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A new approach to disease research in Cheetahs at AfriCat

cheetah researchcheetah research

There are about 8 to 12 thousand cheetahs left in the wild, and an estimated 1 400 in captivity, worldwide. The captive cheetahs therefore make up a significant proportion of the total world population and are becoming increasingly important as numbers in the wild continue to decline.

In captivity, however, cheetahs are known to suffer from a number of unusual chronic diseases possibly caused by stress, nutritional imbalances, low genetic diversity or lack of exercise (or a combination of these). Over the last 20 to 30 years researchers have made little progress in developing a good understanding of the causes of these diseases. There are several reasons for this.

  • Chronic disease research, even in humans, is hampered by the slow rate at which these diseases develop.
  • Most cheetah facilities have too few animals to ensure any research findings are statistically significant.
  • Cheetahs in captivity are still wild animals and it is not easy to collect blood or urine samples from them for research purposes. They generally require general anaesthetic for this.
  • Cheetahs are the only surviving member of the Acinonyx genus and therefore quite unique biologically. What holds true for a well studied related species like the domestic cat may not necessarily hold true for cheetahs.

Like with everything in biology, there are a myriad of complex processes that maintain the health of a cheetah. Trying to find the cause of a disease in such a system can be like searching for a needle in a haystack. Fortunately modern technology now makes it possible to accurately determine the concentrations of a large number of molecules in samples such as blood or urine. With the use of powerful computer software it is possible to analyse the massive amount of information generated when this is done. This very new field of study is known as "metabolomics" and can be compared to "genomics" which is the study of large amounts of genetic data.

Dr Adrian Tordiffe, a research veterinarian from the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa, is using metabolomic techniques to compare blood and urine samples collected from captive cheetahs to those from cheetahs in the wild. The information gathered will generate a typical metabolic profile for each group of cheetahs and it is the careful evaluation of this data that Adrian believes will lead us towards the answers we so desperately need. This research forms the basis of his PhD which he hopes to complete by the end of 2013. Adrian has already collected a large number of samples from the cheetahs at AfriCat (for example when they have been immobilized for their annual health checks or for dental procedures).

Although the metabolic profiling may not provide us with the final answers on the causes of the diseases in captive cheetahs, it should point us in the right direction, and help us design more targeted research projects.

The more we can do to improve the health of both wild and captive cheetahs, particularly in terms of prevention of chronic disease, the better it is for the survival of the species as a whole.

The AfriCat Foundation

Dr. Adrian Tordiffe, research veterinarian:

 

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