The striped hyaena is a medium-sized carnivore with overall appearance reminiscent of a dog. It has a back sloping downwards towards the tail, and black vertical stripes on the sides. Its general colour is pale grey or beige. It has a black patch on the throat, five to nine more or less distinct vertical stripes on the flanks and clearer black transverse and horizontal stripes on the fore and hind legs. The head is roundish with a pointed muzzle and long, pointed ears. It has a mane along the mid-dorsal line which can be held erect. The longest hairs fall along the mid-dorsal line and the black dorsal mane may be held erect, significantly increasing the apparent size of the animal (Schneider 1926, Pocock 1934a, Kruuk 1976, Rieger 1978). Its black and white tail is long and bushy, with hair that is generally coarse and long. The feet have four toes and short, blunt, non-retractable claws (Pocock 1916). Striped hyaenas have an anal pouch, a slit-like glandular orifice on either side of the anus, that is very well developed. The anus may be inverted and thus be apparent while pasting or presenting during social encounters (Holzapfel 1939, Fox 1971, Kruuk 1976, Rieger 1977, Rieger 1978). Juvenile females have well defined labia-like folds anterior to the vagina. These ridges are hairless and darker and rougher than the surrounding tissue. Juvenile males have smaller, smooth, hairless pre-scrotal skin folds along the middle septum close to, but anterior to, the scrotum (Wagner et al. 2007). Unlike spotted hyaenas Crocuta crocuta, these genital characteristics are not severe enough to confuse sexing of juveniles and adult genitalia appear normal.
The structure of the head-neck-shoulder region is noticeably powerful. The high sagittal crest of the skull increases the area of origin for the powerful temporal muscles and the well developed masticatory muscles facilitate seizing and crushing of prey (Buckland-Wright 1969). Permanent dentition is distinctly carnassial and the dental formula is i 3/3, c 1/1, p 4/3, m 1/1, total 34.
Body mass varies between 26 and 41kg for males and 26 and 34kg for females. Total body length excluding tail varies between 1.0 and 1.15m and shoulder height between 0.66-0.75m. Amongst the provisional subspecies, body mass and body size are only well studied in H. h. syriaca in Israel (Mendelssohn 1985, Mendelssohn and Yom-Tov 1988; Wagner 2006). In these studied populations, there is no significant sexual dimorphism in body size.
Five subspecies are distinguished, mainly by their differences in size and pelage, although this classification is provisional: H. h. barbara from northwest Africa, H. h. dubbah from northeast Africa, H. h. sultana from Arabia, H. h. syriaca from Syria, Asia Minor and the Caucasus, H. h. hyaena from India, and H. h. sultana from the Arabian peninsula. Subspecies descriptions are based on limited data except for H. h. syriaca in Israel and H. h. dubbah in Kenya (Mendelssohn and Yom-Tov 1988, Wagner 2007). The southern subspecies, H. h. sultana and H. h. dubbah, are smaller in all body measurements than in the northern subspecies, H. h. barbara, H. h. syriaca, H. h. hyaena (Rieger 1979a). Differences in pelage across the species range appear minimal, although the Lebanese population is reported to have a reddish base coat colour (Lewis et al. 1968) and hyaenas on the Arabian peninsula are described as having a yellow mark below the eyes (Gasperetti et al 1985) and the dorsal crest is mixed grey and black rather than predominantly black (Mendelssohn and Yom-Tov 1988).