Cougar? Bobcat? House cat? How to identify that animal on your security camera

profile photo
By Yosi Yahoudai
Founder and Managing Partner

Getting a motion alert on your home security camera in the middle of the night often means one of two things: a potential criminal is lurking or, more likely, an animal has triggered the sensor.

The proliferation of Ring cameras and similar products has ushered in a golden age of wildlife sightings in Southern California and elsewhere. Homeowners are constantly capturing footage of coyotes, foxes, raccoons, opossums, bobcats, mountain lions and bears in their yards.

Sometimes, the footage is crystal clear—as was recently the case in San Bernardino County where a cougar was seen on video scaling fences and prowling through yards.

But it’s not always easy to tell what you’re looking at.

You can pause the video, zoom in, consult a significant other or friend, and make your best educated guess — or you can contact an expert.

That’s where Jessica West at California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife comes in.

West is among a handful of specialists who evaluate reports of wildlife sightings and encounters, many of which are submitted through the department’s wildlife incident reporting website.

These days, business is booming.

“Everybody has security cameras now, and so we are seeing more wildlife than ever,” West told KTLA 5 News. “The animals have likely always been there; just now, we’re able to document it.”

In late May, neighbors in Thousand Oaks were convinced that a mountain lion kitten had paid them a visit based on security camera footage from someone’s front porch. The animal was solid yellowish in color and appeared to be slightly larger than a domestic cat.

Home security video shows an animal, later determined to be a house cat, captured on video in Thousand Oaks in May 2024. (Viewer photo)

West and her colleagues, however, reviewed the video and determined that the animal was not a cougar but, indeed, a domestic cat.

“First and foremost, the shape and the position of the ears was much more consistent with a domestic house cat,” West explained. “House cats are typically going to have more pointed ears that are located closer to the top of the head, while mountain lion ears are a little bit more rounded, and they’re often situated a little bit lower on the head, especially a kitten.”

Among other markers, West said the animal’s tail was thinner than a mountain lion’s and lacked a tell-tale black tuft, or tip.

This was a relatively easy case for the CDFW. The video was clear and in color, and the porch was flooded with light. But that isn’t always the case.

Homeowners often grapple with grainy black-and-white footage of critters appearing and quickly disappearing from the camera’s view. The natural bias, of course, is to believe you have an interesting visitor rather than a mundane one.

West says the first thing is to determine the animal’s relative size.

“Trying to estimate size is really going to be important … looking at other objects that are also within the video, maybe it’s a planter, a brick, a chair,” she said. “Using any of those objects that are spatially close to that animal can be really helpful.”

After that, homeowners should evaluate the animal’s shape. Raccoons, West says, are more rounded, while coyotes are taller and longer.

A graphic provided by the CDFW shows the relative sizes of felines commonly found in California: domestic cats, bobcats and mountain lions, along with their notable characteristics.

This graphic provided by the National Park Service shows the relative sizes of different felines commonly found in the state: domestic cats, bobcats and cougars. (NPS)

In another helpful document, wildlife officials illustrate the differences between dogs, coyotes and wolves (which aren’t abundantly found in California).

Googling images of animals can also be helpful. But if you still aren’t sure what you’ve captured on camera, West says don’t hesitate to ask an expert.

“There’s no embarrassment … there’s no shame. We’re always happy to review footage,” she said.

author photo
About the Author
Yosi Yahoudai is a founder and the managing partner of J&Y. His practice is comprised primarily of cases involving automobile and motorcycle accidents, but he also represents people in premises liability lawsuits, including suits alleging dangerous conditions of public property, third-party criminal conduct, and intentional torts. He also has expertise in cases involving product defects, dog bites, elder abuse, and sexual assault. He earned his Bachelor of Arts from the University of California and is admitted to practice in all California State Courts, and the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. If you have any questions about this article, you can contact Yosi by clicking here.