Avoid Cougar Attacks: Seven Things to Do If You Encounter a Big Cat

cougar portrait

Plan­ning on hik­ing in the west­ern Unit­ed States or Cana­da? Arm your­self with some cru­cial knowl­edge first. Yeah, a cougar encounter does­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly lead to an attack, but it hap­pens. The like­li­hood is rare, but here’s what you need to know to avoid cougar attacks.

Rough­ly 30,000 cougars live in the west­ern Unit­ed States. These active hunters typ­i­cal­ly trav­el alone and can cov­er sig­nif­i­cant­ly large areas up to 370 square miles. It is said that if you spot a cougar while on the trail, there’s a good chance that the cougar want­ed you to spot it—and that it’s been hot on your trail for the past half hour. Gulp.

Don’t Freak Out, But…
Here’s what we do know: cougars very rarely attack peo­ple. In fact, cougars very rarely inter­act with peo­ple. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the “what we don’t know” is a lit­tle eerie: we haven’t quite fig­ured out why cougars attack, on the rare occa­sions that they do. We do know this: cougars are more like­ly to go after lon­ers than hik­ers in groups, and they’re more prone to attack kids under 16 than adults. Lessons learned: hike in a group, espe­cial­ly when you’ve got lit­tle ones in tow.

Stay Smart
Cougars are all-star stalk­ers, but you might be able to spot oth­er signs that they are in the area. Keep your eyes peeled for cougar tracks (four toes, and usu­al­ly no claw prints since their claws are retractable) and drop­pings, and scan trees for fresh claw marks. If you see some­thing that sig­nals that a cougar might be in the area, con­sid­er mak­ing a U‑turn before you encounter one face-to-face.

Prep Your Pets
Though cougars typ­i­cal­ly keep their dis­tance from humans, the same can­not be said of house­hold pets. Keep your pooch on a short leash at all times in cougar ter­ri­to­ry. If there’s been a report recent cougar sight­ing, best to leave your pup at home.

baby cougar in nature

Don’t Be Fooled By a Baby Cougar
Baby ani­mals are adorable, and cougars are no excep­tion. Odds are pret­ty slim that you’ll encounter a baby cougar in the flesh, but if you do, back away! Don’t be tempt­ed to sneak clos­er for a pho­to op—where there’s a baby, there’s a mama. If she thinks that you might be a threat, she won’t hes­i­tate to pro­tect her lit­tle one.

Stay Noisy
As with bear ter­ri­to­ry, it’s a good idea to be noisy to avoid star­tling a cougar. Talk among your group, car­ry a bell, and get extra loud when the wind is blow­ing strong or around loud water.

Be Big
By now, you’ve fig­ured out that avoid­ing the cougar alto­geth­er is the best strat­e­gy. If you do come across a cougar in the wild, stay calm. Make sure that the cougar isn’t backed into a cor­ner: give it a chance to escape. Ensure that kids are pro­tect­ed, and back up slow­ly, keep­ing your eye on the wild­cat. You want to make your­self look as large as possible.

Intim­i­da­tion Tactics
If the cougar scoots off, then get out of the area quick­ly. If it fol­lows you or acts aggres­sive­ly, don’t back down: be loud, bare your teeth, and main­tain eye con­tact. Keep mak­ing your­self as large as pos­si­ble, and start think­ing about what poten­tial weapons you might be able to use—a walk­ing stick is a good option. The goal: make sure the cougar sees you as a threat, not as prey. If the worst-case sce­nario comes to life and the cougar attacks, fight back and aim for the eyes and the face.