AfriCat's Annual Health Check - 2016

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This year’s report on the AfriCat Clinical Health Checks, conducted at AfriCat, Namibia by Dr Adrian Tordiffe, Dr Gerhard Steenkamp and Dr Diethardt Rodenwoldt:

From the 26th of June to the 7th of July 2016, the AfriCat team immobilized 27 cheetahs, 1 leopard and 1 lion at the AfriCat Foundation for their annual health examinations and to collect samples for our registered, research project (The long-term health monitoring and immuno-competence of captive cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) and other felids at AfriCat in Namibia – Permit no. 2184/2016).

Three leopards and 2 male lions were not immobilized, but visually inspected for any abnormalities.
All the animals were weighed. Blood and urine samples were collected and haematology and serum biochemistry profiles performed for each animal.
They were vaccinated against feline calici virus, feline panleucopaenia virus, feline herpes virus and feline rhinotracheitis. They were also vaccinated against rabies. Abdominal ultrasound examinations were performed on all the anaesthetized animals and gastric biopsies were collected from all the cheetahs using a flexible endoscope to assess the extent of gastritis in this captive population.

Dr Gerhard Steenkamp also checked each animal for dental abnormalities and a few cheetahs had root canal treatments and/or extractions.

Overall the animals were found to be in good health. This year all the animals were free of external parasites.

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Although not many people are aware of the fact, one of the most frequent causes of deaths in cheetahs during immobilisation is hyperthermia (overheating). This phenomenon has not been studied or described much at all, but the annual health checks at AfriCat have provided Dr. Adrian Tordiffe and colleagues a unique opportunity to study and learn more about this problem - to try and understand what causes it, and to begin to develop ways of managing and preventing it. In cheetahs who develop hyperthermia, temperatures measured shortly after darting can be over 40℃ and are sometimes still rising. If the body temperature is not brought down rapidly this can have severe consequences for the cheetah - brain damage, damage to the digestive tract and/or cardiorespiratory failure.

Hyperthermia cases we saw during AfriCat health checks seemed to be unrelated to the environmental temperatures. It was happening on cool and warm days, and at different times of day; but research done by a colleague, Prof. Leith Meyer, gave Dr. Tordiffe a clue as to what might be going on. Prof. Meyer had found that impalas (another species in which hyperthermia occurs) who were stressed prior to immobilisation were at greater risk of developing the condition. Dr. Tordiffe began to look at whether the same thing was true in cheetahs. He started keeping records of the cheetahs’ stress levels immediately before they were darted - noting whether they were relaxed and lying down, pacing, or running, and giving them a stress score based on his observations. A pattern emerged. Cheetahs who scored higher on his "stress scale" were definitely more likely to have higher initial temperatures after darting.

One of the most stressed of the cheetahs darted during the 2014 checks was a young male named Swakop (a 3 yr old male cheetah: (2015) 39.2Kg (2016) 42.4Kg) ) He had only recently come in to AfriCat with his sister Mundi (a 3 yr old female cheetah: (2015) 37.6Kg (2016) 35.2Kg), after the pair were found near death in the desert near Swakopmund. Swakop was very suspicious of Dr. Tordiffe - beginning to run the moment he saw the vet. His temperature had already reached 43℃ by the time we were able to measure it after darting him.

Dr. Tordiffe had to make a quick decision. The usual procedure for a so-called "hot cat" involves cooling them with cold water (a combination of sprayed water and wet towels) and ice packs. The cheetahs are cooled on the vehicle while they are transported to the clinic. Once at the clinic more water and ice is applied and electric fans and leaf blowers are used to cool them even further. Dr. Tordiffe knew that, even with aggressive cooling like this, Swakop’s temperature would take a while to start coming down, and he didn’t think that with a temperature that high, they could afford the time. One of the reasons for the slow cooling is that one of the drugs used to tranquillise cheetahs (medetomidine) causes the blood vessels in the skin to close up (vasoconstriction). This actually works AGAINST cooling, as one of the body’s ways of getting rid of excess body heat is by opening up blood vessels in the skin so that the blood can be cooled as the skin is cooled. Knowing this, Dr. Tordiffe made the decision to give Swakop an antidote to the medetomidine and wake him up. This would allow Swakop’s natural cooling systems a chance to bring his temperature down. In addition to opening up the blood vessels in the skin, once awake, the cheetah is also able to properly "blow off" heat by panting - something that tranquillisation also affects.

