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Feline tracks

Updated: Feb 1

Of all the animal tracks I find on PEI, cat tracks are the only ones where I’ll want to have *all* features present before confirming identification. Whether it’s the potential for Bobcats (Lynx rufus) here on the Island or reports of Eastern Cougar (Felis concolor) 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 many dog tracks being mistaken for cat even by experienced trackers. For today’s post, one of my house cats – eight-pound Ella Newman – contributed her track (Photo 1).

Photo 1: A track from my eight-pound house cat (Ella Newman), with the features I look for to confirm feline versus canine.

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 nails show clearly. Instead, I pay more attention to overall size and shape, the appearance of the toes, and the space between the toes and the palm pad (called the ‘negative space’).

Cat tracks are round rather than oval. Domestic Cat (Felis catus) 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 typically around 5 to 6.5 centimetres (2 to 2.5 inches). In either case, it’s useful to remember that tracks that have melted out in snow or were made in soft mud can look larger.

I’ll also want to see that the negative space forms a ‘C’, and that I can’t draw an ‘X’ though it without hitting one of the toe pads. In some cases, this is obvious but in others I’ll take a photo and try to draw it out to be sure. The final trait I want to see is asymmetry: one toe is leading, like the middle finger of a human hand. Just like our hands, this tells you which side is which; Photo 1 is Ella’s front left foot.

That probably sounds straightforward, but there are some very cat-like dog tracks out there as shown in Photo 2. At first glace you might think that’s a cat track, but when you look at all the traits you can see it is actually a dog track.

Photo 2: A cat-like dog track. One might mistake this for canine at first glace, but applying the key features as described in Photo 1 shows it is a dog track.

Now that I’ve given you the tools for cat versus dog identification, I’ll give you a test with two tracks that are almost exactly the same size (Photo 3). One is a domestic dog and one is a Bobcat. In the comments, tell me which you think is which and why. I’ll post the answer later.

Photo 3: A test! Tell me in the comments which you think is which (and why), and I’ll post the answer later.'s the answer!

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