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Comparison of High Definition Oscillometric & Direct Arterial Blood Pressure in Cheetahs

blood pressure measuring cheetahsblood pressure measuring cheetahs

Like domestic cats, older cheetahs frequently suffer from chronic kidney disease and since the kidneys play an important role in the regulation of blood pressure, we have suspected for some time that these cheetahs may also develop a chronic rise in blood pressure (hypertension).

Measuring blood pressure in a non-anaesthetised cheetah is however not without it's challenges. Automated non-invasive blood pressure monitors with an inflatable cuff, similar to those used in humans, can be applied to the tail or leg of a cheetah.
Stress-free measurements are critical, since any elevation in stress levels would also lead to an increase in blood pressure, resulting in inaccurate readings. Captive cheetahs can be trained to calmly have their blood pressure measured with no or only minor restraint, but we simply do not know how accurate these non-invasive blood pressure machines are in cheetahs.

The most accurate way of measuring blood pressure in any species is to place a catheter into a major artery. The catheter is attached to a transducer, which measures the pressure directly. Although this method is often used in anaesthetised patients, it is completely impractical in an animal that is awake.

We evaluated the accuracy of a new non-invasive high-definition ocillometric (HDO) device that is now being used in dogs, cats and horses. This study was carried out by Dr Emma Sant Cassia for her Master’s Degree in Wildlife Health through the Royal Veterinary College in London. She was supervised by Dr Adrian Tordiffe (during the 2014 and 2015 AfriCat Annual Health-checks in Namibia) and Dr Adrian Boswood.

After the cheetahs were anaethetised for their annual health checks, we collected simultaneous direct blood pressure readings from an artery on their hind leg and readings from the HDO device attached to their tail. The HDO device the changes in the pulse waves transmitted from the artery in the cheetah's tail as they are transmitted through the skin and detected by sensors in the cuff. Each set of readings was then statistically compared. We found that the HDO machine provided fairly accurate readings across a range of blood pressures. The accuracy of these readings could be further improved if we added a correction factor. These results were published in the Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine.

Although the results looked very promising, we were not able to formally validate the HDO machine for use in cheetahs because the number of cheetahs we used in the study was too low.

At the 2015 annual health checks, Dr Sant Cassia returned to AfriCat to collect additional data to formally validate the HDO machine. We took the opportunity to also test the accuracy of HDO device when it is attached to the tail compared to when it is attached to a hind leg. This new data will be analyzed early in 2016 and hopefully be published before the 2016 health checks. If the HDO device is formerly validated, then we will start using it to collect blood pressure measurements in as many 'tame' cheetahs as possible. The early detection of hypertension in cheetahs will allow early intervention, improving the longevity and quality of life of these wonderful animals.


Full Report: Comparison of High-Definition Oscillometric and Direct Arterial Blood Pressure in Anesthetized Cheetahs. (PDF)


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Team of vets lead by Dr Tordiffe during the AfriCat Annula Healthchecks.
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Dr Emma Sant Cassia (center).
blood pressure measuring cheetahs
Comparison of high-definition oscillometric and direct arterial blood
pressure measurement in anesthetized cheetahs.
automated non invasive blood pressure monitors2
Automated non-invasive blood pressure monitors with an inflatable cuff,
similar to those used in humans.
automated non invasive blood pressure monitors
Automated non-invasive blood pressure monitors with an inflatable cuff,
similar to those used in humans.
vet dr emma sant cassiaDr Emma Sant Cassia (center).


The authors would like to thank the AfriCat Foundation in Namibia ( and their staff for their help in the implementation of this project.

Dr Adrian Tordiffe BVSc MSc
Senior Lecturer (Pharmacology)
Department of Paraclinical Sciences
Faculty of Veterinary Science
University of Pretoria
South Africa


Last Updated on Thursday, 19 November 2015 01:15

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A Strange Discovery and a New Surgical Procedure!

(Written by Dr Ashleigh Tordiffe for PAKO Magazine – Children’s edition)

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During the 2014 & 2015 health examinations on our cheetahs at AfriCat, the vets performed abdominal ultrasonography on all of the cheetahs. This means that they scan each cheetah using an ultrasound scanner, in order to make sure that all of the animal’s internal organs look healthy.

When it was 11-year-old Curly’s turn in July 2014, no one was expecting anything to be abnormal. She seemed perfectly healthy – she was eating well, behaving normally, and in very good condition. So you can imagine everyone’s surprise when Doctor Kirberger, the specialist performing the ultrasound scans, pointed out a strange growth on the screen. It was about the size and shape of a tennis ball . . . and it was right in the middle of Curly’s abdomen!

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It didn’t seem to be part of, or attached to, any other organ – but the scan showed that it had blood flowing into and out of it. It was definitely live tissue of some sort. There was some worry it might be a tumour, but there was no way to be sure without getting it out of Curly’s abdomen, and that would mean surgery!