Swakop was doused with cold water and given the antidote. Fortunately he recovered well, showing no lasting effects of his ordeal. Unfortunately, though, the vets had been unable to give him a proper health check! Having realized how important stress levels are, extra work has been done during subsequent health checks to try and reduce stress levels prior to darting. Canvas screens have been installed in front of the catch camps with darting "windows" to prevent the cheetahs seeing the vets. Some of the cheetahs who get stressed in the smaller "catch" camps are instead darted from a vehicle inside their larger camps. Despite these efforts, though, some of our cheetahs still get a little stressed. That means we still need to be prepared to manage hyperthermia. The experience with Swakop got Dr. Tordiffe thinking. Once he’d worked out that the immobilization drugs were affecting the cheetah’s cooling mechanisms, he realized that there could be a way to cool a critically "hot cat" quickly, without having to reverse the immobilisation. As a result, this year the management of "hot cats" changed. Any cheetahs showing high initial temperatures were immediately rushed into the clinic. Basic cooling procedures were initiated, but, instead of spending a lot of time wetting and cooling them outside and waiting until their temperatures started dropping, they were quickly intubated, moved inside and connected to a gas anaesthetic (isoflurane) machine. They were then given the antidote to medetomidine. The response was excellent. Their temperatures came down rapidly even though they were no longer being treated with water, ice and cold air. In total 7 of the 33 cheetahs immobilised this year had initial temperatures exceeding 40oC, and all of them responded very well to this new treatment. Once again, Swakop was one of them. He is a particularly alert and feisty cat, which probably makes him more prone to becoming easily stressed by contact with strangers, and thus more prone to hyperthermia. This time, though, he didn’t manage to get out of having a thorough health check. We were pleased to find out that, aside from his "hot-blooded" tendencies, he’s in excellent shape.

See more: Hyperthermia in Cheetahs

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Earlier this year we noticed a small swelling on Shakira’s side. We asked for veterinary advice and we were told to keep an eye on the lump and monitor her for any signs of distress. She continued to eat and behave normally, but the swelling did not disappear. In fact, it grew larger. For this reason the vets decided to immobilize her this week and have a closer look.

Once she was anaesthetised the skin over the swelling was cleaned and shaved. On examination the vets felt that the "lump" was some kind of tumour and a decision was made to operate and remove it then and there.

Before her surgery began, Dr. Kirberger performed a thorough ultrasound examination of Shakira’s abdomen - in particular her liver and spleen. Some types of skin tumours can spread into other organs (metastasis) and sometimes this can be seen using ultrasound. Fortunately he could detect no signs of spread of the tumour.

Dr. Steenkamp then began surgery. He found that the lump had a very clear shape and was easy to distinguish from the tissues around it. He was able to remove the entire tumour very cleanly. The tumour was placed into formalin and will be sent to a pathologist in order to find out exactly what kind it is and, based on those results, whether any further treatment will be necessary.

Shakira recovered well from the anaesthetic, is already back to her usual self, and doesn’t seem at all bothered by the stitches in her side.

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When Dyson was being brought in from his large enclosure into the smaller management enclosure in preparation for his health check, it was noticed he had a swelling on his lower jaw. As soon as he was under anaesthetic Dr. Steenkamp had a look inside his mouth to see if the swelling was perhaps linked to a damaged tooth. He found that it was under the tongue, rather than associated with a tooth root.

We shaved the skin over the swelling on the jaw and Dr. Kirberger scanned the swollen area using ultrasound. The swelling was filled with fluid. Guided by ultrasound, he inserted a needle into the fluid and withdrew a large quantity of pus, confirming that the swelling was an abscess. The rest of the abscess was drained and Dyson has been put onto a course of antibiotics. We’ll be keeping an eye on him, but he is expected to make a full recovery.

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Some of the research data coming out of the annual AfriCat health checks is shining more light on how the difference between diets of captive and wild cheetahs may be having more of an impact on cheetah health than was previously realised.

Dr Adrian Tordiffe has been looking at compounds found in cheetah urine in order to try and understand the metabolic processes happening inside the cheetah. As he says: "if you want to understand what happens in a household, you can go through their rubbish. What they throw out can tell you a lot about how they live their lives. The same principle applies to cheetah urine. What you find in the urine can give us a good indication of the metabolic processes that take place in this unique animal.”

