Cougars, also called mountain lions or pumas (and many other names) are apex predators and extremely dangerous.
Fortunately, you’ll probably never encounter one even when hiking in places with high populations of them. They are elusive cats. But in case you do, here’s what to do if you see a cougar while hiking.
Are Cougar Attacks Common?
Cougars are highly capable killing machines. They can take down an adult bull moose, an animal several times heavier than them.
So a cougar attack on a human is highly likely to be fatal.
Luckily, cougar attacks are extremely rare for two reasons.
- One, cougars are elusive and spend their time hidden in thick bushes. Most hikers never encounter a cougar in their outdoor adventures.
- Two, cougars don’t consider humans prey. So even if they see someone walking by, there is no instinct to attack. Humans look and behave very differently from the usual prey like deer.
This Wikipedia page lists 27 fatal attacks (out of 127 total attacks) by cougars in North America in the last 100 years.
In most states where cougars and mountain lions are found, cougar attacks are almost unheard of.
Are Cougars Dangerous to Humans?
Cougars, as apex predators, are dangerous. They can easily take down and kill an adult human.
However, encounters with cougars are rarely serious. In most cases, you don’t even have to do anything to scare away the cougar. It’ll run away as soon as it sees you.
If the cougar is particularly brazen or curious, an intense stare down and a few other intimidation tactics are usually enough to scare away the animal.
There are, however, a few situations where a cougar encounter can be dangerous and deadly.
- If a cougar sees a child on their own, they are more likely to attack. Most fatal cougar attacks in the US involved children.
- Dogs can provoke a cougar attack. Be extra careful when hiking with your dog and keep it on leash in high risk areas.
- A cornered cougar will feel threatened and can attack. While scaring away the cougar, make sure you are not blocking all possible escape paths.
- A cougar protecting her cubs will quickly attack whatever she perceives as a threat. Never approach a cougar’s cubs or stand between them and the mother.
- According to this CNN report, it seems that starvation can also lead cougars to get more aggressive and likely to attack humans. An emaciated cougar attacked two bikers, killing one of them.
What To Do If You See a Cougar While Hiking
Unlike larger animals like bears or moose, cougars are lithe and stealthy. They don’t announce their presence.
You are more likely to suddenly stumble upon one when it’s already very close as you can see in the video below.
Most people will get scared and instinctively try to get away quickly from the cougar. That’s a big mistake and can lead to a fatal attack.
Running from a cougar is the worst thing you can do. It’ll chase you and easily catch you.
And don’t think that you can scramble up a tree or jump in a nearby river or lake to get away. Cougars can climb trees and they are excellent swimmers.
As you get over the shock of coming face to face with a cougar, stay as calm as possible and take the following actions.
- Stand your ground and face the cougar. You need to appear as a threat, not prey, to the cougar to get it to back off. Standing your ground and staring directly at the cougar will make it think twice about attacking.
- If you have a child with you, pick them up immediately. If you are hiking with a dog, hold it close with the leash. The last thing you want is a child or pet running towards or away from the cougar.
- Make yourself appear big by raising your arms and waving them around. Also spread your legs wide.
- Make a lot of noise by clapping your hands and yelling at the cougar.
- Maintain focus on the cougar until it leaves. Do not back away from it (as you would with a bear), turn your head, or turn your back even for a second.
- Hold your ground for a while longer even after the cougar leaves to make sure it’s gone. Cougars have been known to lay in wait for an opportunity to strike again. The moment you turn your back thinking the cougar is gone, it comes back for another try.
How To Survive a Cougar Attack
In almost all cases, the above tips will be effective at deterring the cougar and getting it to walk away.
But if the cougar is unusually aggressive, it may start to show signs of an attack. If the cougar is not walking away or seems ready to pounce, it’s time to escalate your defenses.
- Throw rocks and twigs at the cougar. Pick up rocks without breaking eye contact with the animal.
- Get even bigger and louder to make yourself appear more threatening. Throw stuff at the cougar to get it to back off.
- If the cougar attacks, do not turn and run. Instead lift your hands to protect your face and neck (cougars instinctively go for the neck) and fight. Punch, hit and kick the cougar on the eyes, nose and other sensitive areas. Putting up a fight can get the cougar to let go.
If you survive the attack, get to safety and seek medical treatment even if you only have scratches or minor bites.
Make sure to also report the incident to the local wildlife authority. They’ll investigare the encounter and decide if the cougar should be euthanized to protect other hikers.
How to Avoid A Cougar Attack
When hiking in mountain lion/cougar country like in Colorado and Texas, be extra careful to avoid a cougar attack.
One of the things you can do is hike with friends. A group of people makes a lot of noise which lets wild animals know you are coming. Most animals don’t like to be surprised.
If you are hiking alone, sing, talk or wear bells to announce your presence.
Cougars will generally stay away even if you have a pet with you. The problem arises if your dog chases after the cougar.
Many pet owners will automatically rush to save their dog, risking injury or death. Sometimes, the dog will run back and lead the cougar to you.
If your dog is not trained to stay on the trail, keep them on a leash.
If you are in an area with recent reports of cougar sightings or attacks, it’s probably better to leave your dog at home.
Should You Walk Away From a Cougar?
When you encounter many wild animals like bears, moose, and coyotes, the standard advice is to stay calm, intimidate the animal (unless it’s a moose) and walk backwards while maintaining eye contact.
That last part is a big no-no when dealing with a cougar.
A cougar doesn’t see you as prey, but certain movements can make it change its mind and start seeing you as a nice dinner.
Walking away, turning your back, or tripping and falling can trigger a cougar attack. And since they are so fast and can jump far, two seconds of turning your head or back are enough for the cougar to reach you.
Never walk away from a cougar until you are sure the cougar has walked away far enough.
Stand your ground, maintain eye contact and intimidate the cougar by being big and loud. Only leave when the cougar leaves.
Do Cougars Stalk Humans?
One of the concerns people have when outdoors is a cougar stalking them, waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike.
It’s true that cougars stalk their prey. But remember that cougars don’t see humans as prey, so it’s highly unlikely that a cougar will be stalking you while you hike.
Cougars would rather stay away from humans and will almost never approach someone.
That said, there are some situations where a cougar can stalk humans and attack them.
A hungry and starving cougar may be desperate enough to attack a human. Orphaned cougars have also been known to approach humans, possibly because they’ve not been taught what the right prey is.
Someone moving at speed, such as running or cycling, can also trigger a cougar attack. That’s because the movement makes the cougar think of them as prey.
Also remember never to leave a child on their own when outdoors. Most cougar attacks are on children and they are usually fatal.