Does Bear Spray Work on Cougars? | How Effective Is It?

does bear spray work on cougars
Image Credit: Lina Trochez

In the United States, there are estimated to be around 30,000 cougars spread between 16 states. Cougars–also known as mountain lions, pumas, American lions, and panthers–aren’t known to attack humans, but that doesn’t mean they never have or will. In fact, in 2018 a cougar attacked a hiker in Oregon’s Mount Hood National Forest, making it the state’s first-ever fatal cougar attack.

But what can one do when faced with a stalking cougar? There are no registered cougar deterrents in the market and preventive measures might not be enough. Could bear spray work?

Yes, bear sprays work on cougars. Its main ingredient, capsaicin, is effective against cougars’ sensitive noses and will prevent them from coming any nearer.

But does this mean all bear sprays are the same? While most bear sprays have the same basic function–deterring aggressive animals–certain brands of bear sprays can be and are more effective than others.

Bear Spray Versus Pepper Spray

While bear sprays and pepper sprays serve a similar function, bear sprays and pepper sprays are not the same and are not interchangeable. For example, in Canada pepper spray is illegal but not bear spray.

But is that the only difference?

Bear SprayPepper Spray
Legal in Canada and USOnly legal in the US
Less concentration of capsaicinMore concentration of capsaicin
More humane to animalsLess human to animals
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approvedNot Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved
Wider sprayNarrow Spray
Longer distance (25-35 feet)Shorter distance (10-18 feet)

While most Canadians use bear spray in place of pepper spray because of the illegality of pepper spray, you should not use bear spray and pepper spray interchangeably in a wilderness setting. Pepper spray, while more concentrated in capsaicin than bear spray, does not reach the distance or square foot coverage you would need to deter a cougar or bear in the wilderness.

But How Do I Use Bear Spray?

So you know bear spray is important, but how do you use it effectively? Here are a few tips of what to do and what not to do concerning bear spray.

What to do:
Enact preventative measures – Preventive measures for mountain lions include: never approaching a mountain lion, never running, and never crouching down or bending over. You should stay calm and back away slowly, facing the cougar at all times. Bear sprays are meant as a last defense if cougars are too close or attacking.
Practice – Bear sprays typically have safety clips. If you’re unfamiliar with how to remove the safety clip and spray, it’s recommended you practice beforehand.
Aim down wind – Bear spray, while gentler than pepper spray, can still hurt. To ensure you won’t get a wide cloud of capsaicin in your face, make sure you spray downwind or with the wind.
○ This, of course, has no bearing if the cougar is charging at you. Cougars can run up to 50 mph. If your life’s on the line, spray right away, regardless of wind.
Keep it accessible – There’s a reason most stores that sell bear spray also sell holsters you can put the bear spray in. Remember, cougars stalk. Chances are it’s had a lot more preparation time than you for a confrontation, and if you’re struggling to grab bear spray from your backpack, the confrontation can be over quick, and not in your favor.

What not to do:
DO NOT use a partial can – Bear spray usually only comes in around 10-ounce cans or only has around 10 seconds of spraying power. While that is enough to deter a cougar/bear, it is dangerous to use any less than a full can to deter a wild animal.
DO NOT use an expired can – In its unexpired state, a bear spray can spray up to 30 feet. That is because most sprays can release at 44 mph. Unfortunately, there is only so long before bear sprays lose the pressure that makes them so effective, hence why you shouldn’t use bear spray after its expiration date.
DO NOT pre-spray – Bear spray is not like mosquito spray. Spraying bear spray on you or your belongings will only result in watering eyes, an empty bear spray can, and weird looks from your fellow campers.
DO NOT leave in extreme temperatures – This includes places with high heat or low cold or in your car as direct sunlight shines on it. Extreme heat can damage the canister and cause it to explode, and extreme cold can lead to skewed pressures and weak sprays.

Determining the Best Bear Sprays

With the amount of capsaicin in bear spray regulated by the EPA, all bear sprays should be equal, right? Well, not exactly. The key determiners that separate bear sprays from each other are:

Shelf Life

For the most part, bear spray goes unused, especially for those who only take a hike in the woods once or twice a year. That’s why it’s important that you get the most you can out of it, which is more likely with a higher shelf life.
Range

The distance a spray can go can help a mountain lion from coming any nearer to you. At a minimum, bear sprays can go about 12-15 feet, but there are some that can go up to 40 feet. That’s 40 feet of protection between you and a mountain lion.
Concentration

While yes, the EPA does not allow bear sprays to go beyond 2%, obviously a 2%-concentrated capsaicin spray is twice as strong as a 1% one. Thus, the percentage of concentration is a factor in a bear spray’s effectiveness.

Size and Weight

The volume and weight may not seem like such a big deal, but remember, the can should be with you at all times, within easy access as you hike through the woods. That can be difficult if, say, the can is too big for a holster or too heavy to comfortably carry through your entire time outdoors.

Conclusion

Yes, bear spray works on cougars because of their sensitive noses if you know how to use them. The most effective bear sprays though, are those with high range, concentration, and shelf life as well as being small and easy to carry.

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