The Cat Survival Trust

The Ocelot

Felis (Leopardus) pardalis Linnaeus

Photo: Peter Smith


  • Description
  • Distribution
  • Diet
  • Behaviour
  • Reproduction
  • Conservation Status
  • Further Reading

  • Other names

     Spanish:gato onza, tigrillo, ocelote


    Very little is known about wild ocelots, even though they are popular as pets in North America. Pet ocelots are reputed to be very docile. They strongly resemble the closely related margay, and are generally twice the size of a margay or a domestic cat. Ocelots have much shorter tails than margays reflecting their less arboreal nature.
    Ground colours of the short fur of the ocelot, varies from creamy, or tawny yellow, to reddish grey and grey. The underside of the body, tail, and insides of the limbs is whitish. Rather more blotched than spotted, the chain-like spots are bordered with black. Ocelots have both solid and open dark spots which sometimes run in lines along the body. The back of the ears is black with a central yellowy/white band. Solid black spots mark the head and limbs. There are two black stripes on the cheeks and one or two transverse bars on the insides of the forelegs. The tail is either ringed or marked with dark bars on its upper surface. The eye sockets or orbits are incomplete at the back, and the anterior upper premolars are present. There is no information regarding melanistic or all-black ocelots.
    Ocelots have 36 chromosomes. Most of the other species of cats have 38. This has led some workers to separate them, with the margay and oncilla into a separate genus. Wozencraft (1993) in the latest, controversial, review of felid systematics placed the margay (L. wiedii), the oncilla (L. tigrina), and ocelot together, in the genus Leopardus.
    Eleven subspecies of ocelot have been described:
    F. (L.) p. pardalisVera Cruz to Honduras
    F. (L.) p. aequatorialisCosta Rica to Peru
    F. (L.) p. albescensTexas to Tamaulipa, Mexico
    F. (L.) p. maripensisOrinoco to Amazonas
    F. (L.) p. mearnsiNicaragua to Panama
    F. (L.) p. mitisEast and Central Brazil to north Argentina
    F. (L.) p. nelsoniSinaloa to Oaxaca, Mexico
    F. (L.) p. pseudopardalisNorth Venezuela to north Colombia
    F. (L.) p. pusaeaSouth west Ecuador
    F. (L.) p. sonoriensisArizona to Sinaloa, Mexico
    F. (L.) p. steinbachiCentral Bolivia
    As with many species of animal, there is considerable variation between individuals. It is extremely difficult to be precise when allocating subspecies. Taxonomy is the subject of much scientific debate, and classifications are often of doubtful validity.

    Principal dimensions

    Head and Body lengths (cm)65-10067-10065-94
    Height at shoulder (cm)40-50  
    Tail lengths (cm)26-4828-4826-37
    Weight (Kg)7-167-167-11
    Top of Page

    Distribution and Habitats

    The distribution of the ocelot is almost identical to those of the oncilla, margay, jaguar and jaguarundi. They are found from Arizona and south west Texas through Central America to Paraguay, Uruguay, Ecuador, northern Peru, Bolivia and northern Argentina.
    Although ocelots do not live on the high plateaux of Bolivia and central Peru, they are found in the mountains of Colombia, Ecuador and north Peru.
    The habitats ocelots utilise are very diverse: rain forest, montane forest, thick bush, semi-desert, marsh and river banks, but never in open country. Pet ocelots have escaped or have been released near Miami, it is thought that they may now form a self-sustaining Florida population.
    The map shows the present distribution of Ocelots in grey.
    The map is based on information in the Wild Cats Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan published by the IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group in 1996. See our Books page for more details.
    Top of Page


    Ocelots take approximately the same proportion of prey species that occurs in their habitat. This demonstrates the opportunistic manner in which they hunt. Most of their prey is smaller than one kg, which is less than ten percent of their body weight. Agoutis and pacas tend to be the largest animals they will kill. They eat rodents (including guinea pigs), bats, birds, amphibians, land crabs, insects, snakes, lizards, armadillos and crocodillians. When pools and rivers begin to dry up in the dry season, aquatic animals are more easily captured, and are more frequently eaten.
    Ocelots are known to raid domestic poultry. Like most cats, they are expert bird pluckers, removing most feathers before eating their catch.
    Top of Page


    Generally nocturnal, ocelots will spend the day asleep on a branch, in a hollow tree, or in dense vegetation. They are encountered during the day and they often follow man-made paths, but they shun human habitation. Primarily terrestrial they climb and swim very well.
    Most ocelots have two basic prey catching strategies: the “Hunting walk”, where the cat moves slowly, espies prey, stops, stalks and then pounces and; the “Sit-and-wait” the ocelot may sit for 30 minutes or more than an hour. If unsuccessful in the latter strategy, they will quickly move elsewhere to sit and wait.
    Home ranges of male ocelots have been measured at 1.2 to 18 km2, those of females at 0.8 to 15 km2. Boundaries of these areas are delineated by various indicators. Ocelots scent mark by spraying urine, and they leave faeces in prominent places. They leave visual signs by raking the ground with their hind feet. Pairs have been observed to mark and defecate in the same places, but to hunt alone. Associations of ocelots which last for a day or two are known. Most appear to be for mating, but others for different purposes (Emmons 1988).
    Top of Page


    Oestrus periods last for three to ten days, and mating is accompanied by domestic catlike yowling. The season varies from region to region. In Yucatan copulation occurs in October, in Texas, in the spring. Gestation periods of 70 to 82 days have been recorded. It has been stated that in captivity an ocelot is able to produce three litters a year.
    Litters of four may be born, but the average seems to be about one or two. Kittens weigh about 250 grammes at birth and they mature relatively slowly. When they are about a month old, the mother must hunt for up to 17 hours each day. Even when the female is not nursing, she may have to hunt for up to 12 hours every day.
    Kittens are weaned at six weeks. When they are two months old they begin to follow their mother. They remain dependent for several more months and reach adult size at about 8-10 months old. They disperse from the natal range at approximately two years of age. An ocelot is sexually mature at 18 months.
    Top of Page

    Conservation Status

    Ocelots are quite easy to shoot, because they hunt along waterways where travel is easy (Rabinowitz 1984).

    Thirteen ocelots are killed to make one fur coat.

    In one year 140,000 ocelot skins were declared to have been imported by the USA. They were once the mainstay of the fur trade.
    International commerce in ocelot products has now been prohibited; ocelots are now listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
    Almost extinct in their natural range in the USA, they are extremely rare in Mexico. Habitat loss and overhunting have decimated their populations.
    Top of Page

    Captive Breeding and Ocelots in Captivity

    Zoos with Ocelots

    Back to Wild Cats of the World Back to CST Home Page

    Latest update: 4th December, 1999

    © September 1996 The Cat Survival Trust, The Centre, Codicote Road, Welwyn, AL6 9TU, England.
    Telephone: +44 (0)1438 716873Fax: +44 (0)1438 717535