How Fast Can a Cheetah Run?

The science of cheetah speed

A cheetah leaves the ground between leaps when running.
A cheetah leaves the ground between leaps when running. Martin Harvey / Getty Images

The cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is the fastest land animal on Earth, capable of reaching speeds as high as 75 mph or 120 km/h. Cheetahs are predators that sneak up on their prey and sprint a short distance to chase and attack.

While a cheetah's top speed ranges from 65 to 75 mph (104 to 120 km/h), its average speed is only 40 mph (64 km/hr), punctuated by short bursts at its top speed. In addition to speed, a cheetah attains high acceleration. It can reach a speed of 47 mph (75 km/hr) in two seconds, or go from zero to 60 mph in 3 seconds and three strides. A cheetah accelerates as fast as one of the world's most powerful sports cars.

Key Takeaways: How Fast Can a Cheetah Run?

  • The top speed of a cheetah is around 69 to 75 mph. However, the cat can only sprint a short distance of around 0.28 miles. A cheetah is about 2.7 times faster than the fastest human runner.
  • A cheetah accelerates very quickly, allowing it to overtake prey at close range.
  • The fastest cheetah on record is Sarah. Sarah lives at the Cinncinati Zoo in Ohio. She ran the 100 meter dash in 5.95 seconds with a top speed of 61 mph.

Fastest Cheetah on Earth

Scientists calculate a cheetah's top speed is 75 mph, but the fastest recorded speed is somewhat slower. The world record for "fastest land animal" is held by a female cheetah named Sarah, living at the Cincinnati Zoo in Ohio. When Sarah was 11 years old, she ran the 100 meter dash in 5.95 seconds, with a top speed of 61 mph. In contrast, the fastest person, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, ran 100 meters in 9.58 seconds.

A cheetah uses its tail to help change direction while giving chase.
A cheetah uses its tail to help change direction while giving chase. Every picture tells a story / Getty Images

How Do Cheetahs Run So Fast?

The cheetah's body is made for speed. The average cat only weighs 125 lbs. It has a small head, flattened rib cage and lean legs to minimize air resistance. The hard foot pads and blunt, semi-retractable claws perform as cleats to help the feet maintain traction. The long tail acts as a rudder to steer and stabilize the cat. A cheetah has an unusually flexible spine. Coupled with flexible hips and free-moving shoulder blades, the animal's skeleton is a sort of spring, storing and releasing energy. When the cheetah bounds forward, it spends over half its time with all four paws off the ground. The cat's stride length is an incredible 25 feet or 7.6 meters.

Running so quickly demands a lot of oxygen. A cheetah has large nasal passages and enlarged lungs and heart to help intake air and oxygenate blood. When a cheetah runs, its respiratory rate increases from a rest rate of 60 to 150 breaths per minute.

A cheetah has an aerodynamic, lean physique.
A cheetah has an aerodynamic, lean physique. seng chye teo / Getty Images

The Cost of Running Quickly

There are drawbacks to being so fast. Sprinting dramatically increases body temperature and exhausts the body's oxygen and glucose reserves, so a cheetah needs to rest after a chase. Cheetahs rest before they eat, so the cat faces an increased risk of losing a meal to competition.

Because the cat's body is adapted to speed, it's lean and lightweight. A cheetah has weaker jaws and smaller teeth than most predators and it isn't strong enough to put up a fight. Basically, if a predator threatens to take a cheetah's kill or attack its young, a cheetah has to run.

10 Fastest Animals

The cheetah is the fastest land animal, but it's not the quickest animal on Earth. Birds of prey dive more quickly than a cheetah can run. The top 10 fastest animals are:

  1. Peregrine falcon (242 mph)
  2. Golden eagle (200 mph)
  3. Spine-tailed swift (106 mph)
  4. Frigate bird (95 mph)
  5. Spur-winged goose (88 mph)
  6. Cheetah (75 mph)
  7. Sailfish (68 mph)
  8. Pronghorn antelope (55 mph)
  9. Marlin fish (50 mph)
  10. Blue wildebeest (50 mph)

The pronghorn, an American animal resembling an antelope, is the fastest land animal in the Western Hemisphere. It runs very quickly, yet has no natural predators that approach its speed. One theory is that the pronghorn was once prey to the now-extinct American cheetah!

Sources

  • Carwardine, Mark (2008). Animal Records. New York: Sterling. p. 11. ISBN 9781402756238.
  • Hetem, R. S.; Mitchell, D.; Witt, B. A. de; Fick, L. G.; Meyer, L. C. R.; Maloney, S. K.; Fuller, A. (2013). "Cheetah do not abandon hunts because they overheat". Biology Letters. 9 (5): 20130472. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2013.0472
  • Hildebrand, M. (1961). "Further studies on locomotion of the cheetah". Journal of Mammalogy. 42 (1): 84–96. doi:10.2307/1377246
  • Hudson, P.E.; Corr, S.A.; Payne-Davis, R.C.; Clancy, S.N.; Lane, E.; Wilson, A.M. (2011). "Functional anatomy of the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) hindlimb". Journal of Anatomy. 218 (4): 363–374. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7580.2010.01310.x
  • Wilson, J.W.; Mills, M.G.L.; Wilson, R.P.; Peters, G.; Mills, M.E.J.; Speakman, J.R.; Durant, S.M.; Bennett, N.C.; Marks, N.J.; Scantlebury, M. (2013). "Cheetahs, Acinonyx jubatus, balance turn capacity with pace when chasing prey". Biology Letters. 9 (5): 20130620. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2013.0620