In his research he has discovered significant differences between the urine of captive and wild cheetahs, almost certainly because of the differences in their diet. Whilst wild cheetah eat a diet of whole (mainly ruminant) carcasses, including internal organs, skin, connective tissue and bone, captive cheetahs are usually fed lean, muscle meat - usually donkey or horse. Significantly higher levels of certain phenolic compounds occur in the urine of captive cheetahs. Dr Tordiffe believes that this is due to the fermentation of certain amino acids in their higher protein diet.

These same phenolic compounds have been shown in other species to suppress the production of dopamine. Although dopamine is probably best known in humans for its function as a neurotransmitter in the brain, it also play a vital role in gastrointestinal and kidney health. Captive cheetahs frequently suffer from gastritis and renal failure, unlike their wild counterparts. Previous theories to explain these diseases have blamed genetic inbreeding and stress, but now researchers such as Dr Tordiffe are increasingly looking to their diet to understand the diseases unique to cheetahs in captivity.

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In the clinic lab this year it was all systems go during the health check week too. All the samples collected during the checks needed to be carefully labelled, processed and prepared for transport to laboratories all over the world. Depending on the sample type and what tests were to be carried out on them, they were either placed in special preservatives or frozen in liquid nitrogen.

Basic tests are done in the lab every year, too. Urine is tested using special "dip sticks" and sometimes smears of blood, tissue or other fluids are made and examined under the microscope to help diagnose a specific problem.

This year the lab went hi-tech with the addition of three new analysers. This means that for the first time some blood tests were being run "in-house" too!

We have always carried out a few basic tests on blood and urine samples in the laboratory, but this year the team from Onderstepoort (The University of Pretoria’s veterinary faculty) brought some hi-tech laboratory equipment with them which meant more analysis of blood samples were done in house this year. The ABAXIS VetScan HM5 analyser measures the quantities of the different types of blood cells in the patient’s blood (red blood cells, blood platelets and the different types of white blood cell) as well as testing how much haemoglobin there is in the cells. The ABAXIS VetScan VS2 machine measures a number of molecules in the blood that can show how well the patient’s kidneys are functioning, the i-STAT machine measures levels of different gases and ions in the blood. This last machine was being used by the anaesthetists this year, who were looking at the effects of different anaesthetic protocols on the patients in order to work out which protocols are most suitable for various procedures in cheetahs.




Due to malfunction of his old collar, BROWN, a free-roaming, wild brown hyaena was fitted with a brand new VHF-collar, a week before the annual health-checks. Attracted by the baits, Brown was a regular visitor on our camera traps that were installed throughout the reserve for the AfriCat and Okonjima leopard density study and thus, gave us the opportunity to still have an eye on him and his well-being despite his failing collar.

Brown was last collared three years ago during the annual health checks 2013. Unlike leopards who appear to be quite calm once captured in a steel-mesh box trap, brown hyenas tend to panic more easily resulting in injuries that can occur around the paws and mouth (especially tooth damage) of the animal. When Brown was first captured, Team AfriCat and the veterinary annual health check team led by Dr. Adrian Tordiffe arrived about 30 minutes after capture. By the time of arrival Brown already bent the steel bars of the trap with his powerful jaws and blood became visible around his mouth. Due to the large amount of adrenaline released into the body, it took two immobilization attempts until the anaesthesia showed its full effect. Even though it didn’t take longer than an hour between capture and immobilization, damage was done: Eight teeth were broken and Brown’s gum was severely damaged. Having Dr. Gerhard Steenkamp around – veterinarian with a particular interest in dentistry and maxillofacial surgery – Brown was transported to the AfriCat HQ headquarter where it took 4.5 hours to repair his teeth and gums.

For that reason we didn’t waste any time last week after the door of the remotely triggered box trap dropped and Brown was enclosed inside. Team AfriCat immobilized him only 30 minutes after capture and this time he didn’t seem to be as stressed out as the previous time.

Brown seems to be in quite good condition despite his age of approximately nine years. With 48 kg, Brown is slightly exceeding the average weight of a male brown hyena which is ranging from 40 to 46 kg. Coat and fur appeared healthy and no major injuries were visible.

His teeth though showed clear signs of age and abrasions; one premolar in the lower jaw was found to be broken. Dr. Rodenwoldt extracted the tooth and the root and placed a suture to close the extraction site. Long-acting antibiotics and an analgesic was administered in order to prevent infection.

