Big Cat Guide for Kids

While they share a very distant relative, these huge cats are not quite like your family pets. These massive predators often rule their respective kingdoms, stalking their prey cleverly and efficiently. After thousands of years of evolution, they've perfected the art of the hunt. Big cats can be found all over the world, from South America to Russia to the United States. Despite their efficiency, many breeds of big cats have become endangered or extinct due to human activities.


The famous cheetah is most well-known for its incredible speed. In short sprints, the cheetah can get up to 70 to 75 miles per hour, which makes it the world's fastest land animal. It can also go from 0 to about 62 miles per hour in the span of three seconds! Living in the grassy savannas of African countries, cheetahs most often eat antelopes, boar, and large birds. Because the animal is built for speed, it's rather defenseless when confronted with lions and humans. Today, the species is endangered, like many of the other big cats on this list.


Cougars are much closer to home and much less likely to be sought after as pets. They roam through high-elevation areas of many parts of the Americas and also go by other names, like mountain lion, panther, and puma. They're heavier than the cheetah, though they're almost as fast; they have a top speed of 50 miles per hour. Depending on where you live, you may run into one in the wild. Be sure to not run away or take your eyes off of it, as its instincts will make it want to chase you down. These are important top predators and essential for many local ecosystems.


Jaguars live in South America and are most at home in the jungle. They also happen to be great swimmers and love to hunt fish. They're often confused with leopards due to their spotted fur; however, jaguars often have larger heads with a more powerful jaw. The name comes from a Native American word, which can be translated to "one who kills in one leap." Like others on this list, the jaguar is a nocturnal predator, meaning that it hunts at night. About one in 20 jaguars are born with an all-black fur coat.


One might consider the leopard to be the jaguar's cousin, as they're very similar breeds but from across the sea, in Africa. They're known for being able to quickly run up trees and carry around large prey like antelope. Males of this species are sometimes even 50 percent larger than their female counterparts. There are many different species of leopard, including the almost-endangered clouded leopard, which is famous for its irregular spots.


Many of the big cats on this list love solitude and only come together in groups when they're breeding, but African lions are often found in groups of 15 to 20. These groups are called prides. These prides are ruled over by a male, and female lions do the hunting. They sleep during the day and hunt in groups at night on the African savannah. Today, this creature is one of the favorites at local zoos, but they require extra care from veterinarians.


The tiger is the biggest cat found in the wild and the biggest in the world with the exception of the hybrid breed created by veterinarians that crosses a lion and a tiger, called the liger. Tigers can be found across much of Asia, from Russia to southern India. Three out of nine known subspecies of tiger (the Javan, Bali, and Caspian tigers) are now extinct. Another, the South China tiger, only exists in zoos. This species is in most need of intervention, as it is estimated that fewer than 4,000 tigers exist in the wild today. Siberian tigers are currently the most threatened of this group. Like other cats on this list, tigers are great swimmers, very fast (with a top speed of 40 miles per hour), and excellent predators. No two sets of stripes on a tiger are the same!