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Are Hyenas Dogs or Cats or Something Else?

Are hyenas dogs or cats

Hyenas are one of the most misunderstood animals. They’ve been negatively portrayed in movies such as The Lion King and mistaken for a sly, dangerous variety of cats or dogs. 

But the question remains, are hyenas cats or dogs or something else?

Despite having cat-like and dog-like features, hyenas do not belong to either the cat or dog family. Instead, the hyena belongs to a different species unknown to many — the Hyaenidae. Hyenas are intelligent social animals that hunt in packs. They are fierce, strong, and agile.

If you are interested in knowing more about this animal, often mistaken as dogs or cats, then you came to the right place. 

In this guide, I will talk about hyenas and their similarities and differences to cats and dogs. This will help you understand these misunderstood animals often depicted as villains.

Are Hyenas Dogs or Cats?

Portrait of spotted hyena in national park

Hyenas are neither dogs nor cats. They belong to the family of Hyaenidae, which consists of four living species: striped hyena, “giggly” spotted hyena, brown hyena, and aardwolf. They are known to be Africa’s most common large carnivore. 

However, it is worth noting that hyenas are more closely related to cats than dogs. Both animals belong to the same category that taxonomists nowadays call the Feliformia

Feliformia consists of cat-like carnivorans, including cats, hyenas, mongooses, and viverrids. Despite being in the same category, each species began to take shape as a unique and distinctive group, much like the Hyaenidae. 

Over the years, hyenas were mistaken to be a part of the dog family due to their appearance and hunting skills.

Hyenas are known to be fairly large, with relatively short torsos with low hindquarters and sloping backs. They have a shaggy coat, a mane on their back, and a short but bushy tail. 

Generally, hyenas weigh about 77 to 176 pounds and have a size of 37 to 60 inches in height. 

But among the three different types of hyenas, the spotted hyena is the biggest and also considered one of the largest species alive today.

These hyenas mostly find shelter in savannas, grasslands, woodlands, forest edges, sub deserts, and mountains. 

However, due to continued growth in the human population and an increase in the development of settlements and roads, hyenas are quickly losing their homes.

Watch this video to have a closer look at hyenas in their natural habitat:

Hair-Raising Hyena Moments | BBC Earth

How Are Hyenas Similar to Cats?

As previously discussed, hyenas and cats have a closer relationship because they belong to the same suborder. Thus, it is unquestionable that they may have similarities. 

First off, hyenas and cats both have the same very rough tongue that is composed of sharp spines or bristles. These bristles help strip off the flesh of their prey and also help them with grooming. 

Also, hyenas groom themselves using their tongue similarly to cats — sitting on their back, legs spread out, and feet pointed upward.

Aside from a few obvious similarities, hyenas and cats both have distinct features and traits. Although they shared a common ancestor about 30 million years ago, both have evolved into something different.

How Do Hyenas Differ From Cats?

Two adult hyenas in Africa

Although cat-like, hyenas are way different from cats in so many ways. The most notable difference between the two is their hunting strategy.

While cats prefer to scavenge left-over food, hyenas, on the other hand, hunt in packs which makes them powerful predators. Since they hunt in large groups, they can easily outrun other predators when chasing victims. 

However, unlike cats, hyenas generally do not know how to climb. So when they have victims, they prefer to chase them to the ground and tear them apart with their teeth instead of their claws. 

Also, big cats are known to roar while small cats purr. On the other hand, hyenas have a variety of sounds that people often compare to laughter. 

While hyenas and cats are close-knitted because they both belong to the suborder Feliformia, the entirety of their looks and behavior are different. 

Why Do Hyenas Look Like Dogs?

The dog-like appearance of hyenas is explained by convergent evolution, where species that are not closely related evolve similar traits as a result of having to adapt to similar environments.

In simpler terms, because hyenas and dogs both evolved to meet the same ecological needs, the two have similar kinds of bodies. Their body structure works well for endurance hunting.

Much like dogs, hyenas also have the excellent bone-crushing ability. Both species feature hard skulls, extra-large teeth, and strong jawbones. 

Do Hyenas Act Like Dogs? 

While hyenas share some similarities with cats, hyenas also have a fair share of similar traits to dogs. In fact, they can be considered to be a mix of both cats and dogs. Thus, the reason why people always mistook them to be one of both.

Hyenas do not necessarily act like dogs. But they have some traits that dogs also exhibit. 

First on the list is that both hyenas and dogs are skilled hunters. More than that, both of them have a specific way of hunting: using their teeth as their primary weapon, unlike cats that use their claws. 

Hyenas also hunt in packs, much like dogs. Moreover, both species also do not climb trees very well. That is why, as previously mentioned, they prefer to chase their predator on the ground. 

What Are Hyenas Classified As?

