How can a cheetah run so fast?

Discover seven ways a cheetah is built for speed.

A cheetah can reach speeds of up to 87kph. © Mike Powles/Getty
1

Light on their feet

Like a mammalian racing car, the cheetah has stretched the standard feline bodyplan to the limit. Adult males weigh 41–45kg on average, and females just 36–37kg.

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2

Long tail

At 60–90cm, the muscular tail is half the head and body length. It acts like a counterbalance, aiding high speed manoeuvring.

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) chasing Thomson's gazelle (Gazella thomsonii)
Cheetah chasing Thomson’s gazelle. © James Warwick/Getty
3

Flexible spine

The exceptionally long vertebral column has amazing flexibility, and as it flexes and straightens this boosts stride length.

4

Big lungs

To deliver oxygen fast to hard-working muscles, the entire respiratory tract is enlarged. During sprints the cat takes 150 breaths a minute, up from 60 at rest.

5

Different killing mechanism

A high forehead and modified jaws give a vice-like grip to throttle prey. Short, sharp canines are designed for bolting down meat, not severing the spinal cord as in big cats.

A female cheetah showing her teeth
A female cheetah showing her teeth. © Lillian King/Getty
6

Feet and claws

Grip is enhanced by reduced toe-webbing, so the toes splay widely, and by the lack of claw sheaths, meaning they stick out like running spikes even if retracted.

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7

Long legs

Compared with other cats, all of the leg bones are stretched. The tibia and fibia are also fused to give more stability at speed, though this interferes with climbing.

As the world’s fastest land animal, cheetahs are a constant source of fascination. But unfortunately, the future doesn’t look too bright for these incredible predators. You can read more about their situation here:

Alarmingly low numbers spell trouble for the cheetah

Photo © Jonathan & Angela Scott/Getty

Sprinting cheetah in the Masai Mara, Kenya