It’s not unusual for cat owners to compare their domestic cats to the kitties’ larger, wilder counterparts. No matter the size, felines share many characteristics! And while you may be familiar with one or two wild cats in North America, you might not realize that six total are native to the region. Most likely, you’ve heard about bobcats, as they are fairly common. But what do you know about jaguars or cougars?
Keep reading to learn more about these wild ancestors of your favorite domestic feline!
The 6 Most Common Wild Cats in North America
|Scientific Name||Lynx rufus|
|Range||Majority of the U.S., Northern Mexico, Southern Canada|
This medium-sized wild cat usually lives in closer proximity to humans than other wild cats and is the most common wild cat found in North America. This doesn’t mean these cats are friendly or should be approached (even if they tend to look like extra-large versions of our house cats!). Bobcats generally avoid coming into close contact with people unless necessary.
Though they look a lot like domestic cats (just much larger), you can identify a bobcat in a few ways. For one, they have bobbed tails (hence, the name). They also have tufted fur around the ears, as well as tufts around the face that resemble sideburns. The bobcat’s coat is tan or brown but with a hint of red; these cats also carry dark brown or black stripes or spots.
Nocturnal hunters that typically hunt prey on the smaller side—such as mice—these cats aren’t considered a threat to people (at least, not unless you come across one that has young with them or decides to provoke them).
2. Canadian Lynx
|Scientific Name||Lynx canadensis|
|Range||Canada, Alaska, northern U.S.|
This wild cat is a cousin of the bobcat, found mostly in forests in Canada. Despite the name, though, you can find these cats in parts of the northern United States and Alaska, too. However, in the lower 48 states, the breed is now considered a threatened species.
The Canadian lynx can be identified by its similarity to the bobcat—like its cousin, this cat has tufts around the ear (except in black, not white). The breed also has a tail with a black tip and enormous feet, making walking on snow easier.
Chances of coming across one of these cats are rare, though. The breed is solitary and hunts during twilight or nighttime hours, only coming out to catch their preferred meal of snowshoe hare.
|Scientific Name||Puma concolor|
|Range||Widespread throughout North and South America|
If you’ve heard of pumas, panthers, catamounts, or mountain lions, then you’ve heard of the cougar since these are all other names this wild cat goes by. One of the biggest wild cat breeds out there, the cougar is widespread across North America and can be found in a range of habitats, including mountains and forests. However, this breed is considered a threatened species.
You can identify this cat by its length (60–110 inches) and coat color, which comes in shades of gray, red, and brown (though the cat’s muzzle and chin will be white). You can also recognize a cougar by its tail length, which equals about one-third of the length of the cougar.
This cat hunts during the daylight hours and goes after large prey, such as deer. And unlike the bobcat, which isn’t dangerous to humans for the most part, the cougar is very dangerous. Similar to the bobcat, though, these cats want nothing to do with us, so as long as you avoid them, you should be good.
|Scientific Name||Panthera onca|
|Range||Southern U.S., central and northern South America|
Cougars might be one of the biggest wild cat breeds, but the jaguar is the biggest in North America (and also the third largest in the entire world). Plus, this cat has the third most powerful bite of all large cats, so this is one feline you want to stay far away from!
You can identify the jaguar by its coat which is gold to rusty red and covered with spots called rosettes. Plus, you’ll find the tail of this cat to be the shortest of all the big cat breeds.
These fierce felines inhabit everything from jungles to grasslands, where you’ll find them hunting large prey, including deer and cattle. You might also find them going for a swim! However, the breed is considered a threatened species (primarily due to deforestation), so the population is decreasing.
|Scientific Name||Herpailurus yaguarondi|
|Range||Northern Mexico, Central America, Southern America|
The jaguarundi is just a tad bit bigger than the domestic cat and the smallest of the wild cats found in North America. Also called the otter cat because of its resemblance to the animal, these felines hang out in jungles, swamps, and forests (anywhere they can hide, really). One of the most fascinating facts about the jaguarundi is it uses up to 13 sounds to communicate!
Besides looking similar to an otter with a long body and flat face, you’ll recognize this cat by its coat color—black, red-brown, or brown-gray. Unlike other wild cats, they have little to no markings on their coats.
The jaguarundi is a daytime hunter that hunts small prey such as birds or rodents. Despite being out during the day, these cats are spread out over North America, so coming across one is rare (though less rare than seeing most wild cats on this list).
|Scientific Name||Leopardus pardalis|
|Range||Southwest U.S., Mexico, South America|
The ocelot is around the same size as the bobcat and can be found in the southwestern United States (primarily Arizona and Texas), as well as in Mexico and South America. They prefer habitats with plenty of trees or vegetation to hide in, so you’ll find them in forests, jungles, and swamplands. And since the ocelot is a fabulous climber, you’ll often find them hanging out in the trees, especially during the day.
This cat breed has a beautiful golden coat with a range of patterns and dark markings. You can also recognize this cat by the black facial stripes and tail bands, along with the white belly.
Ocelots are nocturnal, so they hunt only at night. Typically, their diets consist of lizards, rodents, and birds. The ocelot population is relatively stable (though it has decreased in recent years), so they are not considered threatened.
Current Threats to Wild Cat
You probably noticed that most of the cats on this list are considered threatened or endangered in some way. There are several reasons why the wild cat populations in North America have been decreasing. The biggest reason is probably deforestation, as humans build more and more on lands that used to be wild. Once a wild cat’s habitat is gone, so is the prey, meaning the cats have to move elsewhere.
Another reason there are fewer wild cats around these days is due to them being killed. Though there are laws protecting most wild cats from being hunted, these laws can vary by region. For example, the bobcat is populous enough that it is only protected in some areas from hunting. And laws aren’t always followed. Plus, you have wild cats killed by people trying to protect livestock from being eaten.
As far as the smaller cats on this list go, they can fall victim to being hit by vehicles.
What’s Being Done
If you want to learn more about conservation efforts or how to lend a hand, you’ll want to check out these groups.
There are only six wild cat species in North America, and unfortunately, populations for most are declining due mainly to human influence. However, you’ll still find the bobcat, Canadian lynx, cougar, jaguar, jaguarundi, and ocelot throughout parts of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico for now.
Efforts are being made to keep wild cat populations from decreasing further, whether that be via laws to prevent hunting or through conservation efforts. If you want to find out more about these efforts, you can check into local conservation groups to find out how you might be able to help.
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Featured Image Credit: skeeze, Pixabay