Cheetah vs leopard: the difference between their speed and more

Cheetah vs leopard: key differences between the two species

Cheetah vs leopard? If you’re a lover of giant spotty cats, you might seem a little unsure as to what the differences between the two felines are.

These two majestic cats epitomize the beauty of the African savanna and are among the finest safari sights.

But when you spot the spots, how can you tell if it’s a leopard or a cheetah?

This article tells everything you need to know. It includes the answers to some commonly asked questions like; “Is a leopard faster than a cheetah?

After you’ve been on an African safari, it’s relatively easy to find the differences between cheetah and leopard. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot one in the open, devoid of its camouflage.

There’s also a heart-stopping moment when you catch sight of a leopard or cheetah in the high grass. They move elegantly, slowly. Then in a dramatic moment, they set off after their prey.

Which one was it? This article ensures you can identify a leopard from a cheetah and look like a pro when you turn up on safari.

Leopard vs Cheetah – 5 Clear Differences

Stunning leopard resting on a fallen tree

The differences between cheetah and leopard can be hard to pick up on, especially if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

Both cats fall under the endangered species list. This means that if you have the chance to see either, it’s beneficial to know which one you spotted.

Here are the major leopard and cheetah differences.

Cheetah and leopard spots

One of the easiest ways to tell these two animals apart is by their appearances. This is especially true when looking at the patterns or spots on their bodies.

So, you might be wondering: What is the difference between a cheetah and a leopard’s spots?

From a distance, they may look almost exactly the same. However, there are small variances that set the spots apart.

The cheetah has small, solid black spots. These have a round or oval shape and appear all over the animal’s body.

Fur pattern of a cheetah with its small, solid black spots

Leopards, on the other hand, have spots grouped in small rings (called rosettes) on their torso and upper limbs.

Fur pattern of a leopard with its spots grouped in small rings (called rosettes)

The markings have a dark outer edge and a lighter golden or umber color in the middle.

Cheetahs have a tear line

Cheetah portrait, with its distinctive tear marks

Another clear distinction between the two cats is the “tear” line found on the cheetah’s face. This is a black line that runs from the inside of the eye down to the mouth.

According to African legend, these tear marks came from a female cheetah who cried for months after losing her cubs. The black markings formed by her tears were then passed on to her new cubs.

In reality, the black markings act as reflection absorbers, which reflect the sun while the cheetah hunts during the day. It also helps them focus better when running after their prey.

Leopards, on the other hand, do not have these tear-shaped markings on their face.

Cheetahs vs leopards size

Beautiful male leopard standing on a termite mound

In general, leopards are larger and bulkier in comparison to cheetahs.

Looking at the length of the two cats, the leopard is considerably longer, measuring between 90 and 190 cm (3 and 6.25 feet) on average.

The biggest leopard reported was around 270 cm (8 feet 10 inches). The tails also add an extra 64 to 99 cm (25 to 39 inches).

Conversely, cheetahs have an average length of 112 to 142 cm (44 to 56 inches), with an additional 66 to 84 cm (26 to 33 inches) for the tail.

Leopards are also heavier, with adult males weighing around 36 to 75 kg (80 to 165 lbs) and adult females around 21 to 60 kg (46 to 132 lbs). Adult cheetahs generally weigh between 34 to 64 kg (75 to 140 lbs).

When it comes to height, cheetahs are generally taller than leopards. The average height of an adult cheetah is 70 to 90 cm (28 to 35 inches).

For an adult leopard, this is around 60 to 70 cm (23.6 to 27.6 inches) as they have shorter limbs.

Leopards and cheetahs shape

Female cheetah walking through golden grass in early morning sun

At first glance, a leopard and a cheetah may look the same. However, if you look closely, you’ll notice that they have completely different body shapes.

Cheetahs have more slender, streamlined bodies. This is essential as it makes them more efficient at running. They are the fastest land animal on earth, after all.

Leopards, on the other hand, have a more muscular build. This muscle power allows them to drag their prey up into trees. The shape of their bodies is also more similar to a house cat.

You’ll also notice a difference in the shape of the two animals’ tails. The cheetah has a long, flat tail that works like a rudder on an airplane. This helps the cheetah stabilize and change direction at high speeds.

In contrast the leopard has a stockier, tubular tail. These act as a counterweight, helping to steer movement and maintain balance.

When looking at the head shape of these spotted cats, you’ll notice that the cheetah has a small and well-rounded head.

