How to tell a cougar print
from that big dog print

Figure 1. Florida cougar print in mud.  This is a clear print showing most of the traits that are diagnostic of cougar. Original orientation of pictures in Fig. 1 and 2 was 90 degrees clockwise (prints moving up instead of to the left) but that tended to give an optical illusion of print sticking up from the surface. Click here to see original orientation. Prints provided and used by permission of  Mark Lotz of the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission Figure 2. Another Florida cougar print in sand. An optical illusion may make the prints in this and the left photo appear to be sticking up from the surface, but the detail is still the same.  Prints provided and used by permission of  Mark Lotz of the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission

The easiest way to confirm a cougar is by a good set of prints.  These cats are secretive and hard to spot but  if there is good mud or sand to take the impressions [not always the case in this area], they will leave tracks where they have been.  It is also important to look at several prints and not just one.  If you can,  photograph those prints preferably with a ruler or some other object (quarter) that will show the size.  While a sighting is always impressive to the viewer, unless you have a video or camera handy, it only suggests, but does not confirm,  the presence of a cougar.  About half of the sightings by outdoor people turn out to be something else.

A big canine (dog) print is sometimes similar to a cougar print so it is important to know the distinguishing characteristics which can usually tell you which kind of print it is.  Many of these are explained and illustrated in Kim Cabrera's web page on how to tell a mountain lion track from a big dog track.  Before reading further, the reader should look at this web page and also read a useful publication on this topic by Smallwood and Fitzhugh (1989).  They stress in their publication that there is enough variation in prints (not all cougars have read the books) so one should always try to look at more then one trait.  They have organized some of these into a field key, which the reader may find useful.  Click here to find a copy of this article online. Assuming the reader has an understanding of these principles, I will not repeat them all but illustrate the ones that I (who am not a tracker) have found most useful.

 These principles can be used to identify these large prints as likely canine.  Both the splayed outer toes and an X that goes between the toes can be seen in the print labeled A and show that they are most likely canine.  These prints show little detail because they are casts of snow prints.  These prints are from an area where the previous winter a cat (based on his climbing on top of shed) had been trying to get at a deer that was hung in the shed.
In some areas bobcat prints may be found and they will show the same feline characteristics but are usually smaller than cougar prints.  They are usually slightly under 2 inches to about 2.5 inches wide.  A big print can be up to 3.4 inches wide which is almost in the range of a small mountain lion. Using the measurement of the heel pad given below by Dr Smallwood (letter of June 1999) may help. He said.
"Bobcat tracks are usually no wider than 35 mm [1.3 inches]  in the heel pad, and tracks of adult mountain lions are usually wider than 45 mm [1.8 inches]  in the heel pad."

Coyote are increasing in the Midwest and leave tracks similar to dogs,  A good description of the difference between these prints can be found on this Texas extension website (adapted from Wade and Bowns 1984).  A Missouri department of conservation web page on coyotes provides an nice illustration of dog and canine tracks although the splaying of the dog tracks is perhaps a bit more than is usually the case.

Figure 3. This is a very distinct and clear snow print used to confirm a cougar near Valentine, Nebraska.  Note the circular shape, three lobed nature of the rear pad. Picture copyright and used by permission of Nebraskaland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. Figure 4.  This picture is from a farm in Sioux County, Iowa (2004).  The farmer wife took pictures of these prints in a snow bank with the still option on their video camera (still shot).

Smallwood, K.S. and E.L. Fitzhugh.  1989.  Differentiating mountain lion and dog tracks.  Pages 58-63 in Smith, R.H., ed.  Proc. Third Mountain Lion Workshop [December 6-8, 1998 at Prescott, Arizona]  Arizona Game and Fish Department, Pheonix. 88 p.

Wade, D.A., and J.E. Bowns. 1984. Procedures for evaluating predation on livestock and wildlife. Texas Agric. Ext. Serv., Texas Agric. Exp. Stn., and U.S. Fish & Wildl. Serv. 42 pp. An adapted online (2001) version can be found at url:  Accessed on December 28, 2004.

Page designed by James Mahaffy on July 23, 2004 (9:24AM)
Modified on:  June 30, 2007 (10:02am)