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Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) Fact Sheet: Physical Characteristics

Physical Characteristics

AttributeMales & Females
Body Weight 39-65 kg (86-143 lbs)
Body Length 112-135 cm (44-53 inches)
Tail Length 66-84 cm (26-33 inches)

General Appearance

"Medium" sized cat

  • Similar size to American cougar
    • American cougar which may the cheetah's closest relative

Unique morphological traits

  • Slight build with a deep narrow chest
  • Swayback with flexible spine
  • Long, thin legs
  • Small feet with blunt, unsheathed claws
    • Dewclaw enlarged
    • Pads extremely hard and pointed in front
    • Front paws have longitudinal ridges

Other physical features

  • Tail
    • Long
    • Used as rudder during high-speed chases
  • Head and face
    • Head small and rounded
    • Neck short
    • Ears rounded
    • Face foreshortened
    • Enlarged nasal apertures
  • Teeth
    • Relatively small, particularly the canines
  • Adaptations for speed
    • Enlarged lungs, bronchi, heart, adrenals

Adult pelage

  • Varies from region to region
    • Tawny to light brown with white underparts
      • Small and large solid black spots
      • Arrangement unique to each individual
    • Short ruff
      • More developed in males
      • Longer in "King Cheetah" (see description below)
    • Hair fluffy on belly and chest
    • Outer tail ringed black and white
      • Tail tip usually white
    • Black ear backs, nose, "tear tracks" and lips
    • Tear streak extends from corner of eye to upper lip (behind canines)

Juvenile pelage

  • Light gray and brown
    • Spots darker gray at birth
    • Coat tawny by four months, but gray mantle persists 15+ months
  • Mantle of long, gray to blue-black hair

Other Characteristics

"King Cheetah"

  • Refers to a specific coat coloration and pattern
    • Caused by a single recessive gene
      • Produces a blotched coat pattern
      • "Spots" elongate and merge to form an irregular pattern
        • Including thick, elongate stripes along spine
    • Rare regional variant found in/around Zimbabwe
    • "King" cheetahs and "regular" cheetahs can occur in same litter


a cheetah cub running

Juvenile cheetahs

Juvenile cheetahs

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

"King Cheetah"

a rare "King" cheetah

"King cheetahs" are a genetic rarity. The stripes on the which run along the animal's back result from inheriting a single, recessive gene from both parents. It is not uncommon for "king" a cheetah to have siblings without this distinctive appearance.

Image credit: © Yasa_ from Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Page Citations

Caro (1994)
Eaton (1974)
Estes (1990)
Londei (2000)
Williams et al (1997)

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