Speed is one of the best-known attributes of cheetahs; describing someone to be as “fast as a cheetah” is a high compliment. You may even think of your own house cat as a tiny cheetah when it zooms around your legs.
You may wonder if these big cats share any other aspects with their smaller, domesticated brethren.
For example, how good are cheetahs at climbing?
Cheetahs have the ability to climb trees, but they don’t do it very often. While their bodies are flexible, their claws aren’t suitable for vertical climbing. They also have little need to ascend to the treetops, as they prefer to chase their prey on the ground and eat it immediately.
Cheetahs Can Climb – But They Prefer Not To
Cheetahs are big cats and like their cousins, they have the ability to climb. However, they don’t have the same climbing agility other cats do.
The main reason cheetahs are clumsy climbers is due to their anatomy.
Cheetahs have non-retractable claws, similar to dogs. This makes it much harder for them to climb like other big cats such as the leopard and even the lion (though they don’t climb much, either).
Still, cheetahs can still climb a little; cubs in particular enjoy clambering up trunks.
The Boscia albitrunca, or shepherd’s tree, which is one of the trees found in Africa, has somewhat low-hanging branches. These provide a perch low enough for cheetahs to reach, whether by climbing or even jumping.
But there’s little need for full-grown cheetahs to climb. Their prey is much easier to catch on the ground, and their non-retractable claws work like cleats on the soil. They give cheetahs better purchase as the cats sprint after their prey.
In fact, cheetahs are the world’s fastest land animal. Their legs are long and muscular in relation to other big cats, and they’re very flexible.
But it isn’t just body movement or muscle that helps cheetahs run so quickly.
Cheetahs have extra-large nostrils that increase their oxygen intake as they run, giving them a huge advantage over their prey and even other rival predators.
Why Do Cheetahs Avoid Climbing?
Cheetahs are a big cat species whose primary habitats are open plains and grasslands. This includes the eastern and southern areas of Africa that are south of the Sahara. North Africa and Iran also have a small population of cheetahs.
These areas tend to be temperate to hot and have a lot of low-growing shrubs and grasses. This allows a cheetah to hide and stalk its prey.
There are also a few types of trees in the African savanna, including acacia, bush-willow, and baobab.
If any animal in Africa feels an inclination to climb, they do have a few options. But they have to be able to climb trunks most of the time, as many of these trees don’t have suitably low branches.
These types of trees pose a challenge for cheetahs when it comes to climbing, mostly because their non-retractable claws are blunt and don’t provide adequate grip on smooth, vertical surfaces.
Do Other Big Cats Climb Trees?
Leopards and lions are the other big cats that live in Africa, along with the cheetah. Both of these other species also have climbing abilities, but it’s the leopard who is the most adept.
Lions, while they do have retractable claws suitable for climbing, are not as flexible as leopards or cheetahs. Their spines are very stiff, which gives them an advantage when wrestling larger prey like buffalo.
This same rigidity, however, lessens their vertical power. They’re also much heavier than either leopards or cheetahs.
While they’re okay going up a tree, they have a lot of trouble getting down. Lions can actually hurt themselves on the way down because of their size and inflexibility.
Leopards, on the other hand, excel at climbing. Their shoulder blades are proportionally bigger and flatter than a lion’s, so they can move a lot easier up into a tree.
Not only are they physically built for climbing, but it’s actually a good instinct for leopards. They face a different sort of challenge than their fellow big cats when it comes to hunting.
While lions are known for their large prides, and cheetahs can form groups of four or six, leopards are solitary animals. That means they have to fend for themselves, and that includes fending off other animals from their kills.
A leopard will drag its kills up into the branches of a tree to protect it from scavengers. Cheetahs may excel at chasing down their prey, but leopards can actually hunt from trees.
Their coat also allows them to blend into the leaves, so they can pounce on their prey from above.
Leopards may hide their prey in treetops for immediate or later consumption, but cheetahs only prefer fresh meat. This means they have to eat quickly before scavengers appear and attempt to steal their kill.
This also means that they don’t preserve their kills like leopards, and so have less incentive to climb trees. It’s not beneficial to their particular hunting style.
Cheetahs Outrun The Competition
While leopards are jumping from above, cheetahs are slinking along on the ground. These big cats prefer to stay low in cover until they spring up at their prey.
Cheetahs then chase down the animal they’re hunting with a quick burst of speed. They can sprint over 65 miles per hour, reaching top speed in 3 seconds.
Lions, on the other hand, can only reach speeds of about 50 miles per hour, and only in short bursts. Leopards are only a little faster, clocking in at about 58 miles per hour at top speed.
Most of us picture a cheetah in one of two ways: crouching in the low grass of the African Sahara or sprinting at high speeds after their prey.
While we know that our own house cats like to climb, it may not be an image we associate with this African big cat. And it’s not unreasonable; cheetahs tend to avoid climbing trees, preferring to run on the ground, just as we picture them.
This doesn’t mean they’re incapable of climbing, however. Cheetahs can, in fact, climb trees, and even enjoy doing so as cubs.
However, their claws are non-retractable, which makes them less effective for climbing. Instead, these claws help them run at speeds higher than any other land animal.
They may not be the best climbers, but they certainly have other amazing talents.