How fast can cheetahs run?

by / Jun 01, 2022



This post is edited from an episode of the Is That True? Podcast, where host Arionne fact-checks different kid facts and questions. Today’s episode answers the question, how fast can cheetahs run?, a topic submitted by Rudy. 

Arionne: The fact we’ll be investigating today is super cool. And, it’s all about speed!


Rudy: Hello, this is Rudy and I live in Michigan, and I’m 6 years old, and I’m here to tell you about cheetahs.  


Cheetahs can run 60 miles per hour. That’s as fast as a car. 


Arionne: As fast as a CAR? That is seriously fast, Rudy. And I have no idea if that’s true! So, we’ll have to investigate it.


But first, let’s talk about what a cheetah is. I know that it’s a kind of cat — a very LARGE cat that probably does run pretty fast. I just don’t know how fast.


Growing up, I absolutely loved seeing big cats like cheetahs at the zoo. I could stare at them all day! But I’ve only seen cheetahs from very far away. I actually am lucky enough to have gone on TWO real safari trips in South Africa, but I didn’t see any cheetahs. So I’m really excited to learn more about them.  


I’m also excited to see how we can be better friends to them. Cheetahs are one of the species that are vulnerable. That means that there are less cheetahs around today than there used to be. And that if we don’t work to save them, they could be endangered soon. When a type of species is endangered, it means that it is very likely that they will become extinct or just not exist. We definitely don’t want that to happen!


So to learn more about cheetahs, I wanted to talk to someone who takes care of them.


Janet: Hi, my name's Janet Rose-Hinostroza. [I provide] animal care management at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. 


Arionne: And like many of us, Janet has been interested in cheetahs for a REALLY long time.





Janet: I was just an animal lover from a really young age. And I was fortunate enough to grow up in Northern California, where there was a facility at the time called Green World Africa, USA. I would visit that facility and I would see people walk tigers on a leash through the park. And I went well, that's what I'll do because I love animals.


And there's a job walking tigers somewhere. So I say all the time, if I hadn't seen that, I might not have ever made that connection—that I could have this career path. And now I have it up to me and say the same thing, seeing me work with cheetahs and they say, oh, that's a real job. I might be able to do that someday.


Arionne: Janet is DEFINITELY the perfect person to help us investigate this fact. So I asked her: Is it true that cheetahs can run 60 miles per hour?


Janet: They sure can. That is a fact. So it's [a] physical ability that cheetahs have. 


Arionne: That is so amazing. Do we know why they can run that fast?


Janet: Yeah, it was a really good reason. There's this guy named Charles Darwin, [he’s a] naturalist. And he taught us that there's a lot of different tools out there, but animals can't compete for exactly the same resource in the same place. One would keep the other, so we all have to have a niche of a specialization that is ours.


And so the cheetah has speed when they are competing in Africa, in the savannas, in the areas where, you know, lions and leopards and hyenas and wild dogs. This is a competitive place for some extreme predators and cheetahs can't compete with that. Pod to pod toe to toe, so to speak, without having the special ability; which is their speed and nobody can touch the cheetah speed.


It is their unique adaptation and how they survive in such a competitive area. 


Arionne: Oh, great. And does that like, so that keeps them safe? Would it be safe to say that it keeps them safe or is it more important that it keeps them able to find food or catch food? Or is it maybe a little bit of both?


Janet: Definitely a little bit of both. I mean, you're hitting on something really important. Cheetahs want to stay safe and think about it. If you're going to get into a brawl, into a fight with anything, especially, you know, a 500 pound lion with his 15 hairy best friends that travel everywhere with them, that's not a good idea.


You know, you're going to get hurt. And if you get hurt in the wild, it doesn't mean you're going to survive. It probably means you aren't going to survive. So with cheetahs' ability to run so fast, they use it as a great defense mechanism as well. They avoid confrontation. They avoid getting in those fights. 


I mean, if you can outrun any bully—avoid the problem—and that is the tack that cheetahs will take. And it's a smart one. 


Arionne: So unlike what you might think, cheetahs really don’t like to fight. And, Janet says they’re really cool cats. Even their faces are pretty cool.


Janet: Oh, gosh, my favorite thing to talk about on the cheetah is that I want to help people to identify cheetahs from the other spotted cats.


I mean, there's a lot of spotted cats out there. And the easiest way to be able to differentiate the cheetah is to look at the face. Not only do they have these beautiful forward facing eyes, but they have Malar stripes. Tear mark, that runs from the corner of the eye to the corner of the lip.


And well only the cheetah has that Stripe out of all of the cats. And this is to help reduce sun glare. So in a way you can think that cheetahs are actually wearing sunglasses as a part of their adaptation to survive. 





Arionne: Right. Like if ever there was a way to say that it's a cool animal, like it's literally a cool animal.


They have their own sunglasses. 


Janet: That's right. They do. And there's a really, it's very touching and kind of sad, African proverb, an old African tale, to try to teach people in Africa to recognize the cheetah and realize that this is an animal that they can live in harmony with. It's not an aggressive predator.


It's not going to want to go after them and cause them or their families harm or threat, and that is: don't kill the cat that cries. So the story is that the first female cheetah that had cubs, she lost her cubs and she cried and cried and cried that her cubs were gone and it stained her face and all the cheetahs where the marks of the first cheetah mother that lost her cubs.


So, you know, again, there's a lot of emotional story behind it and it's a great adaptation that has happened. It's an easy way to recognize them as opposed to the other cats. 


Arionne: Wow. If we're able to either come to your zoo or any zoo near us that has cheetahs, what are some things that we should look out for? 


Like when we get to that part of the zoo? 


Janet: Well, you definitely want to take in the majesty of the cat. They're beautiful animals. If you're anywhere in the United States, you're going to be able to see that cheetah and all of its glory with its gold for, and its black pattern spots.


But realize if you were seeing that cheetah in Africa, it's perfectly camouflage to live in that area. That's gold and grasses that grow as tall as six feet and they wave in the wind patterns. Speckles of shadows. So realize that that cat, again, perfectly suited to live in its environment has this great camouflage stability and just taken the respect of this, you know, fastest animal in the land, which is also a very shy predator which has never caused harm to humans. 


And there are very few predators that I can say that about. And so, um, it's really unique to say that again, cheetahs are so much about avoiding the conflict and avoiding confrontation. Uh, we want to be respectful when we see them and we observe them to know that that cat's definitely more afraid of you than you are of it.


And we want to make sure that they feel respected and protected. 


Arionne: Ah, I love that, like the coolest cat around. So we need to respect it and be it's friend too. 


Janet: Absolutely. And cheetahs are looking for friends.


Arionne: I love it. Thank you so much for helping us investigate this back. We appreciate it.


Janet: It's our pleasure. I hope people do get out to the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and get a chance to see cheetahs; or like you said that their local zoos support conservation and make sure cheetahs have some heroes behind.