Mountain Lion Basics

Mountain lion sightings are always memorable. It’s a marvel of nature to see one in the wild, but it can also be a hazard, especially if the sighting takes place close to home! When that happens, our natural urge to ‘sound the alarm’ is uncontrollable, because nothing raises the hairs on the backs of our necks more than the idea of being stalked, attacked, killed and eaten by a large predator! It’s a primal fear, the reality of which we seldom confront in this modern day and age. Although attacks on humans are relatively rare, in some regions the frequency seems to be increasing.

For those of us who live on the edge of wild country, it’s a good idea to learn how to cope with meeting a mountain lion. In most cases the encounter is only a brief glimpse as it slinks away, it could be curious about us and pause to watch, but usually they just leave. Don’t approach them, in fact, it’s probably smart to just leave the area too.

Mountain Lion – Photo by Jim Bremner using a trail camera.

Lions prey mainly on deer, but javelina, elk, and bighorn sheep are also taken. Small animals, livestock, and even pets are sometimes eaten too. The big cats are incredibly stealthy hunters that stay low and move slow until within rushing range of the chosen victim, then they launch a lighting fast attack! Targeting the back of the neck, their huge canine teeth are designed to punch through vertebrae and sever the spinal cord. Alternatively, they will latch onto the throat, thereby suffocating their prey.

The chances are good that you’ll never see it coming. Lions make their living by sneaking up on unapproachable animals, so if one decides to stalk a person, it will very likely be successful in launching a surprise attack. That’s one reason why it’s advisable to be in the company of others when spending time outdoors; there is safety in numbers. Don’t walk alone, especially at night when predators are apt to roam. I always carry a spray canister of bear repellent, it’s a good multi-purpose deterrent.

If you do see a mountain lion stalking you, don’t run! Stand up, and make yourself appear as large as you can. Raise your arms over your head and wave them, if you have a walking stick, shake it violently! Keep your eyes on the animal, shout at it, and express yourself as a very dangerous adversary. If attacked, you must fight back and always remain on your feet! Punch, kick, aim for it’s eyes with your fingers…Never give up! Having a sidearm can certainly help in those dire straights, but it may be that a sharp and sturdy sheath knife is easier to employ in a clinch. All this talk of fending of an animal attack is a surreal mental image to us civilized modern man, isn’t it?

Mountain lions are usually solitary hunters, but a female can give birth to as many as six kittens, which may stay with her for as long as two years. Male lions only associate with females during estrus, which may occur at any time of year, and kittens are born in mid-summer. According to Harley G. Shaw, author of the Mountain Lion Field Guide, “Females with kittens have been found associating with other mature females with kittens, or with other single mature females.” So under certain conditions, theoretically, it’s possible to encounter multiple individuals.

Overlay of a dog next to a mountain lion. Click here to view the video about Mountain Lions.

I have only seen one mountain lion ‘at stone throwing distance’. Undoubtably, many have seen me. Man is normally not on the menu though, so I don’t worry much. But it’s interesting to note that a large percentage of attacks on humans are done by young adult lions who are either not very successful at hunting deer, or, there are no deer to hunt. Too many humans hunting deer may affect the way lions make their living.

Humans hunting lions is much more the norm than visa versa, and I believe that legal lion hunting is beneficial for instilling the fear of man, thereby creating a buffer of distance between us and them. But doing anything to excess can be harmful. The balance of nature requires predators such as mountain lions, they are important to the ecosystem, so lets remember that they deserve our respect but not our persecution. Leave them to their habitat, and us to ours; allowing that when they make trespass, sound the alarm!

Mountain lion track compared to a dog track.

25 thoughts on “Mountain Lion Basics”

  1. Thank you for this article, which I’m sharing to social media. We are in THEIR home, not vice versa; and the last thing they want is to encounter their worst enemy–man. Keep cats and other companion animals indoors only, as they are safest and healthiest inside, anyway. And remember the suggestions in this article on how to act if a mountain lion happens to cross your path. I’ve lived in L.A. Metro most of my life, and can see Griffith Park out my front door. Also lived for several years in the Mojave high desert in San Bernardino County. But never, outside of news footage, have I seen a mountain lion.

