Beyond Sightings to Sign:
"Differences Between Tracks of Dogs and Cougars"
an unpublished paper by biologist Robert L. Downing,
who carried out an official USF&WS survey for eastern cougars in the 1980s


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Popular Misconceptions

Apparently, many people never think of the possibility of a cougar being in their vicinity until they see a track so large that “it could possibly belong to a dog.”  Possibly, these people have never really looked at the track of a Great Dane, St. Bernard or other large dogs, and I would almost bet many such dogs make a larger track than most cougars.  Great Danes, St. Bernards, and certainly large hunting dogs are much more numerous, even in wild, out-of-the-way places, than eastern cougars.  Most cougar tracks are only 3-3 ½” wide, while many large dogs make a track larger than 4” wide.

Another popular misconception is that dog tracks show toenails while cougars do not.  I have followed dog tracks more than a mile before seeing good nail marks and would caution anyone, especially those working in rocky terrain where free-ranging dogs keep their nails worn short, to be extremely cautious in drawing conclusions based on the presence or absence of toenails.  A dog with worn nails may have to sink ½” into mud or dust to leave clear nail marks. 

         Click on image to

Captions for drawings:
1) Typical dog track. Note large toes, round front of heel, smooth (not lobed) rear of heel, and near-perfect symmetry. Front and rear tracks same size and shape.

2) Rear track of cougar. Note small, tear-drop shaped, widely spaced toes. Note little toe and non-symmetrical shape of foot. Note squared-off front of heel-pad and 3 lobes at rear.

3)Front track of cougar. Note how heel pad differs in shape from rear track. Front foot is also larger and will be ahead of or partially overlapped by the rear.

4)Cross section (A) of heel pads of dog (dotted line ) and cougar (solid line). Note that dog is higher in center while center lobe of cougar is same or lower than side lobes.

5)Longitudinal section (B) of heel pads of dog and cougar. Note that dog is highest in rear while cougar is same height or slightly higher in front. Dog slopes gradually in front—cougar is squared off.


Cougars, on the other hand, can leave nail marks under almost any conditions, especially if their footing is unsteady.  Cougar nails, because they are kept very sharp, will leave thin marks, whereas dog nails are relatively broad.  No nails are shown in the accompanying diagrams to avoid misleading the observer.

Several people have told me that they can recognize a track because it is round, whereas a dog’s track is long.  I suggest that before making such a general statement, each person should look at several thousand dog tracks of different breeds and then compare them with the hind foot of a cougar.  Cougar hind feet tend to be more long than wide, depending on how much the cougar spreads his toes.  If a cougar is walking normally, his hind foot track will overlap the front. Thus the hind foot may make the only clear track.


 The toes are relatively large in a dog (each is more than 44% of the heel pad width) and relatively small in the cougar (less than 44% of the heel width).  Cougar toes tend to be tear-drop shaped, whereas dog toes are more round except for the "“corner” on the inside margin of the outer toes.  All dog toes are nearly the same size whereas a cougar has a little toe corresponding (left or right) to the little finger of the human hand.  Cougar toes are also like the human hand in that they are non-symmetrical, whereas the dog foot is almost perfectly symmetrical unless the dog is turning.

The human hand is a “handy” device to compare with tracks—if the track has a leading toe, corresponding to your “middle finger,” and a little toe, corresponding to your “little finger,” it probably was made by a cat.  A cat’s “thumb” is vestigial and not seen in tracks.  A walking dog generally keeps his toes quite close together (less than ¼”) while the cougar spreads his toes, usually at least ¼” and often ½’ apart.  A running dog (especially in mud) will also spread his toes, however.

Heel Pad

The most frequently cited difference between dog and cougar tracks is that the cougar has 3 prominent lobes at the rear of its heel pad whereas the dog tends to be straight across or curved slightly forward at the rear.  However, some breeds of dogs are very high at the rear-center of the heel (see cross section) and if the dog is sliding slightly in mud, this high center may dig in deeper than the sides to produce a track that looks slightly 3-lobed.  I suggest that more attention be paid to the front of the heel pad.  In the dog the front of the heel pad is always round and slopes off gradually, whereas the high point of a dog heel is always near the rear so that the front of the heel slopes gradually (see longitudinal section).  Even a sliding dog or cougar makes a good impression at the front of the heel pad, if it sinks in far enough, and I recommend more attention be paid to this feature.  The heel pad of most cougars (even kittens) is at least half as wide as your palm.  Many large dogs will be this wide too, but bobcats will always have a heel pad LESS than half as wide as your palm.

Differences in Behavior

In my limited experience, I have observed that dogs rarely travel alone, while cougars frequently do.  A dog walking a road usually deviates from the path of least resistance only to urinate on roadside vegetation.  Cougars (and bobcats) weave back and forth incessantly, usually making the best use of cover along the edges and stopping to survey their domain from the downhill berm.  Cougars and bobcats leave the road and return frequently while dogs usually stay in the road for long distances.  Dogs and cougars will both “scratch” where they urinate but dogs scatter debris after they urinate or defecate, while cougars neatly pile the litter with both hind feet before they urinate on the pile.  Dogs rarely walk logs, never for any distance, while cougars and bobcats seem to seek out logs, wooden guardrails, and rocks, apparently because they can stalk prey from them without crackling the leaves.  During snow, a useful cougar and bobcat search technique, even at highway speeds, is to scan the logs and rocks looking for the saw-tooth pattern signifying tracks along the top of the log.  Such a pattern will certainly not be made by a dog.  Dogs rarely go up or down extremely steep slopes or rocky cliffs, while both cats delight in doing so.


Whenever possible, look at a whole series of tracks before making up your mind; a single track in the mud, running, sliding, turning, or any other unusual situation can give you a faulty impression.  I'm firmly convinced that if you look hard enough you can find a good "cougar” track in any dog lot, and vice versa.  In other words, the two species make tracks that are near enough alike that an unusual movement or an unusual tracking surface may give you the wrong impression, so look at lots of tracks before making up your mind.  Speaking of impressions, if you are making casts, make as many as possible—you may need them to bring out all the key features.  It’s rare that one cast is clear enough to show all you’d like to see.

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