What does the life cycle of a cougar look like? Topics like life expectancy, reproduction, and family structures are explained in this chapter.
In the wild, cougars can live for approximately eight to ten years. During this time, the females will nurture several litters, while males typically roam solo across large territories between mating seasons. For the first year and a half to two years, cougar kittens will remain with their protective mother, learning how to fend for themselves and avoid dangers.
There are many risks to the lives of cougars, ranging from human factors, such as hunting and vehicle collisions, to environmental factors, such as disease and predation of kittens. Increased pressures on their natural territory place greater stressors on cougars. In the face of many of these pressures, cougars have shown to be an adaptable species. However, by understanding their lifecycles and that of their prey, we can help mitigate the influence human factors have on the success of cougars as a species.
Outside of mating, cougars are typically solitary animals. Females will claw in the dirt and tree bark to leave their scent and vocalize in a high-pitched screaming call to alert males of their readiness to mate¹.
Females are very dedicated moms and spend 75% of their lives pregnant or raising their young. The average gestation period for cougars is three months². On average, females have a litter of two to four kittens, which are sometimes called cubs. Kittens are nursed for about seven weeks, but they will stay with their mom for approximately 18 to 24 months, after which they will leave to find their own territories. Rock crevices, tree root cavities, or dense vegetation are carefully selected for den sites which may be used for several years.
Female cougars are very protective of their young and have been known to fight to the death trying to defend them. Males are not involved in raising the kittens and, on the contrary, may kill cougar kittens if the opportunity arises.
Cougars can have their first litter around 20 to 40 months of age. They can become pregnant at any time during the year and are in estrous for approximately eight days out of their 23-day cycle¹. Cougars are polygamous, with males mating with multiple females. Females can become pregnant from multiple males; therefore, there can be mixed paternity amongst the kittens in one litter.
If the female loses her litter, she can become pregnant again within a short time. Although cougars can mate throughout the year, most kittens are born between July and September, with the fewest being born in January and February².
The average gestation period is approximately 92 days and a litter usually consists of two to four kittens or cubs. The litter size can depend on the environmental conditions at the time, such as food availability. The mom will find a nursery site heavily covered with deadfall and rocks or in caves and tree wells where the kittens will spend the first six to eight weeks of their lives.
Cougar kittens are born with spotted fur, eyes closed, and unable to hear. During their first six to eight weeks, they remain in the nursery site. Much of this time is spent without mom, as she must leave for extended periods to hunt for food. After six to eight weeks, the kittens begin to accompany their mom while she hunts. The cougar kitten mortality rate is high during their first few weeks of life, as they are often killed by predators and even other cougars while their mom is hunting. It is observed that male cougars will kill kittens sired by other males to be able to mate with the female themselves.
The kittens remain with their mom for approximately two years. Young males are typically larger than their mothers, so these family groups are often confused as a “pack” of cougars travelling together or mating associations². As cougar kittens are dependent on their moms for their first few years of life, cougars have interbirth intervals ranging from 17 to 24 months². That said, cougars have a relatively rapid population growth compared to other apex predators, such as bears.
Cougar siblings often stay together for up to two months after leaving their mom. The first year on their own is often tricky as they learn to be independent and self-sufficient while trying to find and establish their own territory and mates. Consequently, cougar kitten mortality rates are high during this time.
A cougar's life span ranges from approximately eight to 10 years, although there is one known case of a female killed by hunters on Vancouver Island that was believed to be around 18 years old. Cougars in captivity have lived up to 20 years of age.
Many factors contribute to how long a cougar’s life may be. Specifically, there are two main times in a cougar’s life that their mortality rate is relatively high: during their first six to eight weeks of life and the first year after they have left their mom. The result is high cougar kitten mortality rates with an average of only one kitten per litter surviving.
During the cougar cub’s first six to eight weeks, they are often left alone at the nursery site as their mom hunts for food. This leaves the kittens vulnerable to predator attacks and even being killed by other cougars. The kittens can also become orphaned during this period, further reducing their survival rate.
The second instance where cougar mortality is high is during the first year after they leave their mom and are on their own. Young cougars may struggle to find food or fight for their territory. This is also a time when young cougars may come into conflict with humans as they hunt or scavenge for food.
Aside from having high mortality when they are young, other causes of death include hunting, vehicle collisions, disease, attacks from other predators or cougars, being killed when attacking prey, and conservation control.
In Alberta, there are 32 cougar management areas. Separate cougar hunting quotas are set for each area every year. In Alberta, from April 1, 2022, to March 31, 2023, a total of 130 cougars were killed¹. Of these, 65 were killed by residential hunters, 24 by non-residential hunters, 21 were caught in traps, 15 by private landowners, four from other factors, and one was a problem cougar¹.
Some view hunting cougars as a necessity to maintain a healthy cougar population, reduce conflict with people, manage predation on ungulates, and provide recreational opportunities. On the contrary, hunting can reduce the age of the cougar population and negatively affect their social ecosystem. For example, as larger, more mature cougars are hunted, conflicts between humans and cougars can increase as the inexperienced, adolescent cougar attempts to find food and take over the previously occupied territories of experienced cougars.
This is the end of our Cougar series in the Knowledge Base. We hope you feel more informed, and better prepared if you were to encounter a cougar.