Acinonyx jubatus

The Fastest Animal on Land

Considered a ‘big cat’ only because it is tall, the Cheetah is actually the same overall size as our Cougar (Felis concolor). Cats, generally, are obviously longer than they are tall, with powerfully muscular legs. The Cheetah is ‘square’ – the same height to the withers as it is long (from chest to rump). Elements of the legs are long and lean, especially the radius/ulna, tibia/fibula, metacarpals (the palm) and metatarsals (the ‘foot’). The skull is about the same size as the Cougar, but is slightly more domed, back to front. The tail is long enough to touch the ground with the Cheetah standing. Although a cub’s claws can, to some degree, retract, adult Cheetah claws do not retract and are, therefore, blunted. Males are slightly larger than females, but with no other sexual dimorphism.


Cheetahs need wide expanses of grassland. Gallery forest and heavy brush interfere with their ability to run. Cheetahs do well in more arid habitats. They occur in the band of Sub-Saharan savannah that stretches across northern Africa, down the eastern grasslands south of Somalia and across southern Africa westward into the Kalahari Desert region. There is a small population near the mouth of the Red Sea, in Ethiopia, and another that may still exist at the southern end of the Caspian Sea, in Iran.


  • Wild – Cheetahs generally take hoofed mammals of less than 90 pounds (gazelle to young wildebeest). They also take small prey such as hares, warthogs and birds.
  • Zoo – Feline diet, plus beef, rabbits and chicks.


Cheetahs are tawny yellow with black thumb-print spots. All Cheetahs have a black eye-stripe down the cheek to the corners of the mouth. The belly fur is usually white, as is the very tip of the tail. Cheetah cubs have long white hairs that run in a crest down their backs. As with any animal species, genetic mutations may produce aberrant colors and patterns.


Cheetah are tall, they are not big cats. They are about the same size, over all, as the Mountain Lion (a.k.a. Cougar, Felis concolor). They must be secretive because these solitary cats have few of the adaptations that other cats have. They have difficulty defending themselves or their cubs against such antagonists as lions, leopard or hyena all of which would steal the Cheetah’s prey or kill Cheetah cubs, if the opportunity arose.


The Cheetah is, indeed, the fastest animal on land. It is said that the Cheetah can accelerate faster than most cars. National Geographic says “0 to 60 in only 3 seconds.” The thing more amazing than their speed is their agility. Cheetah can make quick, sudden turns, during prey-pursuit, and that is dependent upon the use of the long tail. The Cheetah will whip the tail side to side in order to maintain balance in a sharp turn.

The Cheetah’s keen binocular vision picks up the slightest movement as they scan the grassland. Its spotted coat keeps it well camouflaged while lounging under a bush, and its shape and coat-color allow it to meld into tall, dry grasses. Prey is approached with stealth, the timing must be perfect. The chase is usually over in less than a minute, and the Cheetah expends a great deal of energy in that short time. In fact, the Cheetah cannot really run longer than about 2 minutes because its body temperature rises very rapidly during such exertion. Even when a kill is made, the Cheetah must pant to cool itself down before eating.

Built like a greyhound, the Cheetah’s back flexes and extends, as it runs, so that its hind feet far surpass the front legs before hitting the ground to begin the next thrust and stride. As it runs, the Cheetah’s head hardly moves from level, its focus is to match the prey animal’s every move. It has no grappling-hook claws with which to grab, it cannot even supinate its paw [turn it palm-up] as other cats can. The Cheetah is a pursuit hunter, not a lie-in-wait hunter, and it must breast the fleeing quarry and trip it knocking the prey down is the only way to stop it.

When the prey falls, it is equally amazing that the Cheetah goes from 60 to stop almost instantly, as it grabs the prey in the choke-hold necessary to dispatch it. Once the kill is made, the Cheetah tries to conceal the fact by dragging it into hiding. Other hunters, like an observant lion, will move toward the action as soon as a Cheetah starts its run. Cheetahs are usually successful (once they start a run) and it is easier for the lion to take that kill than to capture prey itself.

Breeding & Growth

Cheetah are generally solitary, although brothers may stay in a group called a coalition. Breeding is usually timed so that the cubs will be born at the beginning of the wet season … their survivability is greater (50% of all cubs born will die before they are 3 months old – starvation or predation). The typical litter is 3 altricial cubs. Cub eyes will open at about 10 days, but they will stay in seclusion for several more weeks. At 3 or 4 months they will begin to follow their mother and share her kill. In fact, the cubs usually eat first because the huntress must pant to cool down after the run and the kill cannot be lost to thieves. Cubs will stay with her for as much as 2 years. They have much to learn. Wild longevity is about 12 years but Cheetah may reach 17 or more in captivity.

The cubs demonstrate an adaptive coloration feature. Newborn cubs are blue-gray to black, with a crest of white hair down their backs. This color pattern is does resemble the fierce mustelid predator called the Ratel, or Honey Badger (Mellivora capensis). The color fades to the well-known spotted coat as the cubs become more capable. Although the hypothesis has never been tested, the illusion of ‘Honey Badger’ may well protect the youngsters from predation in certain instances. Even the largest predators are loathe to face a Ratel.

Animal Facts

  • Lifespan Wild longevity is about 12 years but Cheetah may reach 17 or more in captivity.
  • Length 3.5 - 4.5 feet.
  • Weight 77 – 143 pounds.
  • Diet Cheetahs generally take hoofed mammals of less than 90 pounds (gazelle to young wildebeest). They also take small prey such as hares, warthogs and birds.

Did You Know?

The cheetah is the fastest land animal in the world. They can reach a top speed of around 75 miles per hour.