Leopard vs. Cheetah: What’s the Difference?

It’s easy to get confused with cheetahs and leopards because they look so similar. But you’d be surprised to discover the major differences between these magnificent cats we explore below.

Nov 16, 2023byLisa Szymanski
leopard vs cheetah difference

Despite their similarities in appearance, there are quite a few differences between cheetahs and leopards. The leopard, with its powerful body, is built for stealth, while the cheetah is nimble and fast on its feet. Both big cats are found in the African savanna, but they don’t share territories. If a cheetah encounters a leopard in the wild, they retreat very quickly in fear of the leopard’s strength and power. To learn more about the uniqueness of these large cats, let’s look at the leopard versus the cheetah: What’s the real difference?

Cheetahs Have a Solid Spotted Coat

cheetah face and chest
A cheetah has black eye markings and solid black spots.

Both cheetahs and leopards have short coats covered in beautiful spots, but if you look closely, their markings are completely different. Cheetahs have small and solid dots on their coats that are circular or ovular in shape. These dots vary in size, with smaller spots visible on the head and upper body and larger spots on the legs and hind. Another difference worth mentioning is their eye markings. A cheetah has pitch-black stripes that run from the corner of their eyes to their mouths. The black tear lines are meant to shield their eyes from the glare of intense sunlight while hunting.

Leopards Have Rose-Like Patterns On Their Fur

leopard face and chest close up
The spots on a leopard’s abdomen are rose-shaped.

A leopard has larger, layered spots that look like medallions or ringlets covering their fur. These rose-shaped markings provide the perfect camouflage as they move under trees or tall grass with dappled light. They also have more spots on their faces compared to cheetahs, giving them a freckled appearance. A cheetah’s face only has spots on the cheeks and the top of the head. Leopards lack the dark tear lines that are found on a cheetah’s face because they don’t need anti-glare markings when they hunt at night. These large cats have wide green eyesand large, elongated faces, whereas the cheetah has a smaller, round-shaped head with striking amber-colored eyes.

The Cheetah is Built for Speed

cheetah running across sand
Cheetahs have flexible bodies.

The cheetah can run at lightning speed and is known for its incredible stamina. These animals are built to run and have long, slinky bodies that move like springs. Their tails help with steering and balancing their movement when they give chase. Cheetahs are agile cats that have to maintain high speeds across short distances to prevent their brains from overheating. They are not heavy and muscular predators, and you’ll notice that they are much slimmer than leopards. A fully grown cheetah can weigh between 70 lbs and 140 lbs, and their lightweight frame helps them chase fast prey.

The Leopard is Built for Strength

leopard climbing tree with antelope in mouth
Leopards can haul the equivalent of their body weight up a tree.

When a leopard stalks its prey, it moves with stealth and determination. To help it take down prey such as a large antelope, these African cats have muscular and heavy bodies. More importantly, leopards will climb trees to reach safety and drag their carcasses away from scavengers, including hyenas and wild dogs. They have larger back feet than the slender cheetah, which helps them scale tall trunks and thick branches. Leopards are stronger and stockier than cheetahs, and they use their 160-pound bodies to ward off other predators. It’s not uncommon for cheetahs and leopards to confront one another in the bush, and it’s usually the cheetah that retreats from its heavier cousins.

Leopards and Cheetahs Have Different Claws

the claws of a cheetah cannot retract
The claws of a cheetah cannot retract.

Most cats can retract their claws, so they only use them while hunting, climbing, or defending themselves. An unusual fact about the world’s fastest big cats is that they can only partly retract their claws, a trait that is closely shared with dogs. It might seem strange that such a large cat cannot hide its claws, but their nails provide much-needed traction when they chase their prey. Leopards don’t have this problem and will use their claws to climb trees and hunt. A leopard relies on its sharp nails and large feet to scale the trunks and branches.

Leopards and Cheetahs Hunt Different Prey

cheetah walking with an antelope in its mouth
Cheetahs prefer to hunt small gazelle and springbok.

The cheetah and leopard are found across Africa, and when food is in abundance, these stealthy cats have their preferences. Cheetahs will hunt small bucks such as springbok or young zebra, by running after them and then tripping them as they get close. Leopards are heavier than cheetahs and cannot reach the cheetah’s speed of more than 70 mph. Rather than sprint after prey, leopards are ambush predators, taking prey by surprise. These green-eyed cats can catch massive antelope like the giant eland, which is up to 6 feet at shoulder height. A cheetah lacks the strength and size to hunt the eland and targets smaller gazelles.

Why Cheetahs and Leopards are Different

Leopard vs cheetah
The leopard vs. the cheetah.

Cheetahs and leopards differ in every way, from their size and eye color to their choice of prey. At first glance, it’s easy to see why these big cats are often confused. Both species live in the same African habitat and have spotted fawn coats but that’s where their similarities end. You’ll find leopards in trees and shrubs, and they’re most active at night when it’s easier to stalk their prey. Cheetahs are daytime hunters, and their speed allows them to chase after quick-footed antelope with precision. The streamlined cheetah and the powerful leopard have many differences, but they do share their beauty and willingness to survive Africa’s harsh wilderness.

Lisa Szymanski
byLisa Szymanski

Lisa is a wildlife enthusiast who enjoys hiking and gardening and has four years of experience volunteering at pet shelters. She is the proud mom of two dogs, a Pitbull named Ragnar, a Boerboel named Blueberry, and four feisty chickens, or as she calls them, the \"queens of the yard,\" Goldie, Gray, Peaches, and Brownie.