Mountain lions, also called cougars, are the largest and most impressive wild felines living in North America. These reclusive big cats are sometimes seen in the western part of the nation, commonly inhabiting forests and rocky, mountainous areas though occasionally they dwell on the plains.
One many large and charismatic species of wildlife, they are impressive specimens, no doubt about it. But are mountain lions dangerous?
Yes, mountain lions are dangerous, powerful predators, though attacks on humans are extremely rare, and fatalities rarer still.
If you are lucky, you will only spot a mountain lion observing you from a distance, if you see it at all.
However, just because attacks are rare that does not mean you can afford to let your guard down when you are in their territory.
Learn more about these magnificent big cats in the rest of this article…
Understanding Mountain Lion Behavior
Mountain lions look just like what they are: big, tan cats. Large males can weigh upwards of 200 pounds and measure more than 8 ft long from nose to end of tail.
These felines are notably the largest and most capable of the wild cats in North America.
Mountain lions are also known for their solitary behavior. Reclusive, and rarely seen, mountain lions travel alone as a rule unless it is a female with young cubs.
Males are exclusively solitary. In general, these cats are most often active at night, at dawn and dusk, though sometimes they can be seen moving around actively during the day in pursuit of prey.
Speaking of prey, your typical mountain lion will only need to eat one or two sizable meals a week.
They typically prey upon deer and other ungulates, but will eat rodents and other animals when given the opportunity.
Notably, mountain lions are highly territorial, and though they will generally allow others of their kind to cross, but not linger, in their territories it is not unheard of for a mountain lion to challenge a human being.
You’ll know you are in mountain lion country, and particularly the territory of an individual cat, if you find trees with shredded bark and claw marks near the ground, along with mounds that have an intense odor of urine.
The most important facet of mountain lion behavior is that they are highly adept ambush hunters.
Though they can chase down prey using their incredible speed and agility, they are far more likely to stalk within pouncing distance before striking when their quarry has their back turned.
Are Mountain Lions Aggressive Toward Humans?
As a rule, no, but attacks have happened in the past and dangerous encounters occur every year.
In just the past decade, individuals and families have been stalked by mountain lions during the day and at night.
Most worryingly, this seems to occur whether or not people go alone or in groups. In the past, traveling with at least one other person was thought to seriously reduce the likelihood that a mountain lion would become aggressive.
Past experience has also shown that younger, sub adult mountain lions are far more likely to attack humans, particularly children, and also pets.
Older, injured or sick mountain lions may likewise be forced to attempt to prey on human beings since their usual quarry, deer, are extremely difficult to ambush or catch thanks to their better senses.
Have Mountain Lions Ever Attacked Humans?
Yes. There are several well-documented and analyzed attacks on humans throughout the 19th, 20th and 21st century.
Between 1890 and 2004 there have been more than 85 confirmed attacks, with only about 20 recorded deaths.
Note that some attacks had multiple victims. Attacks are more common in densely populous states like California.
How Do Mountain Lions Attack?
As a general rule, you probably will not detect a mountain lion attack coming until it is too late.
Many victims report a sense of unease prior to the attack, likely some latent detection of the presence of a predator.
Mountain lions rely upon their stealth, speed and agility to execute a deadly first-strike ambush, closing to within 30 or 40 ft of their prey prior to pouncing and attempting to immediately dispatch the target with a powerful bite to the back of the neck.
In the case of a mountain lion protecting its territory, or a female attempting to protect her cubs, they may approach directly, growl, hiss and display their teeth.
In all cases, unusual behavior, particularly brazen daylight movement or obvious stalking or following of human beings should be considered preludes to an imminent attack.
What Causes Mountain Lion Aggression?
Mountain lions are not typically aggressive toward people, but when they are the behavior usually stems from one or two causes.
By far, the most common is a female acting in defense of her young.
Unfortunately, the young may be stashed in an out of the way place and the mother could attempt to intercept any potential threat well before it draws close enough to harm her babies.
The second instance is in a case of genuine predatory behavior: attacking a human for food.
Mountain lions, particularly sub-adult or very old mountain lions as mentioned above, are likely to attack humans because they consider them easy prey. Children are disproportionately targeted and most likely to die from a mountain lion attack.
Similarly, a mountain lion might attack a human being if they feel cornered or are surprised at close range.
Do Mountain Lions Eat People?
A mountain lion that successfully dispatches a human being is likely to eat them. Mountain lions typically carry away, or drag away, prey far from the site of the kill, and may feed on it over the course of several days.
Are Mountain Lions Territorial?
Yes, very. As a rule, males will not linger in the territory of another male, though the territory of a female mountain lion might overlap slightly with any given male.
These cats will generally allow another to pass through their territory unchallenged, though any loiterer is likely to be attacked.
When it comes to human beings, it is uncertain to what degree a mountain lion feels territorial.
When observed, mountain lions seem content to watch from a distance but it is unknown to what degree they shadow people moving through their territory, or how long they will give people to move on.
In any case, you should make it a point to avoid camping in areas with known mountain lion activity, or dense populations of them.
How Strong is a Mountain Lion?
Mountain lions are quite strong, and this contributes to their impressive leaping and climbing abilities along with their tremendous speed on the ground.
These big cats are capable of clearing more than 40 ft horizontally, and jumping straight up more than 18 ft in pursuit of prey or to affect escape.
In combat, these big cats are clean killers, easily capable of dispatching a large animal with a surgical bite to the back of the neck that breaks the vertebrae and severs or damages the spinal cord. They also use their powerful fore and hind legs to claw and shred the target.
What Should You Do if You See a Mountain Lion?
If you see a mountain lion at a distance, keep it at a distance. At closer distances, if you even suspect the animal is stalking you or it is closing in, maintain eye contact.
Do not take your eyes off of it, because these cats are shockingly quiet and stealthy. If you lose it, the next time you see it might be when it is leaping at you!
What Should You Do if Attacked by a Mountain Lion?
It is possible to ward off a mountain lion attack by maintaining eye contact, making yourself appear large, shouting and staying mobile, preferably backing up.
Mountain lions as a rule want easy prey, and staying quiet while standing still is a good way to invite an attack.
If you have any children with you, pick them up without bending down, as stooping is often a trigger for a direct attack.
If the mountain lion charges, fight back with everything you can, including weapons. Even beating on the cat with your fists is usually enough to drive one away.
Make it a point to protect your neck as this is the priority target for the cat, and they are very good at dispatching mammals by attacking this vulnerable point.
Do Mountain Lions Carry Diseases People Can Catch?
Mountain lions are known to carry a variety of ticks and fleas as well as trichinosis, a disease caused by a specific variety of parasitic worm.
Mountain lions are not thought to be a vector of disease to humans except in cases of very close and prolonged contact, though you might have calls to worry in the aftermath of an attack or if you kill a mountain lion and are handling its pelt or meat.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.