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Dr Maria Geremek

Dr Maria Geremek is a young vet, who graduated last year from the 'Warsaw University of Life Sciences'. She practises mainly with horses in Poland, but also spread her adventurous wings and participated in veterinary work in Baja California, Mexico, working with Whales. After accomplishing her internship in equine medicine, she decided to gain some more first-hand experience with other large mammals. Dr Geremek contacted The AfriCat Foundation last year and expressed interest to join this year’s AfriCat Annual Health Checks. She was then referred to Dr Adrian Tordiffe and after the AfriCat scientific committee reviewed her papers, she was granted permission to attend as a 'paying' volunteer.

Dr. Geremek assisted the vets during this 2016 AfriCat Annual Health-check and experienced first-hand how these top, wildlife-vets dart and monitor cheetah, leopard, hyaena and wild dogs. She assisted with the collecting of blood and urine samples, recorded carnivore data such as weight, temperatures and any injury or complications that was perhaps hidden from just a quick glance.

"Being a volunteer-vet during AfriCat health checks was far way beyond what I expected. I was able to gain a lot of hands-on experienced, but also a lot of knowledge from veterinarians, researchers and staff that were working with me at that time. There was no question that was not answered. There was no action that hasn't been explained before. Working with many different kind of species like cheetahs, lions, leopards but also herbivores allowed me to experience a wide spectrum of wildlife veterinary. Very professional approach towards conservation, animals, team and visitors is something difficult to find nowadays. And I am extremely honoured that I was able to be a part of such a great team."

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DR ROXANNE BUCK & DR GARETH ZEILER (SA Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Pretoria)

The annual health checks performed on the AfriCat animals require general anaesthesia to facilitate handling wild animals and performing diagnostic procedures. Very little is documented on 'anaesthetic maintenance' in cheetah and anaesthetic related death is unfortunately common. Dr Zeiler and Dr Buck joined Team AfriCat this year for their second time to monitor the cheetah while they are anaesthetised, but this has also given them the opportunity to study two different anaesthetic protocols.

"Anaesthetic is required for handling wild animals to allow procedures such as the ultrasounds and dentals. This also gives us a great opportunity to study different anaesthetic agents in cheetahs. We are investigating different immobilisation and anaesthetic combos to develop an ideal protocol for field anaesthesia. We are also here to monitor to ensure the cats stay stable under anaesthesia, but also to make sure they stay asleep.

And as like last year we are busy comparing isoflurane (a common gas anaesthetic agent) to propofol (an intravenous agent commonly used in people and domestic dogs and cats). We hope that characterizing and comparing these agents in cheetah can help to improve anaesthetic safety in cheetah and other wild felids in the future. This year again was a wonderful opportunity to study these beautiful animals and we are very grateful to AfriCat for allowing us to be a part of the amazing work they do."

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Dr Suzanne Richcreek is a qualified Dr for Veterinary Medicine (DVM), who lives in Franschhoek, South Africa. Before moving to South Africa, she founded and worked exclusively with feline veterinary practise for 18 years in the USA.

Dr Richcreek too, contacted The AfriCat Foundation last year and expressed interest to join this year’s AfriCat Annual Health Checks. Again she was then referred to Dr Adrian Tordiffe and after the AfriCat scientific committee reviewed her papers, she was granted permission to attend as a 'paying' volunteer.

Suzanne joined the AfriCat Health Checks this year to learn more from the best in the field and to gain experience while assisting all the vets with various small procedures, such as collecting biopsy samples, weight measurements and obtaining blood & urine from all cats.

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DR. HOLLY GANZ PhD : USA Staff scientist, Eisen Lab, UC Davis Genome Centre, Health Sciences Dr. Davis, CA

Dr Ganz is a researcher specializing in the microbiology of animals. This project was initiated in 2014 which included the cheetah microbiome project. This is a collaborative effort between Dr Tordiffe Cheetahs in captivity need a better diet, Dr Steekamp and Dr Holly Ganz from the University of California Davis.
See: Current research on the cheetah micobiome.

The aim of the cheetah microbiome project is to genetically characterise the gastrointestinal bacteria of the cheetah using, high next-generation genome sequencing. The type of bacteria and their relative abundance will be compared between captive and free-ranging cheetahs and between healthy cheetahs and those with gastritis. Once a "normal" bacterial profile has been established, we will also be able to see how this changes in response to dietary manipulation.

"The gut microbiome contains bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms that are essential for normal functioning of the gastrointestinal tract and its connection to the central nervous system. At AfriCat, we are characterizing the gut microbiome of captive and wild cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) in order to explore its role in the production of metabolites affecting animal health."

During the 2014 & 2015 AfriCat Annual Health Checks, Dr Ganz collected samples to test whether the composition and predicted function of the gut microbiota also differ.