The leopard is a big cat that has a more elongated head with dark spots on the muzzle.

Legs for speed vs legs for climbing

Leopard in a tree, Masai Mara

When you compare cheetah and leopard legs, you’ll notice that the cheetah has long legs, which are effective for acceleration.

Long legs don’t help in tree climbing, which is why leopards have shorter, more muscular legs.

Spot the Difference Between Cheetah and Leopard

Cheetah and leopard differences occur not only with their spotty appearance but also in relation to their hunting, climbing, and socializing behaviors.

If you were to spot one of these creatures, take note of their subtle differences. You’ll soon understand why one is a stealthy hunter who adores trees while the other prefers the grassy plains.

The behavior of the spotted cats

Cheetah coalition hunting a young wildebeest

Cheetah females are solitary except when raising cubs. Males, on the other hand, sometimes form coalitions of two or more individuals.

The cheetah is generally shy and not dangerous to man. They are often found traveling with siblings or solo.

These cats usually flee when encountered on foot. However, they may be aggressive when raised under captive conditions.

When it comes to the leopard, both sexes are shy and isolated creatures. If you happen to spot more than one of these cats at once, it’s most likely mating partners or a mother and her cubs.

The leopard can also be relatively aggressive, especially when cornered or disturbed.

Leopard vs cheetah breeding

Leopard leaps across a river stretch, with her cub following closely behind

Leopards do not have a distinctive breeding season. These cats mate year-round; however, breeding generally peaks during the rainier time of year.

This is different from cheetahs, who tend to mate during the dry season.

Female leopards have a gestation period of 90 to 105 days. Following this, two to three cubs are born. Female cheetahs have a gestation period of 90 to 95 days and give birth to one to eight cubs.

Cheetah cubs have a lower rate of survival when compared to leopard cubs.

Leopard vs cheetah speed

Are leopards faster than cheetahs?

The short answer is no. The cheetah vs leopard speed is a key factor that sets these two cats apart.

The cheetah is the fastest land mammal in the world, reaching speeds of up to 120 km/h (74 mph). When the cheetah runs, it uses its long tail as a rudder, and for proper balance.

Cheetah running at top speed, Ndutu, Tanzania

How fast do leopards run? Leopards are not necessarily known for their speed, although they can accelerate to 37 mph (60 km/h) over short distances.

Leopard in running motion, Masai Mara

Cheetah leopard strength

Who wins the cheetah vs leopard fight?

The substantial difference in weight between the two cats is due to the fact that leopards are more muscular than cheetahs.

The leopard generally relies on its strength to stalk and ambush its prey. It is also capable of carrying its prey up trees to protect its meal from predators.

Cheetahs rely mostly on speed when stalking and attacking their prey. Given the difference in strength, a cheetah will most likely retreat should a leopard enter its territory.

Interestingly, the cheetah has a greater bite force. This is around 400 to 500 PSI, while the leopard falls between 300 and 310 PSI.

Neither of these compares to the African lion, which has an incredible bite force of 650 to 1000 PSI.

Claws: retractable vs semi-retractable

The cheetah relies on a firm grip on the ground in order to build up speed. With semi-retractable claws, they can easily chase down their prey for miles without losing their footing.

Cheetah claws, Okonjima

Leopards have retractable claws, like most cats. This is ideal for the tree-loving feline as it provides them with the grip for catching their prey, climbing trees, and feasting while nestled along a branch.

Leopard paws close up

Interestingly, the size of these animals’ feet differs as well. The leopard has larger front feet to support its muscular frame and help it climb.

Cheetahs have larger back feet, attributing to their explosive speed and incredible acceleration.

The difference between cheetahs’ and leopards’ habitat

Leopard on large rock, basking in the sun

The cheetah mainly inhabits savanna grasslands and plains in Africa. The slender cats often sit on termite mounds or small hills from which they scan the horizon for potential prey.

Good places to see them include Serengeti National Park, Etosha, or the Masai Mara Reserve, where animal stock is abundant.

The leopard is one of the most widespread wild felines. Leopards live in most habitats, from dense woodlands to savannas, mountains, and desert regions.

Hunting techniques

Cheetah vs baby Thomson's gazelle

An important difference between a leopard and a cheetah is their hunting techniques.

Leopards rely on stealth. Cheetahs rely on speed over short distances, so much so that they’ve gained the title of the world’s fastest animals.

The cheetah runs after its prey, tackles it from behind to knock it off balance, then goes for the throat.

