Two of the most sought-after sightings on safaris are leopards and cheetahs but since they can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between, I have written this post covering 20 differences between them.
Let’s get into it!
1. Body Shape and Size
Probably the most notable difference between the two big cats is the size and especially the shape of their bodies.
Cheetahs are taller than leopards but are also slimmer and more slender overall. They have long legs, a slim waist, and a very flexible spine which allows them to jump far and take some very long steps.
Leopards have a more classical cat shape. They are stronger and bulkier than cheetahs and are built for strength and stealth rather than speed.
Despite the very significant differences in the shape of their bodies, the weight of the two big cats is actually not all that different.
The size of leopards varies based on where they stay and what food sources they have access to. The largest leopard ever measured weighed a massive 91 kg but this is definitely above average. Leopards usually weigh between 25-30 kg. with the females on the lower end of that scale and the males on the higher end.
This weight can vary greatly, however, and male leopards have been measured to weigh between 20-91 kg. and female leopards between 17-58 kg.
Like with leopards (and most other African animals), the male cheetahs usually get slightly larger than the females. The males weigh between 30-72 kg and the females between 20-63 kg. The size and weight of cheetahs also depend largely on their food sources.
Although similar in length, about 1-1.5 meters, there is a slight difference in the height of these two cats. Cheetahs stand slightly taller than leopards at around 70-90 cm. measured at their shoulders where leopards measure around 60-70 cm. Again, males are slightly larger than females.
2. Different Stature
As I have already covered briefly, there is also a significant difference in the stature of leopards and cheetahs.
Cheetahs are much more slim and slender looking than leopards. The slender body is designed to minimize air resistance making cheetahs extremely aerodynamic. This combined with some of the points I dive into below, makes cheetahs the ultimate sprinter.
Leopards are much denser-looking than cheetahs. They are more muscular and front-heavy. They use their massive strength for several purposes including carrying prey up into trees but more on this a bit later.
3. Different Coat and Fur Markings
One of the most recognizable characteristics of both leopards and cheetahs is of course their coat or the patterns on their fur.
Cheetahs have clear, black, and round individual spots in the fur all over their body.
Leopards have more irregularly placed and shaped markings that look like circles or rosettes where the center of the circular markings is slightly darker or more orange than the outside between the markings
4. Head Shape and Size
Since both cheetahs and leopards can be spotted in vegetation that covers most of their body, sometimes all you see is a head sticking out from the top of the grass. So here is a trick to determine whether you are looking at a leopard or a cheetah.
As we have determined by now, these two animals are built for very different purposes and as a result of that, the shape of their body is very different. This of course goes for their head too.
Cheetah’s heads are much smaller and rounder than leopards’. This is, again, to minimize the air resistance when running at the incredible speeds that they do.
Leopards’ heads are bigger and look stronger than cheetah’s. Their heads have a more classical cat-shape than cheetahs.
You can see this in the image of a leopard above and the image of a cheetah below.
5. Facial Markings
While we’re at the topic of their heads, another cool and very recognizable difference is that cheetahs have certain facial markings that almost look like black tears running from their eyes and down their cheeks reaching the corners of their mouth.
Leopards have no such markings. They simply have more circular or rosette-shaped markings on their heads although these facial markings are usually smaller than on the rest of their bodies and sometimes just look like black spots.
6. The Eyes
You may need a good pair of binoculars (or happen to be very close to the animal) to really see this difference. Lucky for you, I have written a post specifically about what to look for in a pair of binoculars, how to fit them to your eyes, and everything else you might need to know including a couple of recommended brands and models. Take a look at this link (opens in a new tab).
The particular difference between the two animals, I am talking about here is the eyes.
Leopards have yellow-greenish eyes whereas cheetahs have more orange and amber-colored eyes.
7. Bulky vs. Slender Legs
As we have already learned, cheetahs are built for high speeds and rapid accelerations and a big part of this is how their legs are built.
As you could have probably imagined and as you can see in some of the photos in this article, cheetahs have longer and more slender and aerodynamic legs than leopards whose legs are shorter, thicker, and more muscular. They are built for climbing.
This, along with the differences we have already covered and a few more to come, allow cheetahs to accelerate and sprint at speeds almost double that of the leopard.
8. The Paws
Leopards have stronger and larger paws than cheetahs.
Leopards have stronger and larger front paws than back paws. This is necessary since they need to be able to carry the weight of the head and neck. The head and neck are especially strong and heavy since they use them to carry prey much heavier than themselves up into trees. But more on their hunting style in a bit.
Cheetahs, on the other hand, have larger back paws than front paws and the reason for this, as you may have guessed, is to increase their ability to accelerate and launch themselves forward at super high speeds.
9. Retractable vs. Non-retractable claws
Since leopards and cheetahs behave quite differently and rely on different abilities when it comes to hunting, their claws are also quite different to support these different behaviors.
Leopards, like most other cats, have retractable claws that are only being used when necessary. They are extremely useful for climbing trees, fighting, or taking down prey. When leopards relax, their claws are retracted.
Cheetahs are quite different in this way as their claws are non-retractable. The reason for this is that cheetahs use them to accelerate and make quick turns at very high speeds. The non-retractable claws give cheetahs much better traction.
Sometimes you may come across some wildlife tracks that are very clearly from a big cat but since the animal itself is long gone, it can be difficult to determine which big cat they are from.
A fun way of identifying whether tracks are from a leopard or a cheetah is to see if you can find the claw marks. Since cheetahs have non-retractable claws, you can usually see the claw marks in the tracks. With leopards, you will usually just see the mark from the paw and not from the claws.
10. The Tail
Since they support different functions, the shape of their tail is also different.
Cheetahs have a long and flat tail that is very effective for steering and making sharp turns at high speeds. You can clearly see the individual black spots from cheetahs’ fur on their tail as well.
Leopards have a more round tail that is excellent for providing balance when climbing trees. You can usually see the circular or rosette-shaped pattern in the fur on the leopard’s tails.
11. Speed. Cheetahs Are Almost Twice as Fast as Leopards
Since we have talked so much about the fact that leopards and cheetahs are built for different purposes, specifically stealth and strength for the leopard and speed and acceleration for the cheetah, let’s get some numbers on the table.
Cheetahs are the world’s fastest animal on land. Their top speed has been measured at around 110 km/h. They can accelerate and reach 0-96 km/h (60 mph) in 3 seconds which is faster than most high-end sports cars.
Cheetahs are truly the animal kingdom’s version of a high-end sports car with everything from an aerodynamic body shape, optimized weight distribution, claws that allow for great traction and grip, and a tail that allows precise navigation and turning at super high speeds. A combination that simply makes cheetahs the ultimate sprinters.
Leopards are not nearly as fast as cheetahs. They sprint at a speed of roughly 60 km/h. They are much heavier and stronger than the cheetah and what they lack in speed, they definitely make up for in other ways which we will take a look at below.
12. Different Hunting Style. Stealth vs. Speed
As predators, leopards and cheetahs have a very big thing in common. They hunt for prey. They do, however, benefit from vastly different strengths and abilities, and therefore, have vastly different hunting styles.
Leopards rely heavily on their camouflage and stealth as well as their massive strength. They have an incredible ability to sneak up on prey and will often get within 5 meters of their target before they strike. As a member of the cat family, leopards are equipped with several super sensitive and effective senses, making them the ultimate hunter.
Another huge advantage leopards have is their strong night vision which is seven times stronger than a human’s. This gives leopards an enormous advantage in the night which is when they are most active and do most of their hunting.
Leopards are much stronger than cheetahs and kill prey up to four times larger than what a cheetah is capable of.
Leopards have a wide variety of potential prey ranging from zebras and young giraffes to frogs, scorpions, and even fish and birds. The preferred prey, however, seems to consist of medium-sized antelopes such as impalas, springboks, and waterbucks. What each individual leopard eats depends largely on where they live and what prey is available to them.
Cheetahs are a completely different but equally fascinating story.
Unlike most other African predators, cheetahs are active during the day. One reason for this is that speed and accelerations are a cheetah’s primary strength and advantage when it comes to hunting and for these to be utilized to their fullest, cheetahs hunt when they have the best light conditions to improve their ability to sprint and turn at such high speeds.
Cheetahs are also not as strong as some of the other large African predators such as lions and leopards so hunting during the day also reduces the risk of losing their prey to such predators as they are primarily active during the night.
When cheetahs hunt, they sneak up as close to their target as they can before they leap forward and engage in a high-speed chase. When they reach their target, they trip their prey so they fall. That way the cheetah can overpower the prey and kill it.
13. Eating and Resting Behavior
Once they catch their prey, it is time to eat and after eating, it is time to rest. Leopards and cheetahs also behave quite differently from each other when it comes to these things.
If you are incredibly lucky on your safari, you can see a leopard with some freshly caught prey. Leopards are incredible climbers and will often try to carry their prey with them up into a tree where it can keep it safe from other predators who may be trying to get a free meal.
Their strong legs and a long tail which it uses for balance combined with its powerful neck and head allows it to navigate the branches with ease while carrying prey even heavier than itself. It is not uncommon to see leopards climb up to as much as 15 meters (50 feet) up into a tree to secure their prey.
Like other cats, leopards also spend a large amount of their time resting or sleeping. Thick branches sufficiently high off the ground also provide an excellent place to rest in addition to eat.
If you are interested in learning more about why leopards stay in trees, I have written this post (opens in a new tab) about the topic.
Cheetahs can also climb but since their necks and heads are smaller and not nearly as strong as leopards, they are unable to carry prey up into a tree so they eat on the ground.
When it is time for cheetahs to rest or sleep, they tend to find a nice spot under a tree where they can enjoy the cold shadow.
14. Different Sound
Yet another place in which the two African cats differ from each other is in the sound they make.
Cheetahs are the only cats that do not roar. They purr and produce a sound that almost sounds like a bark.
Leopards are more classic cats when it comes to the sound they make. They roar, growl, and hiss.
15. Different Daily Rhythm
Leopards are nocturnal and cheetahs are diurnal. What this means is that leopards are primarily active during the night and cheetahs are primarily active during the day.
There are several reasons why these two big cats have such different daily rhythms and they have everything to do with their different physical advantages and abilities.
Leopards are nocturnal and hunt primarily during the night. You can be very lucky and spot a leopard on the hunt during the day. I saw that in Kruger National Park in South Africa a couple of years ago which was really cool but also a rare sighting. To increase your chances of spotting a leopard in Africa, go out while it is dark. Either in the very early morning or just before sunset. This is when leopards have the ideal conditions for hunting.
As I wrote earlier, leopards have excellent night vision. Approximately seven times better than humans. This combined with the many super-sensitive senses they have as cats allow them to sneak up on completely unsuspecting prey and get very close before striking.
Cheetahs are diurnal which is the opposite of leopards. Cheetahs are active and hunt during the day. There are several interesting reasons for this.
I have already briefly covered one of the reasons and that is that since cheetahs hunt at such incredible speeds and have to be able to accelerate and take quick turns, they need the ideal light conditions which they have during the day.
Another reason why cheetahs, unlike other African cats, are diurnal is simply to avoid other large predators. Cheetahs are not strong enough to take on leopards, lions, or hyenas, and being active during the day reduces the risk of having to face one of these predators or the risk of losing prey to them.
16. The Cubs
After a gestation period of 90-110 days, female leopards give birth to up to 6 (usually 1-4) cubs that each weighs between 500-600 grams.
