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Are There Wild Cats in Arizona? Types You May Encounter

Chantelle Fowler

By Chantelle Fowler

Bobcat hunting in Arizona

Arizona is a large state famous for its diversity. It’s known for its beautiful desert landscape and hot climate, but the entire state isn’t desert. Northern Arizona is covered in forests, mountain ranges, and canyons. Many different species of animals call Arizona home, including several different types of wild cats.

Let’s take a closer look at what wild cats live in The Grand Canyon State and how to keep you and your pets safe from them.

What 5 Types of Wildcats Live in Arizona?

Four species of wild cats reside in Arizona. The bobcat and puma can be found throughout the entire state. Jaguars are found in the southern part of Arizona, while ocelots can most often be seen throughout the southeast.

Though there are several jaguarundi sightings every year in Arizona, their presence in the state has never been officially confirmed.

1. Bobcats

bobcat in the forest
Image Credit: milesz, Pixabay

Bobcats are spread throughout Arizona as they can flourish in many different habitats. You might see them in the scrubs of the desert, shrubland, or even in the forest. These wild cats grow to be around two or three times the size of a domesticated house cat or a medium-sized dog.

They’re easy to identify thanks to their large and tufted ears, their stubby (bobbed) tail, and sandy brown and subtly spotted coat. Bobcats will sometimes have black tips on their tails and black stripes on their legs.

Bobcats are very good hunters and, like their domesticated counterparts, great jumpers. They can jump as high as 12 feet, making fences a non-issue. Their lightning-fast reflexes make catching prey like small deer, squirrels, and birds an easy feat. Bobcats have been clocked at speeds up to 30 miles per hour while they’re hunting their prey.

It’s becoming more common to see bobcats in suburban city limits as cities grow and expand into areas that were once areas the bobcat could roam freely. The danger level is very low, but bobcats will attack small pets and livestock if given the chance.

2. Pumas

puma resting
Image Credit: PublicDomainPictures, Pixabay

Pumas go by many different names. You may know them as cougars, mountain lions, or panthers, but they’re all the same animal. The puma is the second biggest cat in North America (after jaguars), and Arizona’s Mountain Lion Foundation estimates that the state has around 2,000–2,700 pumas throughout it.

Pumas are massive and powerful but beautiful at the same time. They are quite shy and elusive and will often leave things in their wake to alert us of their presence. You might see tracks, scat, or even the remains of their kills. Most folks won’t see pumas in the wild, but that’s not because they’re not there; it’s because they’re very good at camouflaging themselves. If you do wind up seeing one in the wild, chances are it’s already spotted you well before you were able to see it.

Pumas are designed to kill prey bigger than themselves. They can achieve this feat because their powerful hindquarters and long hind legs enable them to jump exceptionally well and thrust forward with big bursts of speed.

Pumas are widely distributed throughout the state. Don’t think that just because you live in the city limits, you won’t ever see one, though. They have been seen in the city limits of both Phoenix and Tucson in the past.

3. Jaguars

black jaguar
Image Credit: GoWildPhotography, Shutterstock

Jaguars are much rarer to see than bobcats or pumas. While they’re often associated with areas like the forests and wetlands of South and Central Americas, jaguars are also native to the American Southwest.

There once was a healthy population of jaguars living in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, but human encroachment and hunting have dwindled the population down to just several solitary jaguars. It is thought that there are currently no breeding jaguars left in the state.

The U.S. Fish and Wild Service released a Jaguar Recovery Plan in 2019 that calls for focusing efforts on sustaining potential habitats. It’s thought that any of the jaguars that have been seen in Arizona originally came from Mexico where around 4,000 of them are currently living. The conservation efforts of the Jaguar Recovery Plan are concentrated on creating a protected corridor the jaguars can use to migrate to Arizona so they can breed there. The plan identified a narrow strip in Arizona and New Mexico borderlands that could potentially support several jaguars.

4. Ocelots

Ocelot lying on the grass
Image Credit: joelfotos, Pixabay

Similar to the jaguar in many ways, Ocelots are also primarily found in Central and South America.

Ocelots are roughly the same size as a bobcat but have many of the same physical markings as a jaguar. They have long tails with black stripes, spots throughout their bodies, and stripes on their faces and necks. Like other wild cats, ocelots are exceptional hunters and great at climbing trees and swimming.

Ocelot sightings are sometimes recorded in the southeastern part of the state. While the population of these wild cats was once high in the Sonora desert, their numbers dwindled quickly because of hunters and cities beginning to encroach upon their territory. They were actually designated an endangered species in the early 80s.

Ocelots as kittens and adults are very cute, which makes them popular as “tamed” household pets. Most states have laws regarding keeping exotic animals as pets, and Arizona is one of the states that prohibit the keeping of ocelots as pets.

5. Jaguarundis

Jaguarundi on the tree
Image Credit: Janusz Pienkowski, Shutterstock

Jaguarundis are wild cats that are native to the Americas. There are several jaguarundi sightings throughout Arizona every year, but there have never been skulls or hides found or even a photograph of one in the wild to prove their existence in the state.

Jaguarundis are medium-sized wild cats with a uniform coloration that sets them apart from other neotropical cats which usually have spots or stripes.

While not confirmed, it is possible that this wild cat is extirpated in the United States. The last confirmed jaguarundi in America was found as roadkill in Texas in 1986.

What to Do if You See a Wild Cat in Arizona

While it’s rare for wild cats to kill humans, it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility. For example, over the last 100 years, there have been only 27 fatal puma attacks.

If you do happen across a big cat in the wild, there are some things you should know to keep yourself safe.

Back away very slowly. Get as much distance between you and the animal as you can. Resist the urge to run as it could trigger the animal’s natural hunting instinct. If you’re with your child, pick them up as soon as you see the wild cat.

Try to ensure you’ve not accidentally backed the cat into a corner. They need a way to escape so they don’t feel that attacking you is their only way to get out.

If the animal doesn’t back down and instead starts to act aggressively towards you, be loud and bare your teeth. Make yourself as large as possible. Don’t break eye contact. You want the wild cat to see you as a threat and not prey.

How to Keep Your Pets Safe from Wild Cats

Your pet can easily be injured by a wild animal. Your dog or cat might see a wild cat and immediately become interested in hunting or playing with it.

If you’re going hiking with your pet, keep it on a leash at all times. Do not let your pet get close to a wild animal. If you know that wild cats have been seen in the area you’re going hiking, proceed with caution. Wild animals tend to be more active around dawn and dusk so you might consider rescheduling your hike to avoid these times. If you see a wild cat while hiking, pick up your dog and back away slowly.

Some of Arizona’s wildcats may roam into your backyard. Keep your yard as unattractive towards these animals as possible. Pick up any left-over food, and don’t leave your pet’s bowls outside as they can attract animals. If you know that wild cats have been seen in your neighborhood, supervise your pet while they’re outside at all times.

a man hiking with his cat
Image Credit: Creative Cat Studio, Shutterstock

Final Thoughts

Wild cats, like any other animal, need sufficient space and prey in a suitable habitat to live, breed, and thrive. Some areas of Arizona provide the perfect area for wild cats to call home. Seeing a wild cat in its natural habitat is a rare occurrence so count yourself lucky if you happen to spot one from a distance.

Remember, the wild cats were here before we were, so we must respect their space and enjoy them from a safe distance.

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Featured Image Credit: G. Parekh, Shutterstock

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