How to Identify Small Animal Tracks

How to Identify Small Animal TracksTracking takes years to master, but a good basic knowledge can really pay off. If you're hunting or trapping, the ability to read tracks will help you identify targets and plan strategies. When food isn't a concern, it's still a good idea to know which animals are nearby. Wildlife is attracted to areas with food, water and cover and the transition from one terrain to another (i.e. the bank of a river or lake). This is where your search should begin.


Difficulty: Challenging

Track Categories and Characteristics

Things You’ll Need:
  • Binoculars
  • Small wisk broom
  • Magnifying glass
Step 1
Look for signs of an animal's passage. Tracks are the least obvious indicators of wildlife. Look for displaced brush. Game trails that connect the animal's bedding, feeding and drinking areas tend to follow the path of least resistance. Runs connect these trails to other areas the animal frequents. A path of broken brush in one direction might indicate that an animal was pursued by another. A well-worn depression could be an animal's sleeping spot. Rubs, nicks and scratches on branches and trunks, signs of digging or gnawing, droppings, and anything else that's out of place can tell you there's wildlife in the area.
Step 2
Analyze the walking pattern. Since animals avoid exerting themselves whenever possible, they tend to move at a leisurely pace. Cats, dogs and hoofed animals put their left front and right back feet down at the same time, and vice-versa, in a diagonal walking pattern. Bounders, from the weasel family, hop along in a series of jumps with the front feet coming down first and the back feet pulling in behind them. Rodents and rabbits have exaggerated galloping jumps where their hind feet land on the outside and in front of their front feet. Raccoons, beavers, skunks and other wide-bodied animals lumber along in a pacing stride by moving both feet, on one side of their bodies, at the same time.
Step 3
Match the tracks to an animal family or order. The number of toes on the front and back feet will usually indicate what class of animal you're dealing with. Members of the cat family, such as lynxes and bobcats, have four toes with no claw marks (unless they're chasing prey, climbing, or fleeing). Members of the dog family, such as foxes and coyotes, also have four toes, but their claw marks are visible. Members of the weasel family, such as otters and badgers, have five toes with claws that are usually visible. Raccoons, opossums and bears also have five toes, but they aren't in the weasel family. Most members of the rodent order have four front and five back toes. Beavers and muskrats are the only ones with five in front and back.
Step 4
Match the tracks to a specific animal. Evaluate the size and shape of a print. There's no substitute for personal experience here. If you spend some time in the great outdoors, comparing tracks to their owners, you'll learn what to look for.

Article Written By Dan Eash

Dan Eash began writing professionally in 1989, with articles in LaHabra's "Daily Star Progress" and the "Fullerton College Magazine." Since then, he's created scripts for doctor and dentist offices and published manuals, help files and a training video. His freelance efforts also include a book. Eash has a Fullerton College Associate of Arts in music/recording production and a Nova Institute multimedia production certificate.

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