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Why Do Cougars Attack Humans (And How To Deal With Them?)

Cougars are a large cat, and although not usually aggressive, have been involved in attacks on humans as well as causing death.

Cougars attack humans for several reasons. This could be due to lack of food, loss of territory, or seeing humans as prey. There are several other reasons which I have listed below.

For more information on why cougars attack people and the best way of dealing with an attack, please read on.

Photo of cougar

Cougars are also known as mountain lions, pumas, catamounts, and even ghost cats. They are powerful cats that can leap horizontally up to twenty feet and vertically up to sixteen feet.

Cougars are solitary animals and like to hunt without being noticed. A cougar preying on humans is rare but does happen from time to time. Teddy Roosevelt, in 1901 states that cougar attacks “are exceedingly rare.”

The cougar has been described as an unaggressive cat, but there have been several attacks over the years. These attacks generally happen in areas where large numbers of humans and cougars live nearby.

In the past one hundred years, there have been twenty-seven fatal attacks out of a total of one hundred and twenty-five attacks on humans. This is very low compared to twenty-five fatal black bear attacks during the last twenty years in North America.

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Most national parks and wilderness areas have many signs warning that there may be cougars in the area. These were not put in place due to the cat’s aggressiveness but is because of a young girl who was attacked in Caspers Wilderness Park in California.  

The five-year-old was attacked and paralyzed by a cougar. The family sued the authorities and was awarded two million dollars. The authorities were admonished for not adequately warning tourists of the potential dangers in the park.

Since the ruling, signs were placed seemingly anywhere, and everywhere, a cougar may have been sighted. There are several reasons why a cougar may attack a human.

Lack Of Food

The lack of food can lead to attacks on humans by cougars. If animals are not getting enough food, they will go to desperate lengths to keep themselves alive.  

In areas where there are many mountain lions, the competition for food is fierce. There are many more fights between males in Florida and New Mexico due to the lack of food.

If you have ever wondered how cougars get their food, I have written an article which you can find here.

Photo of cougar

Loss Of Territory

Male lions will compete with each other to keep their territory. A cougars territory can cover twenty-five to seven hundred and eighty-five square miles, depending on the amount of food and habitat.

Some of the smallest territories have been noted in California and Vancouver Island, a hotspot for cougar attacks.

The territories of a male cougar will not overlap with other males, and with more lions being pushed out of their territories, this brings them closer to humans.

Orphaned Cougars

Cougars who have not been raised by their parents lack the knowledge of what to hunt and what the correct prey is.  

Attacks on humans are usually by younger cougars. This has led scientists to believe that these animals have been orphaned at a young age. Without knowing that humans can be dangerous to them, these cougars are attacking what they believe to be normal prey.

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Running Or Cycling

Seeing someone pass at high speeds causes the chase instinct in many predators, and cougars are no different. When they see their main prey, deer, run, then they will instinctively chase them.

Photo of cougar

The Californian Department of Fish and Game says, “Do not run from a lion… running may stimulate a mountain lion’s instinct to chase. Instead, stand and face the animal.”

The same is true for humans that are running or even cycling past. Cougars do not like to be seen before they strike, and for someone running past, this can prove to be deadly.

Without knowing the cougar’s presence, running past a cougar can cause them to chase after and attack.  Although cougars will not normally attack humans, several runners have been attacked and killed.

Cycling instills a similar instinct in the cougar. Seeing prey riding past them will give them cause to run after and pounce. Cougars can leap incredible distances, and someone on a bike may not stand a chance.

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Of the twenty-seven fatal attacks on humans, over half have been on children under thirteen. This is believed to be due to its size for several reasons.

Cougars eat small animals such as rabbits, hares, porcupines, skunks, and children similar in size to their normal prey.  

Many children have been preyed upon when bending down or picking something up, making them even smaller in stature than the cougar.


Being a similar size to their normal prey of rabbits and hares, pets are regularly attacked and eaten by cougars. As unfortunate as this is, it can also be deadly for the owners of the pets.  

The usual and completely understandable behavior of seeing their pet being attacked by a cougar is to try and get it back by any means necessary.

I know I would do the same, and I think most pet owners would as well. However, this can lead to severe attacks and has even led to deaths in the past.  

Pets being attacked can lead to injuries not only for them but also for their owners, so if you are in cougar country or have cougars in your area, please make sure your pets are safe and kept on a short leash.

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Bending Down

This may seem strange, but cougars will sometimes stand their ground against a human. Without moving, the cougar will watch the person, but one movement causes more injuries to humans than others.  

Bending down gives the illusion to the cougar that you have just got smaller. For them, smaller prey is easier to take down, so they almost always attack once someone bends down.

It doesn’t matter if you are bending down to pick up a stick, a rock, or anything else. Doing this movement can be deadly, so avoid it if at all possible.

One person was attacked while fixing the chain on his bike. All the time he was standing and tending to the chain, he was fine, but as soon as he knelt to fix the chain, he was attacked.

What To Do If You Are Spotted By A Cougar?

As described above, there are two things that you should never do. Do not bend down and do not run. Although they do not have the lung capacity for long distances, a mountain lion can run up to 80 km/h over short distances.

It would be impossible to outrun a cougar, and with their long jumping ability, would reach you before you had a chance to get away.

Photo of cougar

However, an article in Scientific American disputes this. You can read the article here, but I will summarize it below.  

Although the California Department of Fish and Game says to not run from a lion as it may stimulate their instinct to chase, the new study is not sure.  

An expert on the evolution of predator-prey relationships at the University of California, Richard Coss studied the behavior of 185 who were attacked by cougars. These attacks were between 1890 and 2000 in the U.S. and Canada.  

His study indicated that half of the eighteen people who ran when attacked escaped injury. However, those who ran had a higher chance of being killed.  

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Twenty-eight people who moved away slowly from the cougar escaped without any injury. People who stayed still were the most at risk of being attacked. These people also had the most severe injuries.

It is thought that by not moving, the cougar would believe you are vulnerable. This study seems to indicate that moving away slowly from a mountain lion is probably best; however, do not ever turn your back.

Cougars attack their prey by targeting the spine, and turning your back may be a temptation for them.  

Do your best to make yourself as big as possible. If you have a walking stick, then use this to keep them away from you, even hitting them with it if you have to. Just remember to look out for them, and if possible, keep in groups.

Cougars are beautiful creatures. They do not interact with humans very often, and although attacks and deaths do happen, these are rare. Remember the tips I have given you here, and if you do spot one, let me know.

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