During this year’s AfriCat Annual Health Checks (2016), Dr Ganz collected samples from the recently rehabilitated cheetahs, namely Aprilia, Starsky & Harley, to see how their microbiome has changed since they started hunting for themselves, after their release into the 20 000ha Okonjima Nature Reserve in Sept 2015.

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Dr Jose Ruiz Carlos, Dentist

The oral health of all the cats is evaluated as part of their annual health checks. This involves the recording of a dental chart in which different parameters (gingivitis, gingival recession, plaque index . . . ) are evaluated for each of the teeth present. With all this information a treatment plan is tailored for the need of each cat. The treatment can range from a closed root planning, to extractions or root canal therapy to preserve a periodontically sound tooth. Some of the cheetahs living at AfriCat’s Care Centre suffer from severe wear of the teeth, to the point of exposing the pulp inside the tooth. This pulp once exposed to the oral cavity (fluids and its bacterial flora), will become inflamed (pulpitis), and if no treatment is provided within the first 24-48h, this will eventually cause the pulp of the tooth to die and become necrotic; once this happens the infection present within the tooth can travel all the way to the tip of the tooth and cause an abscess. The treatment for this pathology is performing a root canal therapy if is an important and/or sound tooth, or extraction in the case of teeth were periodontal disease has destroyed the support of the tooth, or is a tooth whose extractions won’t impact on their hunting or eating abilities of the cats.

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"Dear Donna and Team AfriCat

Despite arriving back from Namibia a week after the annual health check started, I travelled immediately on to the Free State for a week of equine work and then dived back into my penguin work today.
Arriving back in Cape Town post Namibia and post AfriCat, and going through our photographs from the Namibian trip, I finally had chance to reflect on the incredible experience we had working at AfriCat.
I wanted to express my most sincere gratitude to you for making it possible for Jose and I to join in with the annual health checks. We thoroughly enjoyed working as part of the team and are so grateful for the experience we gained in working with these large cats.
We were so inspired by Dr Rodenwoldt - such a dynamic, enthusiastic individual and talented veterinary surgeon.
I was grateful for the introduction we received on the first day, when one of your lovely guides went into the background and beginnings of the farm and I am still astonished that it was your father that brought Brahman cattle to Namibia. Driving around the country the week before, we had seen so many and actually commented on the large number of Brahmans!
You then took over the introduction and explained about the foundation’s focus and ethos – Conservation Through Education and addressing human-wildlife conflict. I felt so in awe of the work AfriCat does and was captivated by the sustainability of the organisation. In this day and age of so many wildlife organisations, AfriCat already felt unique and special.
During the course of the week I was time and time again reminded of AfriCat’s positive impact on the local community, with the countless school groups coming through the clinic.
You, and your employees, genuine and passionate natures continually resonated through the clinic, with every tourist group. I could appreciate your earnest commitment to educating people.
What also made an impact on me was the degree of inclusivity and involvement of the whole Okonjima staff and I could feel absolutely how everyone on the farm was truly part of the family.
We left feeling immensely proud to have been a small part of something so great and incredibly blessed to have been afforded this amazing opportunity. Okonjima & AfriCat have earned a place in our hearts and we are already feeling the withdrawal pains.
Please pass on our most sincere thanks to the rest of your team – Tammy, Tristan, Jenny, Louis and Selma were all so welcoming, helpful and dedicated.
With all our heartfelt thanks and warmest wishes,”
Keri-Lee & Jose Carlos




Ultrasonographic adrenal gland findings in healthy semi-captive cheetahs (acinonyx jubatus)
Full report: PDF File


Laparoscopic salpingectomy in two captive leopards using a single portal access system
Full report: PDF File


Ultrasonographic and laparoscopic evaluation of the reproductive tract in older captive female cheetahs
Full report: PDF File


Effect of portal access system and surgery type on surgery times during laparoscopic ovariectomy and salpingectomy in captive african lions and cheetahs
Full report: PDF File


Comparison of high definition oscillometric and direct arterial blood pressure in cheetahs
Full report: PDF File


A strange discovery and a new surgical procedure
Full report: PDF File


Cheetahs in captivity need a better diet
Full report: http://mg.co.za/article/2015-07-30-cheetahs-in-captivity-need-a-better-diet/#.VbtR74HkM_c.facebook


Current research on the cheetah microbiome
Full report: PDF File


and more: http://www.africat.org/program/research

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