The cheetah is built for speed. It has long, slim, muscular legs, a small, rounded head set on a long neck, a flexible spine, a deep chest, nonretractable claws, special pads on its feet for traction and a long, tail for balance. Although fast, the cheetah cannot run at full speed for long distances (100 yards is about the limit) because it may overheat.
The cheetah is the fastest animal on four legs, capable of reaching speeds of over 97 kms/ hour (60 mph). To cope with the physical demands of sprinting, the cheetah has longer back legs to give greater stride and weight has been lost at the expense of muscular strength. Small cheetah cubs can fall prey to hunting lions and mothers often have difficulty defending their slow moving offspring.
Although known as an animal of the open plains that relies on speed to catch its prey, research has shown that the cheetah depends on cover to stalk prey. The cheetah gets as close to the prey as possible, then in a burst of speed tries to outrun its quarry. Once the cheetah closes in, it knocks the prey to the ground with its paw and suffocates the animal with a bite to the neck.
A shy creature that roams widely, the cheetah is not seen as easily as some other cats. Never numerous, cheetahs have become extinct in many areas, principally due to shrinking habitat, loss of species to prey upon, disease, and a high rate of cub mortality. In some areas 50 to 75 percent of all cheetah cubs die before they are 3 months old.