  2. Dinah Davidson

    I live in rural Cochise County, AZ, and I have a trail camera set behind my pump house and programmed to take images only at night. One night a few years back a cougar screamed from a rocky ledge above the pump house when my presence triggered a motion-detecting light. Since January, 2014, I have had a cougar picture about twice per month – most consistently early in the month on the rising moon. The little trail coming down canyon from a creek bed must be a regular route for one or more cats. Last summer, a cougar crossed in front of my house one evening just before dusk, and just after I’d been throwing a ball outside in the same area for my two 30-lb dogs. In January, 2015, I had two cougars, 4 minutes apart, and the second with its (his?) nose to the ground. However, the images were from behind so I couldn’t compare head sizes (male heads proportionately larger). During the previous day, and for two days afterwards, a (female?) cougar screamed pretty much continuously in the woods above my property. So I believe this cat was in estrous and a male was tracking her. My camera takes 3 pictures of each cat (occasionally just 2 if the animal is traveling rapidly), so I now have almost 60 cougar pictures. Five sets of them are from January 2015, a period when I was very nervous about my dogs’ safety. The dogs do seem to know that this is an especially dangerous animal. I have seen them be absolutely frantic when they sense the recent presence of a cougar (as documented subsequently on the camera). A neighbor’s smaller dog was taken in broad daylight by a cougar two years ago, and an habituated cougar jumped from a tree to take a cat at a neighborhood cafe. ‘My’ animal may be a different one, since it seems to exhibit fairly normal wild cougar behavior. I have seen cougars elsewhere on just two occasions away from my property and my car interrupted one that was stalking two fawns along the road. That cougar fled into the cliffs.

  3. We were trailriding in Paulden Arizona by the upper Verde River…Mountain Lion territory. I heard one growl the week before did not see it. Figured it was a warning to us. The next (last weekend) Oct. 15 2011 we had a bigger trail ride and there were 2, one was coming up behind the last couple of riders, and 2 others saw one lying under a tree. Could they have been stalking? And also someone told me that when they growl it is them calling to each other? Mind you the time on the first encounter was around 4:30 P.M. the other when they were sighted was around Noon. Is this unusual behavior or maybe curios, and juveniles learning how to hunt? I would enjoy an expert opinion on this, as we ride our horses out there all the time. Nevermind the Mojave Greens 🙂

  4. I have been seeing tracks in the rear of my property in Sylmar Ca. This evening in the same area saw the lion looking right at me and following me across on another ridge. Beautiful animal.

  5. nannette brewer

    hello, i live in temecula cal. just yesterday i went for a walk, i do live up high in the mountains. well it was about six in the evening. as i was walking to my friends house, they were not home . so i turned to go back , and here is this cat just sitting in the middle of the dirt road. so i was not sure what kind, we do have bob cats to . so i just reached down and picked up to huge rocks. as i took a step foward , it stood up and started to walk a way , well the colors we light brown with black spots . not real big. but had a long tail. and of course it was sitting right were i had to go. so i walked pretty much back words , up a half acre to home. would that have been a baby mountain lion?

  6. Theresa Cleland

    I was sitting on a pick nick table in down town Yutan Nebraska,right around 6PM in the summer a few years ago ,and walking down the railroad tracks is a medium large animal tan in color super long tail short ears and looked smooth like it had no hair.
    I thought ,(what a weird looking dog) and then to my horror ,I noticed it walked with the gait of a cat and did not move its legs like a dog does,moving sleekly,head held down a little and heading back to where all the wild house cats lived,it did not look around,seemed to be relying more on its sense of smell.Thankfully it did not look at me,I was scared to death to even move a eyelash ,did not move or make a sound and did not want to go home back across the railroad tracks ,until 45 minutes or so later it swankily strolled back out of town on the tracks in a straight line the same way it came in .What I need to know is was this A mountain Lion or not,it had what looked like no fur,no spots or stripes of any kind,and seemed sleekly slim?Does anyone know?
    I never want to see one in town again or be that scared again.If anyone can tell me please do,and thank You!

