Mountain lions are carnivores. They generally hunt larger mammals like deer, elk, and even moose, but do also catch smaller prey like squirrels. They are opportunistic predators and eat what’s available to them.
Mountain lions are part of the Felinae subfamily: an order of predatory felines.
While they prefer catching larger mammals, primarily deer, they also catch smaller prey. But what do they hunt exactly? And how?
In this article, we’ll discuss what mountain lions eat, how they catch their prey, and more.
What Do Mountain Lions Eat?
Mountain lions eat meat from any animals they can catch. If they killed an animal they will eat it, even if it’s not their preferred prey. Mountain lions catch a variety of animals, from small rodents like squirrels to big ungulates like elk and moose.
Thanks to their enormous range across North and South America, mountain lions eat a variety of species. From small mammals like rodents to large ones like moose and elk.
Mountain lions don’t exclusively hunt wild animals. If they have the chance, they will kill and eat livestock and even pets, including the following:
- Pets (including cats, dogs, birds, and others)
Their prey also depends on the size of the cat.
Depending on their size we can divide the prey of mountain lions into the following categories:
- Small animals
- Medium-sized animals
- Large animals
1. Small Animals
Mountain lions are large animals, but if they need to, they will hunt for small animals:
- Rodents (like rats, mice, and squirrels)
- Lizards (including baby alligators)
- Small mammals
Mountain lions have large and strong back legs that allow them to leap high up into the air. They are known to regularly jump up to 18 feet into trees. They use this power to catch low-flying birds.
Small animals are generally not a staple of the mountain lion’s diet but they are more than capable of catching them and do so regularly.
2. Medium-sized Animals
Medium-sized animals are a staple in mountain lions’ diets. Across their range, they often consume rabbits and hares, and they hunt for larger rodents such as capybaras.
Medium-sized animals are not a threat to mountain lions, even smaller ones or juveniles. They safely hunt them from northwestern Canada to southern Chile and Argentina.
Mountain lions hunt many different species, including beavers, sloths, and even smaller predators such as coyotes.
In areas abundant with medium-sized prey, they will hunt for it even if larger animals are available. This is the case in some areas of Chile, where mountain lions’ main source of food is the introduced, European hare.
Their hunting preference depends largely on the abundance of prey. They will hunt the abundant hare more, even if the larger Guanaco was also widely available.
This suggests they catch the smaller animal because it’s more available and easiest to hunt.
3. Large Animals
Mountain lions prefer large prey, especially ungulates (animals with hooves).
This includes deer, elk, caribou, and even moose in North America. In South America, they hunt the local deer species and guanacos and vicuña, which are related to llamas and alpacas.
Large ungulates are (according to most sources) the mountain lion’s preferred prey. Adult lions easily take down a deer and they don’t eat it all at once. They hide the carcass and come back to eat later.
When hunting for bigger species than deer, like elk and moose mountain lions usually target younger individuals or juveniles. They are smaller and easier to catch.
Mountain lions sometimes fight with other similarly sized predators. They don’t hunt them but if they happen to fight and kill another predator they will eat them. Mountain lions and bears rarely fight, but they do hunt bear cubs on occasion.
Conflicts between mountain lions and wolves also happen. If a wolf is alone, the mountain lion has a good chance to win.
Mountain lions opportunistically target livestock animals. They easily kill sheep, goats, and pigs. They are strong animals and can even hurt or kill larger livestock, like cows or horses.
Are Mountain Lions Carnivores?
Yes, mountain lions are carnivores. They are hypercarnivores, meaning they need more than 70% meat in their diets to be healthy. They do occasionally eat grasses, and they consume some plant material from the stomachs of their prey.
Mountain lions are obligate hypercarnivores. They need meat to survive. They get most of their necessary meat from prey and some from scavenging. They’re exceedingly dangerous hunters.
While they are carnivores mountain lions do ingest some plant materials. They regularly consume the stomach content of their prey, including plants.
Like most cats, mountain lions also eat grasses. The reasons for this aren’t completely known, but grass offers some nutrients not found in an all-meat diet.
The Mountain Lion Diet
A mountain lion’s diet consists entirely of meat, bone, and other animal materials. They hunt and eat a variety of animals across their range in North and South America. The exact types of prey vary from region to region.
Being carnivores, mountain lions’ diet is comprised of all sorts of meats, bones, and other animal materials. Their diet also varies a lot depending on region.
In the end, mountain lions are opportunistic and will hunt whatever is available.
Here are mountain lions’ preferred prey in different regions:
|Most of North America
|Mostly large ungulates (Mainly elk and deer)
|Varied with smaller species. Smaller ungulates like hogs are preferred, and even small alligators are targeted.
|Tropical Central and South America
|Small to medium-sized animals. Fewer ungulate. More lizards and birds.
|Temperate areas of South America
|Local ungulate species like guanacos and vicuña, also rabbits and hares.
|The main prey of the mountain lion in the far southern region of Patagonia are Magellanic penguins.
It is clear that the mountain lion is a highly adaptable hunter and chooses its prey depending on what is available. Even within the same subspecies, there is variety in their diet. This is clear when comparing mountain lions from Florida with ones from the rest of North America.
There is a noticeable difference in the hunting habits of mountain lions in the temperate regions, mainly in North America, and the rest of their range.
In colder and temperate areas mountain lions are more specialized, generally hunting large ungulates. In tropical and subtropical regions (Central and South America) the mountain lions’ diet is more diverse.
What Do Baby Mountain Lions Eat?
Baby mountain lions can’t eat meat when they are born, so they start out drinking their mother’s milk. After about two months they slowly start eating food, and gradually switch to the diet of an adult bobcat.
For the first two months of their lives, mountain lion cubs aren’t able to eat solid food. At this time they are dependent on their mother’s milk.
After the first two months, they slowly start eating the meat that their mother brings them. They are completely weaned after three months and exclusively eat meat from this point on.
How Often Does a Mountain Lion Eat?
Mountain lions prefer to eat daily, but they can go for a few days without eating. They catch smaller prey daily or eat larger prey (like deer) over several days.
Mountain lions eat daily if they can. Like most predators, they will eat when they have the opportunity.
They either catch smaller prey daily or kill larger animals and eat them over a few days.
After they killed a larger animal, mountain lions eat their fill. But if they can’t finish the whole animal they hide the carcass to eat it later. They bury it under leaves or grass and they can also drag it to another place to keep it safe.
Mountain lions are carnivores. They need meat to survive, and they obtain it by hunting a variety of animals. Depending on region and prey availability they can eat anything from large animals like deer, elk, and moose to small birds and rodents. They will prey on livestock and pets too if they find an opportunity.
Do Mountain Lions Eat Humans?
Mountain lion attacks are rare and most adults can scare or fight back against a lion. That being said they have killed humans and they have eaten human remains before.
How Many Deer Does a Mountain Lion Kill in a Year?
If they manage to kill a deer every week, they could kill on average around 52 deer. It’s unlikely that they catch a deer every week.
Do Mountain Lions Eat Pets?
Yes, mountain lions do eat pets and livestock, but they rarely get their paws on dogs and cats. They are more than capable to kill cats and even larger dogs. If they kill them they will probably eat them too.