What kind of track is it?
How do I tell the difference between cat (cougar, bobcat, domestic cat)
and dog (coyote, wolf, fox, domestic dog) tracks?
|The most commonly found
tracks can sometimes be confusing. How do you tell the
difference between the tracks of dogs and cats? Was
that track you found on the trail left by a mountain
lion or a big dog? There are some clues that will help
you tell the difference between dog and cat tracks.
Dogs include such species as red and gray foxes,
coyotes, wolves and domestic dogs. Cats include
mountain lions, bobcats, lynx, and domestic cats. Lynx
tracks have some unique features of their own, so are
not treated here. What is said here should apply to
bobcats, mountain lions and domestic cats. If you look
closely, you can sometimes even tell the difference
between right and left tracks, as well as front and
If you prefer to download this as a PowerPoint, click here for Cougar vs. Dog Tracks. This new PowerPoint is 60 slides long and explains in great detail how to tell cougar tracks from those of the domestic dog. The tracks of these two species are frequently confused because dogs are one of the only animals that make tracks of the same approximate size and shape as those of the cougar/mountain lion. The slide show has photos of cougar and dog tracks side by side, with features highlighted so you can learn how to tell apart their tracks. The last few slides give you some practice identifying the tracks of both mountain lions and dogs (including some tricky ones) before giving you the answers. Great way to test your knowledge.
|Here are some things that help
identify this as a canine track.
A: The claw marks. Dogs usually (but not always) show claw marks in their tracks. However, it is possible to see claw marks in cat tracks, but this is usually when the animal is running or pouncing.
B: The lack of a third lobe on the hind edge of the heel pad. See cat tracks below for the difference. Although it is visible in some dog tracks, the third lobe is located higher, not aligned with the other two as it is in cats.
C: The shape of the leading edge of the heel pad is a single lobe. See cat tracks for difference.
D: The alignment of the front two toes. They are side-by-side, or very close to it, in dogs tracks. There are exceptions, such as when the animal is making a turn or walking on a slope.
E: The almost triangular shape of the pads of the outer two toes. Take a look at the photo to see this more clearly as my drawing is not the best for indicating this feature.
F: Dogs have a little point where the heel pad turns. Cats share this feature.
Front tracks are usually larger than hind tracks. This is true for both dogs and cats.
What makes this a dog track?
|What makes these cat tracks?|
|This is the track made by the front left foot
of a cougar.
A: Note that
the front two toes are not lined up side-by-side as
the dog prints were. The toe that is further forward
is analogous to a human middle finger (your longest
finger). The alignment of this toe will tell you
whether you have a left or right track. This toe is
the inner toe of the leading pair.(Called toe #3)
B: The leading edge of the palm (metacarpal) pad has two parts, or lobes.
C: The hind edge of the palm (metacarpal) pad has three parts, or lobes. They are aligned with each other.
D: This is the front track. One clue that tells you this is that the edge of the heel pad is relatively straight. See hind track for difference.
E: Cats have a little point where the heel pad turns. Dogs share this feature.
Front tracks are usually larger than hind tracks. This is true for both dogs and cats.
|This is the track made by the hind left foot
of a cougar.
A: Note that the front two toes are not lined up side-by-side as the dog prints were. The toe that is further forward is analogous to a human middle finger (your longest finger). The alignment of this toe will tell you whether you have a left or right track. This toe is the inner toe of the leading pair.
B: The leading edge of the heel (metatarsal) pad has two parts, or lobes.
C: The hind edge of the heel (metatarsal) pad has three parts, or lobes. They are aligned with each other.
D: The toe pads of cats are more teardrop-shaped than those of dogs. The outer toes of cats are not triangular in shape. Also note that claw marks don't usually show in cat tracks, although there are exceptions, such as when the animal is pouncing.
E: This is the hind track. One clue that tells you this is that the edge of the heel pad is curved inward. See front track for difference.
F: Cats have a little point where the heel pad turns. Dogs share this feature.
|Comparison of a cougar track with a human hand to illustrate the leading toe. The leading toe is more prominent on the front tracks of cougars, bobcats, and domestic cats.|
|Our third finger is comparable to a cougar's leading toe. If you examine a cougar, bobcat, or domestic cat front track, you should see that one toe is ahead of the others, or leading. This is uncommon in dog tracks, but you will occasionally see it with action in the track. However, in a normal walking track, a dog's front two toes are aligned next to each other. In a walking track, a cougar's are offset.|
Showing some Cougar Track Features
How to tell if the track you've found was made by a cougar.
| NEW Video
Showing a Cougar or Mountain Lion Track.
This video clip points out the characteristics that make the track a cougar footprint.
Video of Cougar Trail.
This video clip takes you through the brush on the trail of a mountain lion.
|Coming soon -
Video showing all four tracks of a mountain lion up close!
|Some photos so you can see the differences....|
|A typical dog track. This one is from a golden retriever named Holly.||The overall shape of a dog track is oval. Here the shape is outlined in yellow. Dog tracks are usually longer than they are wide.||If you look at the position of the toes in a dog track, you can draw an imaginary X along the ridge between the heel pad and the outer toes. Here it is done in yellow.|
|This is a mountain lion track. Note the position of the leading toe and the three parts to the hind edge of the heel pad. The lack of claw marks is also clearly visible. All these features identify it as a cat track. This is the left front foot.||This is the track of a domestic cat. The leading toe tells you this is the left foot. The straight edge of the heel pad tells you this is the front foot. The toes are spread out in this case because the cat was running on the sand. This also illustrates that cat front tracks are usually wider than they are long.|
|This mountain lion track illustrates well the teardrop shape of the toe pads. The two parts to the leading edge of the heel pad are somewhat visible here.||Size also helps you identify which animal left the track. No domestic cat track would be three inches long. Three lobes on the heel pad are visible.|
|Now for some side-by-side comparison|
|This is a gray fox track. The claw marks are barely visible. If you imagine the X drawn in the middle, you can easily see the difference between it and the cat tracks to the right. Foxes also have a lot of fur on their feet, particularly in winter, when this photo was taken. The marks from the fur are visible in this print. The alignment of the two leading toes side-by-side is a clue. The triangular shape of the outer two toe pads is also.||This pair of tracks belongs to a domestic cat named Bones. Front track on the right and hind track on the left. The hind track is slightly more pointed and smaller than the front. The claw marks are visible due to the softness of the sand, as well as due to the fact that the cat was running. The heel pad on the track on the right has the relatively straight edge that identifies it as a front track. The print on the right is the front left track.|
|1. In the photo above, which are the fox tracks and which are the domestic cat tracks? The bird tracks belong to a killdeer. Hint, ignore the claw marks and look for the X in the heel, or lack of one.|
|2. Whose tracks are these? The stick is three inches long.|
In this dog trail, which are the front tracks
and which are the hind ones?
Bonus question: Which direction was the animal looking as it made these tracks?
Written by Kim A. Cabrera
Beartracker's Animal Tracks Den
All photos, drawings and text by Kim A. Cabrera. Do not use without permission.
Email the author.
Beartracker's Animal Tracks Den is © 1997, 2009, 2018 by Kim A. Cabrera
Answers to questions
1. The three tracks in the upper right corner are cat tracks, including one that shows an imprint of a dewclaw. The rest are gray fox.
2. The tracks are mountain lion tracks.
3. The larger tracks are the front tracks. The smaller ones are the hind tracks.
Bonus: The animal was looking to the right. Note the position of the front tracks in relation to the overall direction of travel, which is from right to left across the screen.
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