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Monday, December 22, 2014

Distinguishing Cougar from Dog Tracks

How do you tell the difference between cougar and dog tracks? 

Two of the most difficult types of animal tracks for beginning trackers to distinguish are cougar and domestic dog. Cougars, also known as mountain lions and pumas, range throughout western North America, Canada, Mexico, and South America. There are even cougar populations east of the Rockies such as in Michigan. 

One of the most common differences illustrated in animal tracking books is that the dog family has claws showing in their tracks and the cat family has no claws present. While this can sometimes be the case, there are several other features that are more reliable and used by veteran cougar biologists to distinguish feline prints from those of other carnivores. 

Cougar left paw showing "pinky finger" (on right side) and protruding "middle finger." Note 3 lobes on bottom heel pad.

The first and most significant feature is the heel pad. Regardless of the type of cat (jaguar, bobcat, housecat, etc.) the heel pad will possess three lobes on the posterior (bottom) and two lobes on the anterior (top). The latter is not as common and I only find this feature under perfect conditions in fresh snow or mud. You are far more likely to see the three lobes. Compare this feature with the arched presentation of a canid track and you are on your way to more accurately deciphering whether a feline or canine passed your way. 

Red track cast is cougar. Yellow is wolf.

The second feature is the asymmetrical layout of the toes in a cat track. Like us, they have a pinky and middle finger so to speak, contrasted with the symmetrical spread of a canid’s toes. 

When I worked for the forest service years ago, I had the good fortune of spending time with several third-generation cougar hunters (how did my high-school guidance counselor fail to mention that career!). Many times, they recounted stories about getting calls regarding rogue cougars from concerned homeowners whose property was adjacent to the wilderness. One cat biologist told me he would get frequent calls about “problem cougars” only to drive out to the home and find the tracks of the homeowner’s Great Dane or yellow Lab. 

Again, when considering cougar vs. domestic dog, first look at the heel pad and identify those three posterior lobes. Next, study the position of the toes—asymmetrical or symmetrical? Lastly, if there are claws present, they will be fine and slit-like in a cougar’s tracks vs. the wider, blunt appearance of the dog family. When I have observed cougar claws in a track, they appear as if they were made with the tip of my knife. 

Where I live in northern Arizona, animals spend their lives traversing slickrock and boulder-strewn volcanic fields. Here wild dogs have their claws pretty worn down and this feature is reduced in canid tracks. I see this in my own dogs after a few months of living out in the wilds with me on field courses. Claws or no claws in a track is not a very reliable method for differentiating the two species. 

For further reading on the subject of cougars, check out Harley Shaw’s fine book Soul Among Lions which documents his years afield as a professional cougar biologist. And keep in mind that if you’ve spent time in the western U.S. hiking, then you’ve already been in striking distance of a cougar.  Fortunately for us they mostly prey upon deer, rabbits, and porcupines (their favorite delicacy). 

The above is an excerpt from Tony's new book, Survival Q & A: Practical Solutions for Staying Alive. Available on Kindle, Nook, and other digital platforms on December 27, 2014.

About Ancient Pathways

Tony Nester is the author of numerous books and DVDs on survival. His school Ancient Pathways is the primary provider of survival training for the Military Special Operations community and he has served as a consultant for the NTSB, Travel Channel, Backpacker Magazine, and the film Into the Wild. When not on the trail, he lives in a passive-solar, strawbale home in northern Arizona. For information on Tony’s books, gear, or bushcraft courses, visit

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