Leopards prefer to ambush their prey from a shorter distance (5-20 yards). They pounce on their victim, taking it completely by surprise.

Additionally, leopards and cheetahs have different hunting hours. Leopards primarily hunt at night, while the more social cheetahs hunt during the day.

Cheetah and leopard difference in diet

Completely drenched leopard with otter kill in its mouth, Moremi

For the most part, these carnivores eat similar things. However, there are certain animals that leopards eat that cheetahs do not hunt.

Leopards feed on a wide range of animals, depending on availability. These strong cats will eat everything from fish, birds, and rodents to baboons, antelope, and other large mammals. They also feed on reptiles, including crocodiles.

Cheetahs hunt smaller antelope such as Thomson’s gazelle, springbok, duiker, and impala, as well as the young of larger animals. Similar to leopards, they feed on rodents and birds.

Leopards and cheetahs also eat differently. Leopards like to drag prey, such as antelope species, up trees. Cheetahs prefer enjoying their meals on grassy plains.

Cheetahs and leopards are active at different times

Another big difference between these two animals is the hours in which they are most active.

Leopards are typically nocturnal, so they come out at night. They have large eyes with dilated pupils, allowing them to see in the dark. They also rely more heavily on smell.

Cheetahs are diurnal. This means that they hunt during the day, particularly in the early morning and late afternoon. Unlike leopards, these quick cats depend more on sight.

While they are more active during the day, it is not uncommon to find them sleeping away on a hot day.

Cheetahs and leopards are in different genera

Leopard head shot portrait, looking above

While both the leopard and cheetah are from the Felidae family, these cats are in different genera. This is one of many ways in which animals are categorized—ranked above species and below family.

The leopard is in the Panthera genus. This is the same as several other big cats, such as the lion, tiger, and jaguar.

Cheetahs are in the Acinonyx genus and are the only living species found in it. That being said, it finds itself in the same subfamily as cats like the cougar and ocelot.

Sounds of the African cats

Wondering what sound leopards make? These elusive and solitary cats are usually silent as they do not like to give away their location.

While quiet, these animals have a rather diverse vocabulary. Like lions, leopards have a long, soaring roar. The difference is that the leopard has a baritone pitch. This has a more hoarse sound and lasts for up to a minute.

The leopard also growls from time to time. Interestingly, they do not purr.

Cheetahs produce an entirely different set of sounds. They often use growls and purrs and have a loud yelp that one can hear from 2 km away. Mothers may also use a chirping sound when communicating with their cubs.

Other distinct sounds produced by cheetahs include hisses and spitting vocalizations. These are generally used in combative or agonistic situations.

Can You Tell the Difference Between Leopard and Cheetah?

Cheetah on the hunt in the Etosha plains, with dramatic lighting in the background

Both cheetahs and leopards are widespread across Africa. But what’s the difference between a cheetah and a leopard?

As you know by now, cheetahs are best spotted on savanna grasslands and plains. This is why the Serengeti in Tanzania, or Etosha in Namibia, are excellent places to spot these cats.

Leopards inhabit most of the safari reserves in Africa, but many people never lay eyes on the rosette-shaped spots because leopards are so stealthy and secretive.

The Sabi Sands in South Africa is always a good choice, as guides know where resident leopards roam.

It’s easier to spot African leopards in savanna grassland than in thick forests because there are fewer places for the cat to hide properly.

So the Masai Mara or any of East Africa’s plains should provide an opportunity to see this animal in the wild.

Use your knowledge on how to spot the difference between a leopard and a cheetah when you embark on a safari tour in Africa. There’s always a chance that you will encounter both in the same park.

19 thoughts on “Cheetah vs leopard: the difference between their speed and more”

    1. Hi Hellena,

      That’s a very interesting question.

      While leopards and cheetahs tend to avoid each other, I’ve seen an instance (in a video footage) where a full grown cheetah was killed by a male leopard.

      Leopards are a lot more powerful and would definitely get the upper hand in a fight.

  1. It was so good and I brought it for my teacher. thanks for your good article . My name is Fatemeh Kababi from Islamic Republic of Iran. THANKS

  2. I did my nails today. Thought it was cheetah print. Showed my cousin. She made me read this. Now she can’t correct me anymore. Thanks!! Haha it was leopard print!

  3. Nice article Michael, very informative and I am sure helpful to a lot of people who want to understand the differences. Thank you!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *