Difference between a Cheetah and a Leopard

Updated on February 24, 2018

For the ‘big cats’ enthusiasts out there, it is quite easy to distinguish a cheetah from a leopard. Some people on the other hand confuse one with the other. Although they may have a lot of similarities, they do have a lot of differences you might not know about.


A Cheetah with its long legs, long tail, and tear marks on the face

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) – Famous for their speed, cheetahs are big cats that are also known as hunting leopards. They are often found in eastern and southern Africa. Cheetahs are characterized by their slender body, spotted pelage (coat), small rounded head, tear marks below the eyes (for reducing glare), deep chest, long thin legs, and long spotted tail. They are usually around 21 to 72 kilograms (46 to 159 lbs.) and stand tall at around 70 to 90 centimeters (28 to 35 in) at shoulder level. They generally have yellowish tan or rufous (reddish-brown) to grayish white coat, and are covered with an approximate 2,000 black spots.

Cheetahs are usually active during the day and hunting is their major activity. Unlike some other big cat species, adult males are sociable and form groups called ‘coalitions’. Adult females on the other hand may live alone or with their offspring. In terms of their diet, they often prey on antelopes and gazelles.

Speed: Can reach 112 Km/Hour (70 MPH)

A leopard with its short legs, long body, and rosettes

Leopard (Panthera pardus) – Famous for their camouflaged fur and for being powerful swimmers, leopards are big cats that often reside in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, West Asia, South and Southeast Asia, and Siberia. In fact, they are one of the five ‘big cats’ in the genus Panthera (the other four are the Cougar, Jaguar, Lion and Tiger). They are characterized by their short legs, long bodies, massive skulls, and their great diversity in coat color and rosettes (rose-like marking) patterns. Leopards usually weigh around 28 to 90 kilograms (62 to 198 lbs.), and reach 57 to 70 centimeters (22 to 28 in) at shoulder level. Coat colors can vary from pale yellow to deep gold with black rosettes.

As with most of the cat species, leopards are agile and stealthy predators. They may have short legs, but they have comparatively long bodies. With their massive skull, they are able to hunt larger prey including the common eland antelope that can weigh around 500 to 600 kilograms (1,100–1,300 lb). However, leopards are also reported to eat anything from dung beetles to ungulates (large mammals such as cattle, pigs, camels, and deer). They are solitary cats and are nocturnal (active during the night).

Speed: Can reach up to 58 Km/Hour (36 MPH)

Cheetah vs Leopard

What’s the difference between a cheetah and a leopard? They may appear to be alike at a glance, but if you look closely, there are differences. Looking at their head, the cheetah has a tear mark that is said to reduce glare, while a leopard has none. A leopard’s head however is much bigger compared to that of a cheetah. In terms of their bodies, you’ll notice that the leopard has a longer, bulkier body with short legs, while a cheetah has long legs and a deep chest, and is more slender. For their body marks, a cheetah’s coat is covered with black oval spots, while a leopard’s is covered with rosette-shaped spots.

Not only do they differ in appearance, but they also differ in behavior and abilities. The leopard is nocturnal, while a cheetah is diurnal (active during the day). The leopard is also a powerful swimmer, unlike most of the other big cats that swim only if they have to, cheetahs included. While a cheetah may not be considered a good swimmer, it does make up for it with its blinding running speed that’s twice as fast as the leopard at 112 Km/h (70 MPH). Finally, while a cheetah tends to form a coalition (a group of cheetahs), a leopard is mostly solitary.

Interesting fact: A leopard’s claws are retractable, as with all other cats, big or small. A cheetah is the only cat that has non-retractable claws, meaning they are out all the time. A cheetah also does not have the ability to roar like most of the big cat species.

Comparison Chart

Diurnal (active during the day).Nocturnal (active during the night).
Weighs around 21 to 72 kilograms (46 to 159 lbs.)Weighs around 28 to 90 kilograms (62 to 198 lbs.)
Height is around 70 to 90 centimeters (28 to 35 in)Height is around 57 to 70 centimeters (22 to 28 in)
Can reach 112 Km/Hour (70 MPH) in speedCan reach up to 58 Km/Hour (36 MPH) in speed
Has tear marks below the eyesHas no tear marks
Coat is covered in black oval spotsCoat is covered with black rosette-shaped spots
Has a thinner body and smaller headHas a bulkier body and larger head
Litter size can be from 3 to 5Litter size can be from 2 to 4
The numbers in the wild are estimated to be at 7,000 to 10,000The numbers in the wild are estimated to be at around 69,000
Can live up to 17 yearsCan live up to 21 years
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