Though the bobcat prefers rabbits and hares, it hunts insects, chickens, geese and other birds, small rodents, and deer. Prey selection depends on location and habitat, season, and abundance. Like most cats, the bobcat is territorial and largely solitary, although with some overlap in home ranges. It uses several methods to mark its territorial boundaries, including claw marks and deposits of urine or feces. The bobcat breeds from winter into spring and has a gestation period of about two months.
There had been debate over whether to classify this species as Lynx rufus or Felis rufus as part of a wider issue regarding whether the four species of Lynx should be given their own genus, or be placed as a subgenus of Felis. The genus Lynx is now accepted, and the bobcat is listed as Lynx rufus in modern taxonomic sources.
The bobcat resembles other species of the midsize genus Lynx, but is on average the smallest of the four. Its coat is variable, though generally tan to grayish-brown, with black streaks on the body and dark bars on the forelegs and tail. Its spotted patterning acts as camouflage. The ears are black-tipped and pointed, with short, black tufts. Generally, an off-white color is seen on the lips, chin, and underparts. Bobcats in the desert regions of the southwest have the lightest-colored coats, while those in the northern, forested regions are darkest. Kittens are born well-furred and already have their spots. A few melanistic bobcats have been sighted and captured in Florida. They appear black, but may still exhibit a spot pattern.
The bobcat is crepuscular, and is active mostly during twilight. It keeps on the move from three hours before sunset until about midnight, and then again from before dawn until three hours after sunrise. Each night, it moves from 2 to 7 mi (3.2 to 11.3 km) along its habitual route. This behavior may vary seasonally, as bobcats become more diurnal during fall and winter in response to the activity of their prey, which are more active during the day in colder weather.
Like most felines, the bobcat is largely solitary, but ranges often overlap. Unusual for cats, males are more tolerant of overlap, while females rarely wander into others' ranges. Given their smaller range sizes, two or more females may reside within a male's home range. When multiple territories overlap, a dominance hierarchy is often established, resulting in the exclusion of some transients from favored areas.
It has been known to kill deer, especially in winter when smaller prey is scarce, or when deer populations become more abundant. One study in the Everglades showed a large majority of kills (33 of 39) were fawns, but prey up to eight times the bobcat's weight could be successfully taken. It stalks the deer, often when the deer is lying down, then rushes in and grabs it by the neck before biting the throat, base of the skull, or chest. On the rare occasions a bobcat kills a deer, it eats its fill and then buries the carcass under snow or leaves, often returning to it several times to feed.
Bobcats generally begin breeding by their second summer, though females may start as early as their first year. Sperm production begins each year by September or October, and the male is fertile into the summer. A dominant male travels with a female and mates with her several times, generally from winter until early spring; this varies by location, but most mating takes place during February and March. The pair may undertake a number of different behaviors, including bumping, chasing, and ambushing. Other males may be in attendance, but remain uninvolved. Once the male recognizes the female is receptive, he grasps her in the typical felid neck grip and mates with her. The female may later go on to mate with other males, and males generally mate with several females. During courtship, the otherwise silent bobcat may let out loud screams, hisses, or other sounds. Research in Texas has suggested establishing a home range is necessary for breeding; studied animals with no set range had no identified offspring. The female has an estrous cycle of 44 days, with the estrus lasting five to ten days. Bobcats remain reproductively active throughout their lives.
Diseases, accidents, hunters, automobiles, and starvation are the other leading causes of death. Juveniles show high mortality shortly after leaving their mothers, while still perfecting their hunting techniques. One study of 15 bobcats showed yearly survival rates for both sexes averaged 0.62, in line with other research suggesting rates of 0.56 to 0.67. Cannibalism has been reported; kittens may be taken when prey levels are low, but this is very rare and does not much influence the population.
Its population in Canada is limited due to both snow depth and the presence of the Canadian lynx. The bobcat does not tolerate deep snow, and waits out heavy storms in sheltered areas; it lacks the large, padded feet of the Canadian lynx and cannot support its weight on snow as efficiently. The bobcat is not entirely at a disadvantage where its range meets that of the larger felid: displacement of the Canadian lynx by the aggressive bobcat has been observed where they interact in Nova Scotia, while the clearing of coniferous forests for agriculture has led to a northward retreat of the Canadian lynx's range to the advantage of the bobcat. In northern and central Mexico, the cat is found in dry scrubland and forests of pine and oak; its range ends at the tropical southern portion of the country.
The bobcat has long been valued both for fur and sport; it has been hunted and trapped by humans, but has maintained a high population, even in the southern United States, where it is extensively hunted. In the 1970s and 1980s, an unprecedented rise in price for bobcat fur caused further interest in hunting, but by the early 1990s, prices had dropped significantly. Regulated hunting still continues, with half of mortality of some populations being attributed to this cause. As a result, the rate of bobcat deaths is skewed in winter, when hunting season is generally open.