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Feline Tracks

Canine track identification tops the list of questions I get this time of year, but “is this a cat track?” is a close second.  Whether it’s the potential for Bobcats here on PEI or reports of Eastern Cougar on the mainland, wild cats have a mystique that makes many of us want a track to be feline. This, coupled with how feline some canine tracks look, has contributed to dog tracks sometimes being mistaken for cat even by experienced trackers.  

Photo 1: The key features I look for when identifying cat tracks. The colour of the text corresponds to the colour of the line or symbol drawn on the track.

There’s a common misconception that dog tracks show nails and cat tracks don’t. It IS more common for nails to register in canine tracks, but this is very much dependant on the substrate.  I’ve found canine tracks with no nails at all, and feline tracks where all the nails show clearly. Instead, I pay more attention the ‘negative space’ between the toes and the palm pad, the appearance of the toes, and the overall size and shape of the track. I’ll want to see all the traits shown in Photo 1 before concluding it’s cat. 

Photo 2: Although cat and fox tracks are sometimes confused for each other, a side-by-side comparison shows the differences.

In felines, the negative space forms a ‘C’ and you can’t draw an ‘X’ though the track without hitting one of the toe pads. In some cases, this is obvious but in others I’ll take a photo and draw it out to be sure.  Feline tracks are also asymmetrical: one toe leads, like the middle finger of a human hand. Just like our hands, this tells you which foot is which; Photo 1 is a front left foot. 

Domestic Cat tracks are often in the range of 4 to 4.5 centimetres (1.5 to 1.75 inches). The smallest Bobcat tracks fall within the range of the largest housecat tracks but are more commonly around 5 to 6.5 centimetres (2 to 2.5 inches). In either case, it’s useful to remember that tracks that are melted out or made in soft snow or mud can look larger than the paws that made them. Red Fox and Domestic Cat tracks can be about the same size, and I see people mistake them for each other. Placing them side-by-side at roughly the same scale shows the differences (Photo 2). 

Photo 3: A very cat-like dog track.

That may sound straightforward, but there are some very cat-like dog tracks out there (Photo 3).  At first glace you might think that’s a cat track, but when you look at all the traits you can see it was made by a dog. 

Photo 4: One of these tracks was made by my dog and the other by a Bobcat. Test your ID skill and then see how you did (answer below).

 Now that I’ve given you the basic tools for cat versus dog identification, I’ll give you a test with two tracks that are almost exactly the same size (Photo 4).  One was made by my Golden Retriever when he was a puppy, the other by a Bobcat. Use your newly-acquired skills to see if you can tell which is which. The answer is in Photo 5, below.


Learning to identify tracks made by our neighbours of other species is a great way to enjoy PEI untamed!

Photo 5: Mystery solved! Did you get it right?

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