This large, dog-like animal has a spotted coat and is strongly built. Its general color is sandy, ginger or dull grey to greyish brown, with blackish or dark brown spots on the back, flanks, rump, and legs. Spots may turn brown and fade with age. The forelegs are longer than the hind legs so that the back slopes downwards to the base of the tail. The long, thick neck provides a highly muscular structure that complements the powerful cutting and ripping movements of the massive jaws. The hyaena’s jaws are sufficiently powerful to generate enormous bite forces. The head is large, rounded and powerful with a short and blunt muzzle. The ears are rounded, in contrast to the pointed ears of other hyaena species. The hair is short, coarse and woolly, and is composed of moderately fine underfur with a length of 15-20 mm, and longer, stouter, flat-sectioned bristle hairs with a length of 30-40 mm. Their four-toed feet have short, blunt, non-retractable claws and broad and flat pads. They have a short tail, comprised of approximately 24 cm of bone with an added 12 cm of hair only. The tail is narrow and fairly thin and ends in a black, bushy tip. Total body length is around 1.3 m and front shoulder height is 0.75 m. Body mass ranges from 45 kg for males and 55 kg for females in the Serengeti (H. Hofer and M.L. East, unpublished data) to more than 70 kg in southern Africa (see Mills 1990).
Scent glands, situated on either side of the rectum, discharge secretions into a sac situated between the tail and the anus. During scent marking the sac is everted and the secretions are deposited by the hyaena from a semi-crouched position while walking or standing over a grass stalk or small bush.