    T in Yutan

  7. Just went camping in Dixie National Forest about 15 miles past the town of Loa Utah. Went on a walk to explore up a fairly big incline across a meadow and down a little bit to check out a big pine tree. Saw some kind of brush curved over with a hollow. I called the kids over to me for us to look at it but as we got closer we saw slanted green eyes staring out! Freaked me out so badly! We walked quickly away and I am kicking myself for being a stupid city folk person wandering around where I obviously shouldn’t have and with kids! My brother in law (who wasn’t up there with us) said it was probably a bobcat but my first instinct when I saw it was mountain lion. I didn’t get a close up since it was in the dark hollow of the curved brush but I am wondering if you think that habitat is indictative of mountain lion. Definitely slanted eyes and the ears looked more rounded than sharp. It should be noted that the area had tons of deer at night that my relatives saw and we found a jaw bone and I think tibia of a large animal in the campsite close to the cabin and lots of deer scat.

  8. Yes, they are also called cougars, pumas, catamounts panthers, painters and a heap of other colloquial names.
    SImpler? You want me to rewrite it?

  9. Hi, I’m Deanna Vonazzi.
    Would you mind making it a little simpler? As I’m only 16. Mountain Lions, are they also called Cougars, and Puma`s ?
    Please get back to me,
    -Deanna V.

  10. Last week I was in the Uwharrie national Forrest (North Carolina) on a 3 day solo map and compass trip. After encountering unexpected 5 and 3 year cut lands (impenetrable, I had to crawl on my hands and knees to get out!) I made my way to the road and found a very friendly local. He told me my best bet was to hike the roads for the last leg of my trip. I wanted to spend one more night in the woods so I asked him if he knew of any clearings I could set up camp. He pointed me in the right direction and headed back into the woods. I found the small, sloping clearing just as the sun was going down. I then noticed a large pile of half digested blackberries nesting right at my new camp. Crap! Its too late to gather fire wood, I’m on a narrow path between two dense woods that bears apparently enjoy pooping in. I made the executive decision to hike the roads that night. I was only 4 miles away via straight line, however, it was an 8 mile hike on the roads. I bit the bullet and put down about 3 hours of left/righting. When the paved roads ended and the gravel began, I turned on my head lamp. There I was, hiking the old gravel road, listening to my headphones and out of the corner of my left eye, I saw a deep green glow. I tuned to look and received a very primal chill shooting up my spine as the widely spaced green eyes hovered 15 yards away from me. I didn’t skip a step, but a thousand thoughts raced through my mind. First was, could it be a dog? No, the eyes are so spread, and wouldn’t it be barking? A deer? No, its eyes were situated straight ahead, like a predator, and NC deer have white or yellow eyeshine. Based on the height and spread, I couldn’t imagine any animal less than 150 lbs wearing those eyes. All this ran through my head in a few milliseconds, and then I kicked into action. I kept the light shining at those eyes, kept walking and yelled “Hey! Get outta here! Get outta her! To my surprise the animal didn’t even blink. It just turned its head to follow me with its vision until I was out of sight. Needless to say, I skipped the 5 minute break I was about to take and checked my back every minute or so looking for those ominous eyes for the remaining mile of the hike. This encounter lasted only about 15 seconds, but I will never forget it. Only two large and potentially fearless mammals live in those woods, and bears don’t have eyeshine. I have a hunch that that cat hangs out in the private property on the west side of the road and watches for passing deer on the road and game trail intersection that lies nearby. I think he or she heard me approaching and moved within pouncing distance of the road. Once it realized I was human it decided to watch me pass. The color of the eyes was unforgettable, such a deep green that its glow seemed as bright as the moon. Very few animal will stand completely still while being yelled at, but cats have a confidence like no other animal I’ve ever encountered.

  11. august 17, 2010

    This evening at dusk, after working in the garden, I decided to sit on the deck for a few minutes under the emerging half moon. Looking straight ahead, in the distance of approximately one hundred feet where two small arroyos meet, I saw what seemed to be three mountain lion sized animals. I did not have my distance glasses but even in the minimal light the heads looked more cat like than coyote. The sighting was 8:10pm
    in the Maudes Canyon part of Arenas Valley, Grant county, New Mexico.
    The animals emerged from the bush, hesitated a few moments and then slowly
    moved together up hill to the west with quiet speed.