Cheetahs have a similarly long gestation period of 90-98 days after which they give birth to up to 9 cubs, although most of the time they have between 3-5 cubs.
So all in all, cheetahs generally have more cubs than leopards. A reason for this is that leopards are significantly stronger than cheetahs so the rate of survival in newborn cubs is higher for leopards than for cheetahs.
17. Different Habitat
After learning about their vastly different hunting styles and general behavior, you can probably imagine that cheetahs and leopards also thrive the most in quite different surroundings.
Since cheetahs are such highspeed hunters, they need large, open areas such as savannas or semi-deserts to really have the ideal conditions.
Whenever I have personally been lucky enough to spot cheetahs, it has always been in wide-open savannas.
Since leopards rely on camouflage, stealth, and raw strength, they thrive in more dense areas with more trees and bushes where they can hide and lurk.
Both cats can definitely be seen in both of these types of habitat and that often happens, so don’t stop looking for cheetahs, just because you are in some more dense areas and vice versa. These are merely their ideal habitats for hunting and resting.
18. Distribution and Numbers
The number of leopards in Africa is much higher than the number of cheetahs. It is estimated that there are more than 700,000 leopards in the wild in Africa. Leopards can be found all over sub-Saharan Africa.
There are four subspecies of cheetahs that each live in different areas of the world. Three of these subspecies are found in Africa and the fourth in Iran.
Below, I have made a table with a row for each of the four subspecies and columns describing the name of the subspecies, details about where they live, how many of each there are left in the wild, using the newest numbers I could find, and lastly, their conservation status
|Southeast African cheetah||Angola, Botswana, |
South Africa, and Zambia
|Asiatic cheetah||Central Iran||43||Critically endangered|
|Northeast African cheetah||Chad, Ethiopia and|
|Northwest African cheetah||Algeria, Benin, |
Mali and Niger
Female leopards tend to mate with several males during heat. Only one of the males, however, will be the father of the cubs that will later be born. Female leopards do this to increase the cubs’ chances of survival since male leopards can kill other leopards’ cubs if they enter their territory but will treat them like their own if they have mated with their mother.
After a gestation period of 90-110 days, female leopards give birth to their cubs. They will usually have 1-4 cubs but can have up to as many as 6. These newborn cubs weigh just 500-600 grams at birth but will quickly start growing and gaining weight.
Leopards in the wild usually live for 10-12 years but can live for as much as 17 years under the right conditions. In captivity, they can live up to 23 years.
Cheetahs give birth after a gestation period of 90-98 days. They usually have 3-5 cubs but can sometimes have up to as many as 9.
When they are roughly 5-6 weeks old, the cheetah cubs follow their mother on her hunts but will actually often end up ruining the hunt by messing around and playing with each other or being bad at hiding from the prey.
When they are around 15 months old, however, they have learned the skills necessary to hunt and take care of themselves. At this point, they will leave their mother and go live in a group with their siblings.
Male cheetahs live up to around 9 years but just around 5 on average. Females live to be up to 13 years old but on average closer to 6. In captivity, they can live up to 21 years.
20. Social Life
Leopards are solitary animals and generally live by themselves. Adult female leopards, however, have cubs for the majority of their lives and will stay with these.
Leopards tend to have their own territory that they stick to and as with other cats, the males have larger territories than the females. These territories, however, often overlap but neighbors of the same sex with overlapping territories tend to just avoid each other and use the shared areas when the other is not there.
Cheetahs are more social than leopards.
Cheetahs have a unique social structure where the males stay in groups of 2-5 with other males while the females live on their own or with their cubs. Unlike other cats, females cheetahs have a much larger territory than males do.
I hope you enjoyed reading about the differences between leopards and cheetahs and how to determine which one you have spotted (or will spot) on your safari. If you are interested in learning more about the two cats, these links will take you to all our posts about leopards and cheetahs.