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Why are hyenas closer to cats than dogs?

Hyenas have long puzzled scientists regarding their taxonomy and phylogeny. Their appearance and behavior seem to be a mix of feline and canine traits, making their classification difficult. However, recent genetic research has shown that hyenas are more closely related to cats than they are to dogs.

Hyena Appearance

At first glance, hyenas appear similar to dogs in some respects. They have a mane on the back of their necks, rounded ears, non-retractable claws, and sloping hindquarters like some canine species. However, a closer look reveals many cat-like features as well. Hyenas have shorter torsos and longer legs than most dogs, giving them a lanky, feline outline. Their frontal skull structure is also more flattened and cat-like. Overall, hyenas have a unique, hybrid appearance that shares aspects of feline and canine anatomy.

Hyena Behavior

In behavioral terms, hyenas again show a mix of dog-like and cat-like traits. Like dogs, hyenas are social animals that live in complex, hierarchical clans. They use intricate communication signals to maintain social order and cooperate in territorial defense. On the other hand, hyenas also exhibit more solitary tendencies that are characteristic of cats. They establish distinct home ranges and spend much of their time hunting alone. Their mating rituals also share similarities with feline courtship. So while hyena social behavior leans more canine, their basic lifestyle shows more feline independence.

Hyena Vocalizations

The vocalizations of hyenas provide more clues into their animal family ties. Their famous “laughing” sounds are one of a kind and do not closely resemble the calls of either dogs or cats. However, the whooping, yelping, and whining noises hyenas make during clan gatherings do share some similarities with canine vocal communication. Hyenas can also produce more cat-like vocalizations when mating or calling to their cubs. Once again, hyena acoustic signals indicate a mixture of feline and canine traits.

Hyena Hunting and Diet

As predators, hyenas have a feline-like hunting style and diet. Unlike most dogs, hyenas primarily hunt alone and rely on stealth rather than stamina or teamwork. They have a cat-like habit of stalking prey until they are close enough to make a quick lethal pounce. Hyenas also share the same carnivorous diet as cats, consuming almost exclusively meat. Dogs are generally more omnivorous. So in hunting and dietary preferences, hyenas align more with feline habits.

Genetic Evidence

Despite their ambiguous appearance and traits, DNA evidence now clearly shows that hyenas are more closely related to cats. Genetic studies indicate that all modern carnivorans last shared a common ancestor around 55 million years ago. The first evolutionary split was into the feliforms (cat-like carnivores) and caniforms (dog-like carnivores). Hyenas fall under the feliform classification along with cats, mongooses, civets, and other cat relatives.

Specifically, hyenas are most closely grouped with Herpestidae in the suborder Feliformia. Herpestidae includes mongooses and similar species. Hyenas diverged from this group later as a sister taxon around 35 million years ago. But their shared feliform ancestry clearly indicates hyenas are cousins of cats, not dogs. Extensive genetic testing has confirmed this evolutionary relationship beyond doubt.

Skeletal Evidence

Skeletal comparisons also support the genetic evidence for hyena-cat ties. One analysis looked at physiological bone similarities across carnivoran species. It found the bone structures of hyenas were most like those of felids. In particular, hyoid bones in the voice box showed nearly identical shape, size, and position to cat hyoids. Skeletal resemblances reflect shared evolutionary pathways, pointing to hyena descent from cat-like ancestors.

Brain Structure

Research into hyena neurobiology provides another layer of evidence for hyena-cat kinship. MRI studies show striking similarities between hyena and cat brains. The structure, circuitry, and composition of brains evolve along ancestral lines. So matching neurological features are a strong sign of phylogenetic relatedness. Specific areas relating to vision, hearing, spatial processing, and vocalization in the hyena brain mirror feline brain organization much more closely than canine.


Although hyenas have some superficial physical and behavioral similarities to dogs, genetic, skeletal, neurological, and dietary evidence conclusively shows they are more closely related to cats. Evolutionary kinship and millions of years alongside feline ancestors have left clear biological markers of shared ancestry in modern hyenas. While hyenas remain a distinct branch of feliform carnivores, their evolutionary roots and family tree place them on the feline side of the mammal spectrum. So next time you see a hyena, remember you are looking at a distant cat cousin, not a dog relative.