Fortunately Doctor Hartman, a specialist surgeon, was part of the team during the annual health-check. He offered to use a surgical technique called, laparoscopy to get a closer look at the growth inside Curly.
Laparoscopy is sometimes called 'Keyhole Surgery' because instead of having to make a long cut in order to be able to see the area when operating, the surgeons use special instruments and a camera, which they place inside through tiny cuts (keyholes).

Curly was put under anaesthetic and the procedure began. Doctor Hartman made a tiny incision in Curly’s abdomen and through it he pushed the laparoscope. Some gas was pumped into the abdomen through another small cut. This helped move all the organs inside apart so that the team and on-looking enthusiastic guests and Okonjima guides could see clearly.

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We all watched on a large screen as Doctor Hartman moved the camera around inside Curly’s abdomen. . . . and suddenly there it was – a strange, bumpy, round pink ball of tissue. The mysterious mass.

Doctor Hartman examined the mass and the area around it carefully and decided he could safely remove it without causing any damage to Curly’s organs.

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And so the decision was made to perform a type of surgery never before performed on a cheetah. Using special surgical instruments and working only through the tiny cuts in Curly’s abdomen, Doctor Hartman cleanly wrapped the lump in a special 'extraction bag' and safely removed it from inside Curly.

Once it was out, and while Doctor Hartman was finishing up the operation, the other vets began to examine it. One of the vets carefully cut it open, assisted by Dr Sonja Boy-Steenkamp (forensic dental pathologist) and that’s where things got really interesting.
Right in the middle of it was a 'sickle-bush thorn'[Dichrostachys cinerea]! Curly did not have a tumour. What she had was something called a 'foreign body-induced granuloma'.

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A foreign body is something which is not part of an animal’s or person’s body, but that somehow gets in. Sometimes, when that happens, the animal’s body 'grows' a protective capsule (called a granuloma) around that object, in order to prevent it from causing damage. In Curly’s case the foreign body was a sickle-bush thorn.

Over the past hundred years, commercial farming has probably caused the most damage to Namibia’s natural habitat. Due to over grazing and a lack of natural fires, certain bush species were able to get the upper hand and resulted in the majority of Namibia’s open plains becoming thorny thickets.
Bush encroachment is a problem in the Okonjima Nature Reserve, as it is across most of Namibia, because of damage caused to the land. This has now become the environment where the cheetah, who is a sprinter - has to hunt to survive. The Cheetahs' speed and binocular vision gives them the ability to spot prey from afar before giving chase, which, in perfect conditions gives them an advantage over their competitors. They therefore prefer open plains without the visual and physical obstructions of thick bush/acacias.

We think Curly probably swallowed the thorn whilst eating. Cheetahs don’t chew their food, and so sometimes grass, leaves and sand are swallowed together with their meat. In Curly’s case, we suspect a sickle bush thorn went down too! The thorn then must have poked right through the stomach wall and ended up floating loose in the abdomen, causing enough irritation there that Curly’s body began to build a granuloma around it.

Curly recovered very quickly from her surgery and is still perfectly fit and healthy. She seems completely unaware that she made medical history that day!

This is the first case report of a thorn-induced abdominal foreign body removed with minimally invasive surgery in a wild African carnivore.

STUDY NOW PUBLISHED: Laparoscopic removal of a large abdominal foreign body granuloma using single incision laparoscopic surgery (SILS) and extraction bag in a cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)

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Last Updated on Wednesday, 28 October 2015 02:46

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The AfriCat 2015 Annual Health Check

2015 vet check lion paw2015 vet check everyone

Once a year a team of veterinarians, veterinary nurses, researchers, students and volunteers meet at the AfriCat Foundation to carry out the annual health examinations on all the semi-captive large cats. Some form of annual health check is required by law in Namibia for all captive and semi-captive felids, but at AfriCat we go way beyond what is required, both to ensure that the cats are maintained in excellent health and to maximize the research opportunities.

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Vet check lion examination.
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Vet check lion examination.
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Conservation Through Education with the Perivoli Okonjima Country School scholars.
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Conservation Through Education with Connor Gregg
from Redham House, SA.
conservation through education2Conservation Through Education with
OP Vet Student Chloe Fouche
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AfriCat's Dr. David Roberts.
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A well earned lunch break.
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2015 vet check. L to R Tammy Hoth-Hanssen,
Steppes Volunteers, Prof. Henk Bertschinger and Dr. Gerhard Steenkamp.
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Conservation Through Education with Prof. Dr. Kirberger.


For the past 3 years the team has been led by Dr Adrian Tordiffe [2013 & 2014 from the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa – 2015: from the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Pretoria (UP)], and Dr Gerhard Steenkamp from the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Pretoria (UP).

The past 2 years the AfriCat clinic was transformed into a high-tech surgical theatre. Visitors and staff were able to watch every detail of the surgery on television screens stationed outside the theatre.

As with any new technique, or research project - all aspects of the procedures performed at AfriCat are accurately documented so that the methods and research are published in an international veterinary journal at a later stage.

