Generally if one discusses cats, it can be said that a cat is a cat is a cat. The cats—large and small—of our world share so many similar characteristics and habits, but the cheetah seems to break so many “cat rules.” Some folks have even said that a cheetah is a dog with a cat’s head. The cheetah’s feet more closely resemble a dog’s since the claws are blunt and only partially retractile unlike other cats that can retract their claws. And because of the cheetah’s un-catlike feet, this cat as an adult cannot climb a tree. Most cats are either nocturnal or crepuscular hunters, but not the cheetah—it hunts during daylight hours.
But despite the differences, the cheetah does share many cat characteristics—it is solitary, is a meat-eater, walks digitigrade (on its toes for greater speed and sprinting ability) and has well-developed senses. This beautiful tawny-colored cat with dots for spots has a sleek, slim body with long legs making it perfect for those 65 mph sprints the cheetah is known for. Even with large nasal openings, big lungs, a flexible spine for quick direction changes and pads on its paws to aid its super speed, the cheetah can only maintain those fast sprints for about 20 seconds.
Sadly, like most of the spotted and/or striped cats of our world, the cheetah is endangered due to the fur trade (spotted and striped cat fur is illegal in the United States, but not throughout the world) as well as habitat loss. In addition to the factors of today that lead to endangerment, at some time in the distant past, the cheetah population probably went through a severe population decline leaving the species with an unusually low degree of genetic variation. This lack of genetic diversity makes this species particularly vulnerable to disease, environmental issues, etc.
Here at the Caldwell Zoo, through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan (SSP) for cheetahs, we are working hard to ensure the survival of cheetahs. For more information about these magnificent cats, you might enjoy checking out the Cheetah Conservation Fund at www.cheetah.org