Abstract Fifteen variables, selected primarily to reflect functionally significant aspects of cranial morphology, were measured on one skull each of 62 species of modern carnivores, including viverrids, canids, mustelids and felids. To allow comparisons between species of different sizes without the potentially confounding effects of allometric shape changes, the measurements were transformed to dimmensionless variables, based on the residuals from allometric equations. Fourteen out of 15 of the transformed variables distinguish one or more of the four family groups and the rotated first two axes of a principal components analysis distinguish all four families from each other. The following functional hypotheses are proposed: mustelids and felids have the most powerful bites and canids the weakest among the four family groups studied; mustelids and, to a lesser degree, felids have more powerful neck musculature than do canids and viverrids; and visual abilities are best developed among felids and least developed among mustelids. The first two functional hypotheses suggest possible differences in killing behaviour, which are supported by a preliminary survey of the literature on such behaviour. Allometric analysis of the 15 cranial measures shows that the neurocranial components scale with negative allometry, while most of the other measures scale approximately isometrically.