees, jumping on prey or fighting. A look at the tracks they make reveals distinct differences between the two.


Cheetah cubs have a lower survival rate compared to leopard cubs. As a result cheetahs normally give birth to a litter of between 4-6 cubs, to increase their chances of survival. Leopards normally give birth to 2 or 3 cubs at the most because they have a slightly better chance of raising them successfully.


Cheetah are diurnal cats which means that they move about more during the day while leopards are nocturnal cats, often moving about more frequently at night than during the day. This is not always the case and cheetahs can be found hunting at night with full moons although they typically avoid moving around when larger predators are more likely to be active.

Relationship To Humans

Both species are generally quite fearful of humans in the wild but cheetahs tend to avoid them more than leopards. There are many documented cases of leopards killing humans in the wild; there not many cheetah related deaths. In the past, cheetahs were even domesticated by Indian sheiks and kept as pets where this was not possible with leopards.

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