Striped hyena in nature

Hyenas belong to the class Mammalia in the Kingdom Animalia. Thus, they are classified as mammals. Mammals are one of the most evolved species in the animal kingdom, including humans. 

Mammals are warm-blooded animals with hair and vertebrates or backbones. Female mammals produce milk to nourish their young, and almost all mammals give birth to their offspring. This is what makes mammals distinct from other classes.

Along with other meat-eating animals such as cats, dogs, bears, and 279 other species, hyenas fall under the order Carnivora. The order Carnivora is the fifth largest order of mammals.

Most members of this order have distinct characteristics such as enlarged fourth upper premolar and first lower molar, which these animals use for cutting meat and tendon. These teeth are referred to as the carnassial pair.

The order Carnivora is then divided into two suborders: the Caniformia, which consists of dog-like Carnivorans, and the Feliformia or the cat-like Carnivorans, which includes cats, mongooses, civets, and of course, the hyenas. 

Under suborder Feliformia are seven families: the family Eupleridae, family Felidae, family Herpestidae, family Nandiniidae, family Viverridae, and the family Hyenadae.

Hyenas belong to the Family Hyenadae. This family consists of four species which are the spotted hyena, striped hyena, brown hyena, and aardwolf. 

5 Interesting Facts About Hyenas

If you think hyenas are interestingly complicated enough with the information you read above, wait until you read these mind-blowing facts about this infamous mammal.

Here are five facts about hyenas that you might have never heard about:

1. Every Hyena clan is ruled by a female hyena

While the world is still governed by the rules of patriarchy, the opposite is true in the hyena’s pack. Alpha females lead their packs and do the majority of the hunting, dictating the social structure and raising their cubs. 

Most males in their packs are often submissive to the most junior female. Another reason for this is that male hyenas, apparently, are smaller than females.

2. Hyenas can count

Surprisingly, hyenas are extremely intelligent mammals that also know how to count. This ability to count is advantageous in determining the number of hyenas in their rival clans and deciding whether to fight or flee. 

Similarly, male hyenas will first have a quick consensus before joining a new clan. They are always looking for the clan with the least number of males. 

3. Hyenas are very vocal

Hyenas are best known for their laughter which can be heard up to five kilometers away and is used mainly to alert other pack members of a food source. 

However, they also make a variety of vocalizations, including wailing calls and howling screams.

4. Female hyenas have unusual genitalia

Female spotted hyenas have an elongated clitoris that resembles the penis of a male. They are called pseudopenises or pseudophalluses and are paired with testicles. 

They use this to pee, signal, anally mount males and females for dominance, and give birth.

5. Hyenas have powerful jaws

Spotted hyenas have a bite force of over 1,100 psi that can crack open bones nearly two and a half inches in diameter. One bite of these powerful hyenas can kill and also crush bones. 

Surely, these hyenas are one of the most interesting and intriguing animals that ever exist. Indeed, they are not just some lowly, dim-witted scavengers like they were portrayed in movies.

Frequently Asked Questions

Female heyna with mammal behavior like dogs

What Are Hyenas’ Closest Relatives?

While hyenas are more closely related to cats than dogs, their closest relatives are actually mongooses and civets. Studies suggest that both mongooses and civets are sister groups to the Hyena family. 

Can Hyenas Be Pets?

While it is not illegal for exotic animals to be kept as pets in some states of the United States, you can technically keep a hyena as a pet. However, they need specific habitat requirements, care, and food that may be costly. 

You also need to make sure to spend time taming a hyena. Do note that hyenas haven’t been domesticated at all.

Are Hyenas Dangerous?

Yes, hyenas can be dangerous, especially to humans. These species are known to be very territorial, and as previously mentioned, they have a bite force of about 1,100 psi — enough to crush a human bone. 

However, they choose the easiest prey and may tend to attack children and women more.

Are Hyenas Endangered?

Hyenas, generally, are vulnerable to extinction. Striped hyenas and brown hyenas are tagged near-threatened (NT) by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and maintain a red list of at-risk and extinct species worldwide. 

The spotted hyena, on the other hand, is considered to be of least concern by the IUCN. 

Final Thoughts

Hyenas are among the most misunderstood, least studied, and least talked about animals. They have earned a bad rapport over the years due to a lot of factors and the false portrayal by the media.

While we are sure that hyenas are not dogs, we still need a long way to go before we can finally understand the highly complex origin, history, evolution, and behavior of this long been misjudged animal.

Nevertheless, hyenas are a fascinating group of mammals with unique characteristics, and it’s about time that we give importance to hyenas, like how we give importance to other animals in the wild.

After all, they aren’t just animals but a significant part of the ecosystem, too. 

Have your thoughts about hyenas changed? Let us know in the comments below.