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Are There Wild Cats in Tennessee? What You Need to Know

Kristin Hitchcock

By Kristin Hitchcock

cougar lying

Bobcats are quite common throughout the state of Tennessee. These cats are relatively small at only 10 pounds, so they typically are not a danger to people but they can sometimes target small pets and livestock, such as chickens.

They usually inhabit second-growth timber areas and prefer lots of underbrush. They are very good at hiding, so most people never see them—but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t there.

While bobcats are the only common species in Tennessee, cougars have been potentially migrating into the area too.1 Most confirmed sightings are in West and Middle Tennessee. Once upon a time, cougars were native to the state. However, just like many other larger animals, they went extinct in the early 1900s and moved out of the area.

With that said, some cougars have been spotted in the area and cougars may increase in Tennessee over the next decade or so.

Bobcats in Tennessee

Wild Bobcat on the roof
Image Credit: LocoLocal, Pixabay

Bobcats are one of the most common cats in Tennessee. Like most cats, they are extremely stealthy. They have a well-developed sense of smell and often hunt at night. They are found throughout the state, but their stealthy nature means that you usually won’t see them.

They are well-known for their pointed, black ears, long legs, and stubby tail. They can look a bit like domestic cats, as they are around the same size. However, you can tell them apart due to their “lynx” ears and stubby tails. They also have black spots along their body, though they are not very prominent. These dots help them blend in and are one of the reasons they are so stealthy.

These cats typically prefer thicker underbrush and wooded areas. They usually stay away from people, so you probably won’t see them all that often. They make their dens in dry leaves and moss. Often, it is around a fallen tree or similar area.

Bobcats eat small mammals most of the time, such as squirrels and rats but they may occasionally catch smaller deer. They are known for hunting domestic cats as well. Kittens stay with their mother for a few months, though they usually wean at around 2 months old.

You can hunt and trap bobcats in the state. In fact, they are often abundant in certain areas.

Cougars in Tennessee

Cougar walking on stone pebbles
Image Credit: camselo, Pixabay

Cougars were originally native to Tennessee but were pushed out of the state in the early 1900s due to hunting and habitat loss. Other larger animals were pushed out as well, such as wild elk. However, there have been some sightings over the last few years. These may indicate that the large cat is moving back into the state.

These cats are extremely large at as much as 250 pounds. They are significantly larger than bobcats, so it is easy to tell them apart. They also have tails, while bobcats do not. Males are larger than females, though. Some females are much smaller at about 70 pounds.

Cougars are well-known for living outside of their suggested “range.” Therefore, it wouldn’t be odd for them to be outside their usual range. There have been some sightings in Tennessee but this does not mean that the population is becoming established in this area. Instead, it is more likely that their range is just being expanded and exploratory cougars are momentarily staying within the state.

Considering that Tennessee is far away from any currently established population, it is unlikely that the population will be established within Tennessee any time in the future.

You can view a complete list of confirmed sightings on the Tennessee government website. Many of these are likely the same animal that moves through the area and then settles somewhere else. Many sightings are in the same area and only a few days apart, making it likely that they are of the same animal.

Of course, there are probably lots of cougars that do not get seen as well. For it to be a “confirmed” sighting, a picture must be taken.

Cougars are extremely shy, so the odds of running into one are quite low—even if there is technically one in the area.

Are Cougars Dangerous?

female cougar
Image Credit: Geoffrey Kuchera, Shutterstock

Most people are not worried about bobcats. However, cougars are larger and can do some real damage. Therefore, it isn’t odd for those in Tennessee to be a bit worried about cougars moving into the area.

Cougars rarely come into contact with people. When they do, it usually involves the cougar running away. Often, the animal escapes before the person can even tell what it is. Cougars tend to be very shy and nocturnal and you probably aren’t going to see one in the daytime.

Cougars also have large home ranges—just because you spot a cougar in one area doesn’t mean that it lives there. They can roam very far. Even in areas with established populations, seeing a cougar is not common. In Tennessee without an established population, this is even less likely to occur.

There are no confirmed cougar kills in Tennessee since 1900, when such statistics were being kept. Many more people die from lightning strikes and bee stings every year, in fact.

If you do see a cougar, make yourself as big as possible and wave your arms. Throwing things and yelling are also recommended to scare the animal off. Usually, cougars will attack because they think you’re food not because they’re protecting their den. Therefore, you should be as threatening as possible so that the animal decides to leave the area.

Don’t turn around, but you can back away slowly towards a shelter. The animal may double back around after running off, so stay alert until you are in a safe location.

Pepper spray is a good option. Pick up any dogs and children that are near you. If the animal does attack, it is often best to play dead. Don’t fight back.

Report all sightings to the TWRA as soon as possible. Violent animals should especially be reported.

Are There Lynx in Tennessee?

Canada Lynx in the snow
Image Credit: Warren Metcalf, Shutterstock

No. There are no lynx in Tennessee. However, bobcats do look a bit like lynx, though they are much smaller. They have the same black tufts on their ears. Therefore, it isn’t odd for them to be mistaken as lynx.

There are some reports of lynx being released after being kept as pets. These animals are usually friendly with people, which makes the odds of them being seen very high. You can legally own lynx with a special permit. Other wild cats may also be released and spotted, though they are not native to Tennessee.

Are There Leopards in Tennessee?

No. Leopards are native to Africa. They do not live in Tennessee or anywhere else in North America. It is very unlikely that these animals will ever live in Tennessee. Therefore, any large cat that is spotted in Tennessee is likely a cougar—not a leopard.

Furthermore, leopards are likely not going to be illegally released into the area, either, since it is illegal to own one.

Conclusion

Bobcats are the only feline species that are established in Tennessee. They are quite common, though they are very secretive and rarely seen. Therefore, you probably won’t see a bobcat. If you do, they are not a threat to people, as they typically only weigh around 10 pounds. Their fur allows them to blend in easily to the landscape, so many people pass by them without even noticing them.

Cougars are occasionally spotted in the area, but they do not have an established population. Cougars tend to wander, though, so it isn’t odd for them to wander past their usual range and spend some time in Tennessee. However, these animals are also very secretive and not a threat to people. Even if they exist in Tennessee, you aren’t likely to see one.

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