Follow by Email

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Cat Track Fever II: Comparing dog and mountain lion tracks 101

In my last post, I showed some typical tracks of mountain lions, lynx and bobcat. Today, let's take a look at how to tell the difference between mountain lions and domestic dogs. They can be similar in size and both have four toes, but there are some important differences and a fair amount of misinformation. So we should start with some ground rules. First, I would not call myself an expert. There are many people that have been studying tracks far longer than I have. Consider this an introduction to the topic, not the dissertation. Secondly, tracking is part art and part science. Not every track is textbook perfect. Study trails, not just an individual track. And finally, remember that tracking is best learned in the field. Take what you learn here and in other sources and practice, practice, practice!

1. Dog tracks have nails and cats don't.... right? Well, often that is true. But don't count on that being true all of the time. A domestic dog may have nails that are kept short. And at can extend nails for traction or other reasons. Here is a dog track from the dog park in Great Falls Montana that did not have obvious nails present:
Domestic dog track, no nails (Great Falls, Montana 2/11)

Even if a cat track shows nails, it is my experience that these nail marks are different in quality than a dog's nails. A cat's nails are sharper than a dog's and the marks left are more like a slice than the blunt marks from a dog nail. Never look at a single track. Read an entire trail.

A final word on this subject: I have had numerous occasions where a person did not recognize the dots in front of a toe as claw marks. Sometimes these marks can be awfully close to the toe and hard to see. The person with the "cat" track is convinced their are no claw marks and is frustrated when I contradict him/her.

2. Dog tracks are symmetrical, cat tracks are not. As I mentioned in my last post, a cat track is similar to a human hand (not counting the thumb) with a longer pointer finger and a smaller pinkie. A dog will have a track that is very symmetrical and can essentially be folded in half. Here are two photos, one a domestic dog and the other a mountain lion. Each has had wires placed on the top of them to show the alignment of the individual toes (I cannot seem to post photos side by side, so they will be stacked one after the other).
Domestic dog track (Great Falls, Montana)

Bilateral symmetry means that the right side looks like the left side. You can see that by looking at the center wire. Next, look at the wires that run horizontal. These wires are nearly parallel.

Mountain lion track (Montana, 2/11)
Here is a mountain lion track with wires laid from the top of the two upper toes, the bottom of the two upper toes, the bottom of the outer toes and the bottom of the heel pad. There is no symmetry here! The wires are slanted at different angles.

3. Shape of the heel pad. As I mentioned in my last post, this is not really the "heel" but rather the ball of the foot. But most authors refer to this as the heel pad so I will do as well. The leading edge of the heel pad is bi-lobed or double humped, whereas a dog will only have a single lobe or hump. The trailing edge of the pad is tri-lobed in the mountain lion but some dogs can show this as well. This was a great track that we are preparing for a plaster casting.
Mountain lion track before casting
(Montana, 2/11)
What you are looking at is a male mountain lion track with a plastic ring around it (just a plastic container with the bottom removed). The plastic serves as the border for the plaster. Enlarge this photo to look at the bi-lobed front edge of the pad. Now note the shape of that heel pad. It is that wide shape that gives us our next "trick" to tell a  dog from a lion. Remember that negative space I talked about yesterday? That is the undisturbed part between the toes.Well, let's make an X that starts between the two right toes and crosses in the pad with a line that starts between the two left toes. That X will cross INSIDE the pad. Now let's take a look at a dog track for comparison...

Domestic dog track (Great Falls,Montana 2/11)
The pad of this dog track clearly shows that there is only one lobe at the front instead of the two we saw on the lion. Also, if we make the same X that we did on the lion track, we find a different result. Start at the front of the track between the two right toes and draw a line between the toes towards the back of the track. Then draw another line starting at the front of the track between the two left toes and continue it to the back of the track. The X that results does not cross in the heel pad but rather stays in the negative space.

4. Where are those toes pointing? We are going to take out our super special tracking wires (Gotta give Jay credit for those wires! So simple, but so effective) again but this time we will use them to show the direction the toes were pointing at the time the track was made. First, the mountain lion:
Mountain lion track showing forward
facing toes (Montana, 2/11)

Domestic dog track showing splayed toes (Montana, 2/11)
In the dog track, we see a different pattern. Look at how splayed out the toes are. Again, the odd wire is along the base of the pad and the other four wires trace the direction the each toe points. This pattern is not true of all members of the dog family. Coyotes will show toes that point forward, but the track will still look far different than a mountain lion (and be a lot smaller).

We learned more. But that is enough to digest in a single post.


  1. Like the track posts. It's always interesting figuring out what made a track.

  2. Once again some very good tips ,i shall be carrying some wires around in the bag from now on......

  3. I give Jay full credit for those wires! I loved them... I bet they have all kinds of uses.


Thank you for your comment! It will appear shortly...