Cheetah vs Jaguar: What’s The Difference?

How would you tell them apart if you were to encounter a big cat in the wild? For instance, a cheetah vs jaguar, what are the differences between these two beautiful animals?

If a cheetah was standing next to a jaguar, it’s easy to tell them apart. A cheetah has a very light build, while a jaguar looks much more powerful thanks to its muscular body. The only thing that could confuse them is the presence of spots all over their bodies.

There are a few more differences between cheetahs and jaguars, so let’s spot the difference between these two spotted cats.

cheetah vs jaguar

The main difference is muscle mass

The main difference between a cheetah and a jaguar is their muscle mass.

A cheetah is built specifically for speed. Therefore, they need to have a slim build.

On the other hand, a jaguar uses brute strength to hunt and kill its prey. They are more powerful and have a more muscular build.

This also means that a cheetah’s top speed of over 70 mph (112 kph) is faster than a jaguar, whose top speed is around 50 mph (80 kph).

While the cheetah takes home the speed prize, it’s a no-contest win for the jaguar regarding strength.

Jaguars have a bite force of 1500 psi, while cheetahs can only bite down with a force of 500 psi, a third of the jaguar’s power.

Head shape is different

A cheetah has a more rounded head compared to a jaguar.

cheetahs have a round head
Cheetahs have a round head

A jaguar, due to its jaw muscles, has a broader face.

Cheetahs also have two black tear marks, known as malar stripes, that run down their face. These marks help attract the sun away from the eyes.

On the other hand, Jaguars tend to have spots covering their entire face and head, except for the area on top of their box-like snout.

jaguars have a wide head
Jaguars have a wide head

Jaguars are much bigger than cheetahs

The jaguar is the third largest big cat, with only the tiger and lion larger. Jaguars have a very large size range; depending on their habitat, their weight can vary from 80 to 340 lb (36 to 154 kg).

Cheetahs cap out at less than half that max with a featherweight 159 lb (72 kg). Any heavier and it would seriously hamper its ability to run fast.

Jaguars can reach up to 6 feet 6 inches and have a tail that can measure anywhere between 17 to 30 inches. They have, by far, the shortest tail of all the large cats compared to their overall length.

Cheetahs have a body length of 4 feet 7 inches and a tail that can reach almost 3 feet. This tail is almost the size of its body length and acts as a counterbalance for quick maneuvers at high speed.

That and their very flexible spine allow cheetahs to change direction rapidly without posing any harm to themselves.

Jaguars have powerfully built forearms that look short and stocky. On the other hand, Cheetahs have elongated limbs designed for high-speed chases.

jaguar walking on rocks
Jaguars have a stocky and powerful build

Which have retractable claws?

One unique feature about cheetahs is their inability to retract their claws fully. They have claw sheaths in their paws but cannot fully draw them inside.

Jaguars have no problem sheathing their claws when not in use.

Cheetahs use their claws for additional traction on the ground. The non-retractable claws act like cleats that allow the cheetah to gain momentum quickly or change direction in the blink of an eye to catch its prey.

They don’t use their claws to kill their prey. Cheetahs use their dew claws for snagging prey during a high-speed pursuit, as this claw tends to maintain its sharpness, but their claws aren’t used for hunting or holding.

When it comes to fight or flight, cheetahs usually choose the latter.

Jaguars use their claws to hold on to prey before delivering a killer bite. Jaguars will clamp onto their prey and use their claws to securely hold them while using their muscles and body weight to drop the animal to the ground.

Neither animal likes climbing trees, Jaguars are too heavy, and cheetahs are too stiff with claws that don’t provide much assistance.

Do jaguars and cheetahs have the same spots?

Both animals have spots, but that is about where the similarities end. Cheetahs and jaguars have very different spots.

A cheetah has solid spots, while jaguars have rosettes all over their body accompanied by solid spots on its head and tail.

Kings and black panthers

Cheetahs and jaguars have color morphs that are both equally stunning.

You’re probably aware of black panthers. The correct term is a black jaguar, but that is their common name.

They’re not completely solid black, though. Their spots still appear through the dark coloration.

black jaguar commonly known as a black panther
Black jaguar, commonly known as a black panther

Cheetahs have not been thought to have color morphs, but they do. They’re called king cheetahs.

King cheetahs have three dark lines running along their backs, creating a splotchy pattern all over their bodies.

How do cheetahs vs jaguars hunt?

Cheetahs are designed to function well in arid lands with long expanses for running down their prey. Jaguars, on the other hand, are more accustomed to thick foliage.

Jaguars are also not afraid to go into the water to take down prey like caimans and turtles.

Cheetahs stalk their prey using tall grass before closing the distance with a short dash to their target.

They can outrun most fast-moving prey and trip them before delivering a bite to the neck. They kill by suffocating most of their prey within 5 minutes. Most cheetah hunts occur during the day.

Jaguars use an ambush method taking down large prey with their powerful forearms. A bite to the skull usually ends the struggle.

Studies have shown that jaguars deliver a crushing bite that punctures their victim right behind the ears.

Location

Lastly, and probably the easiest way to tell the difference is to just look at where you are in the world.

Cheetahs and jaguars do not share the same living areas, so the location can be a dead giveaway.

Jaguars call the Americas home, while Cheetahs call the African savannah home (with a few calling the Iranian desert home as well).

If you find yourself in South America and come face to face with one of these cats in the wild, the odds are that you’re looking at a jaguar.

Likewise, on an African safari, the big cat running across the savannah is more often than not a cheetah (or a leopard, check out the differences between cheetahs and leopards here in that case).

Final thoughts on the differences between cheetahs and jaguars

In conclusion, there are many differences between cheetahs and jaguars.

These two animals are quite different, from how they hunt to their spots. Both are beautiful in their own ways and have a place in the animal kingdom.

Luckily they don’t share the same habitat, so conflicts between the two should never arise.