    I thought big cats were solitary hunters. But after reading your article about how the young cats may stay companions to their mother for two years and the possibility of their association with another solitary female, it got me wondering if my intuition might have been right about them being mountion lions rather than coyote. This immediate terrain is more desert than forest but we do have many deer sightings. Any thoughts on the probability of these being lions?

    Thanks so much for your site; it’s just what I needed this evening.

  12. This is for Jonathon Manley. I’m in Pittsylvania Co. and have seen one myself in broad daylight out on Mount Tabor Rd. It was late afternoon and I was driving home. Thick woods to my left and a large clear area of tall grass to my right. Suddenly i saw something running full speed across the grass, my first thought was deer because it was so big and fast. I stopped to keep from hitting it and it ran right (less than 10 feet) in front of me, crossed the road, then vanished into the trees. It was bigger than my full grown Lab, didnt have spots and the tail was very long. Not at all like the short black tipped tail of a bobcat. It was very impressive at a full run and you could see the tone of it’s muscles very clearly in the light. Very powerful looking.

  13. I’m sorry, but I cannot say for certain there are any panthers where you were fishing.
    I will say that no one should shoot their gun without absolutely positively identifying the target! That’s basic gun safety and sportsmanship training.

  14. I live in southern VA and recently had an experience that left me shaken and a little leery of cat fishing at my pond at night. while fishing around 10:00 pm I noticed dull green eyes just on the edge of the distance my head lamp will light. I turned to check my fishing line and when I looked back the eyes had closed the distance between us to about 30 yards. I shot in the direction of the eyes with a .380 cal. pistol (not trying to kill the animal but attempting to scare it) it retreated looked back once and then was gone. I had a fire burning at the time and was being as noisy as any other human would have been when doing an activity like fishing. I know we have coyote in this area, I have killed a few while turkey hunting. I also know that neither coyote or deer are likely to approach a human at any time especially in the presence of a camp fire. A couple of the old farmers in this area have told me there are mountain lions in this area(they call them panthers or lynx). Do you think there are mountain lions in this area (middle southern VA Pittsylvania co.) and would it approach a human in this circumstance? Thanks for any help.

  15. It could happen…But my intuition says that your culprit is more likely a pack of dogs. Where do you live? What kind of wounds did your animals sustain?

  16. could cougar’s attack animals in day light around 0700 to about noon on any given day? here’s what happen. myself and brother left in the morning and return around noon to find our pets dead incluing a goat. there were three dogs and the goat.all dead within it possible?

  17. Dexter K. Oliver

    This is a very good, down-to-earth article about mountain lions and possible human interaction. And thanks for the plug about my book. You also might like to try “Animal Crackers”, about nuisance wildlife control (including reptiles) in Tucson, AZ. It’s a humorous look at more ineraction between wildlife and people. It’s in the Duncan library, ask Barbara, the librarian.

  18. Hi Bill,
    According to a very interesting book I just finished by Dexter K. Oliver, “Tracks in the Sand”,
    Mountain Lion eye shine is green.
    BTW, the book is about his life as a wildlife expert working across the Southwestern US, and Mexico. He hails from my region and the book can be ordered from:

    Bandit Press
    Box 716
    Duncan, AZ. 85534

  19. How about mountain lion eyeshine? What color is it? Are they all one color, or does it vary from cat to cat or light to light?

    My Siamese, for example, has red eyeshine when illuminated by a house incandescent, but has green eyeshine when illuminated by my LED headlamp.

    The reason I ask this is that either I or my dog was stalked by something large with blue eyeshine (from and LED headlamp) recently. It was very stealthy, quiet and unafraid. My light was not bright enough to get a clear identification, but the eye spacing and distance above the ground seemed to rule out a coyote or coyote-sized dog. A night later, my wife smelled something strong and cat-like in the early nighttime, so we think there could be a mountain lion about.

  20. Thanks Lynn.
    A story in my local newspaper prompted this article as a follow up. Apparently 6 lions were spotted recently on an overhanging precipice within the town of Clifton, Arizona. I met with two of the witnesses yesterday and came away with the conclusion that it was probably a female lion with nearly grown kittens…But, it was dark and the other witnesses (lawmen) were counting eyeshines at 100 yards to the top of a cliff. There is at least one adult lion though, as it was spied in broad daylight by multiple witnesses, and I saw it’s tracks.

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