How Do Cougars Get Their Food?


Cougars are excellent at hunting, and much of their life is spent in search of food. They have a varied diet, and in this article, we look at what they eat and how they catch it.

Cougars use their muscular legs to pounce on the back or side of their prey, severing the spinal cord.

There are many different animals that cougars will prey upon. The stealth, grace, and speed at which they catch it are startling. Please read on for more details on how this beautiful animal eats to survive.

Photo of cougar
Cougar caught in mid leap

Cougars are one of the most elegant, fastest cats in North America, and their hunting abilities are based on a blend of strength, intelligence, and ability.

Cougars spend their lives in a search for food and, in one night, may cover up to twenty-five miles. Cougars walk at a pace of half a mile an hour, and on rough, uneven terrain can still cover ten miles in just a few hours.

Cougars are opportunistic and will eat whatever they can in their area.

What Do Cougars Eat?

The main prey of cougars in North America is deer, moose, and elk. Bighorn sheep are also another easy prey to the stealthy cougar.

They will also feed on smaller animals than the larger ungulates. The smaller prey includes goats, sheep, hares, rabbits, squirrels, skunks, beavers, porcupines, and a variety of rodents, including mice and rats.

Cougars have also been seen to eat birds, either those that are already on the ground or, in some cases flying low to the ground.

Cougars change their diet according to the season. In some states such as Idaho, cougars will eat deer in winter, but in summer will eat the much smaller but easier to catch ground squirrels.

Cougars will also change their feeding habits based on the population cycles of other animals. In British Columbia, the snowshoe hare has a ten-year population cycle. When the snowshoe hare is more abundant in the province, the cougar will switch their focus to the snowshoe hares.

In Alberta, British Columbia, Oregon, and Utah, the main prey for the cougar is deer, but in Florida, their main diet is wild hogs. Cougars in all of these states make up the rest of their diet from elk, moose, rabbits, hares, and rodents.

Cougars will eat according to what is in their location, and surprisingly, this also affects the gender of their prey. Male mule deer are more likely to fall prey to cougars due to their liking of higher elevations. This means that they share much closer the natural habitat of cougars.

Unfortunately, pets such as dogs and cats do also fall foul to cougars, so if in cougar country, keep them on a short leash.

Cougars, along with many other species of cats, will graze on grass. The grass helps to keep out parasites from their stomachs. Grass also contains folic acid, a vitamin that is hard to find in their usual meaty diet.

Photo of cougar

If you have ever wondered if cougars attack people, I have written an article which you can read here.

How Often Do Cougars Eat?

Cougars do not need to eat every day. A deer will keep an adult cougar sustained for up to sixteen days in the winter, and up to three weeks in the summer.

A cougar with young to feed may need to kill a deer once a week to keep the kittens growing, but these number of kills by cougars on deer is very low compared to human hunting.

Cougars can eat up to thirty pounds of meat at a time. A whole deer can be consumed by a mother and their kittens.

Cougars will cache their food in winter, with deer being left under mounds of snow for later meals.

Females stay closer to their cache than males, with males going off for days at a time to find more food.

Cougars will not leave much of a deer except a few bones, the skull, and the hoofs.

How Do Cougars Kill Their Prey?

Cougars are immensely strong creatures and can snap the neck of most large animals, including moose and elk, very quickly. Cougars usually kill by using their enormous leg muscles to leap onto their preys back or side and either biting through the neck or by twisting their head and snapping the neck.

Cougars have large canine teeth, and these are used to tear vertebrae apart, severing the spinal cord.

The leap of a cougar can be up to thirty-two feet horizontally. However, if the prey is not caught after a few leaps, they will normally give up, and the prey will get away.

Depending on their habitat, cougars will either hunt in the early morning and evening or during the day or night. Most will stay out of sight during the day, preferring to strike at night.

Photo of cougar

When trying to take down a large animal, the cougar will stalk their prey, staying out of sight until it is time to pounce.

However, with small animals such as rabbits, hares, beavers, and rodents, cougars can kill them with one swipe of their large paws. Small animals are much easier to catch for cougars, and this is one of the reasons why they make up a large portion of their diet.

Larger prey such as deer are usually moved to a safer, sheltered spot to be eaten. Even though the animals they are dragging may weigh more than themselves, cougars have been seen to drag these up to a thousand feet away from the kill site.

The tongue of a cougar is rough and can be used to remove the fur off their meal. By using their tongue along with their teeth, cougars will strip the fur away.

Cougars are different from most animals as they will eat the innards first. The nutritional organs such as the heart, intestines, liver, and kidneys are eaten first.

Photo of cougar

Only once they have eaten these will they then eat the rest of the flesh. Prey that has been taken down by a cougar can be identified by the small hole they use to take the internal organs out.

The reason for cougars eating the most nutritious parts of the animal first is because this is where they get Vitamin A from. Without Vitamin A, they would develop skeletal problems.

Do Cougars Affect Other Animals Populations?

Cougars do not eat a huge amount of deer, with an average kill by a cougar of one deer every two to three weeks.

Cougars prey upon the easiest to catch, and this removes the weak, the old, and the sick from their habitat.

Due to this, deer populations are generally not affected by the predation of cougars. Deer who are more likely to mate and give birth are generally the healthiest of the species, and these are not preyed upon by cougars as much as the weak.

Cougars do help to keep other animal populations in check, however, and without predators, the damage caused by deer and other animals can be unhealthy to the ecosystem. In areas where there are few predators, deer can severely damage the area by overgrazing.

In areas where there are no meat-eaters, the damage done to the habitat by herbivores can be devastating.

Cougars also help to keep other animals and birds fed. Ravens can be seen flying around a kill by cougars, and weasels are often found in the area, waiting for the cougar to distance itself from their kill, before trying to get a part of the food.

However, cougars are fierce and can easily kill an animal trying to steal their kill. Other cats such as the lynx and the bobcat will come off worse in a fight with a cougar, as can much larger animals.

Photo of cougar

Black bears are larger than cougars, but in a fight over the kill, neither animal will escape unharmed. Wolves are also a dangerous animal to the cougar with a pack of wolves able to take down a cougar.

The cougar is a beautiful animal. They can leap and pounce from a great distance to reach their prey, which they can kill in one snap. They can take down animals that are much larger than them, but in doing so, they keep the natural order of their habitat.

Bryan Harding

Bryan has spent his whole life around animals. While loving all animals, Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Not only does Bryan share his knowledge and experience with our readers, but he also serves as owner, editor, and publisher of North American Mammals.

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