"In June|July 2015, Dr Tordiffe immobilized 36 cheetahs, 2 leopards and 4 lions at the AfriCat Foundation’s Care Centre for their annual health examinations and collected samples for our registered project (The long-term health monitoring and immuno-competence of captive cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) and other felids at AfriCat in Namibia – Permit no. 2013/2015).

All the animals were weighed. Blood and urine was collected from each animal. They were vaccinated against feline calici virus, feline panleucopaenia virus, feline herpes virus and feline rhinotracheitis.

They were also vaccinated with Rabisin vaccine against rabies. All animals received an injectable endoparasitic medication and were treated against external parasites and flies using Frontline spot-on and Ultrum powder.

Gastric biopsies were collected from 31 cheetahs using a flexible endoscope to assess the extent of gastritis in the population.

Dr. Gerhard Steenkamp checked the teeth of all the immobilized animals and treated 2 cheetahs for minor dental problems.

Overall the animals at the AfriCat facility were judged to be in good to excellent condition."
Dr Adrian S.W. Tordiffe
BVSc MSc Research Veterinarian

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L to R Dr. Emma Sant Cassia, Prof. Henk Berschinger, Dr. Adrian Tordiffe,
Dr Gerhard Steenkamp and team.
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2015 vet check lion transport
Janek Hoth (AfriCat) Dr. Adrian Tordiffe and Steppes Volunteers.
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L to R Dr. Gerhard Steenkamp, Dr. Adrian Tordiffe, Dr. David Roberts,
Janek Hoth and Prof. Dr. Kirberger.


DR. MARTHINUS J. HARTMAN MMedVet(Surg): SA Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Pretoria

During the 2014 Annual AfriCat health Check, 11 cheetah females and 2 female leopards were sterilized laparoscopically of which half underwent ovariectomy (removal of the ovaries only) and the other half salpingectomy (cutting the fallopian tube).

Salpingectomy is a new surgical management tool for population control and permanent sterilization in large carnivores. This year (one year later) Dr Martinus Hartman & part of his team came back to take laparoscopic uterine biopsies of all the cheetah females that underwent salpingectomy and also examined their reproductive tracts by ultrasound with the help of Dr Robert Kirberger.

The purpose of this year's exercise was to detect any negative effects of the surgical procedure on the uterine health long term - to make sure we determine the safest and best method of permanent sterilization in carnivores.
READ MORE: Single-Incision Laparoscopic Sterilization of the Cheetah

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Dr. Marthinus Hartman operating.
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Dr. Marthinus Hartman procedure.
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Dr. Marthinus Hartman procedure.
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Dr. Marthinus Hartman with OP Vet students, Chloe Fouche and Ayla Newmarch.


PROF. DR. ROBERT KIRBERGER DVSc, Diplomate ECVDI: SA Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Pretoria

Prof. Robert Kirberger’s responsibilities were to perform the abdominal ultrasound examinations on all the carnivores at AfriCat undergoing health checks.

This is to look for general disease problems, but specifically to also evaluate the organs that are commonly affected by disease in cheetahs such as the liver, kidneys and stomach.

Additionally we are examining all the adrenal glands and determining their size, as size may be indicative of chronic stress. The adrenal parameters will be compared to a variety of blood tests to look for correlations indicative of stress.

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Dr. Robert Kirberger.
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Dr. Robert Kirberger sonar work.

DR. GERHARD STEENKAMP BSc, BVSc, MSc: SA Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Pretoria

This year Dr Steenkamp again was in charge of the dental and oral examinations (his thirteenth year of doing these procedures at The AfriCat Foundation). In more than twelve years of studying cheetah teeth and mouths, jaws and teeth, we have been able to diagnose more than 22 different pathologies or anomalies within their mouths. Dr Steenkamp will endeavour to highlight some conditions and also dispel some myths this year while doing his PhD because of the work he does here at AfriCat annually.

"I have found no evidence of 'caries' in cheetahs. This is a condition that we as humans know too well. Primates (like us) and some carnivores (like dogs) and even hyrax (in captivity) have been diagnosed with caries. This is a decaying process of teeth due to the acid that is produced by bacteria living off easily fermentable sugars. Teeth become demineralised and then form cavities that may penetrate to the pulp (blood vessels and nerves on the inside of the tooth) and are painful and may eventually lead to the loss of a tooth.

In cheetahs we do however see tooth resorption that may be due to inflammation around a tooth or may occur for no apparent reason. The latter type of resorption is often seen in domestic cats and the reasons for this still elude us.

Throughout the years it has been quite evident to me that the cheetahs at AfriCat exhibited more wear on their teeth than the ones at TAVDCC, which could cause early loss of teeth as the animals grew older. Initially I had to do several root canal treatments on the teeth, only to find that later, the restored tooth still wore down to a level where it was not functional anymore. I had a theory that the sandy soil which Namibia is blessed with was part of the problem.

When wild cheetahs feed on prey they often enter the abdomen (stomach) and hind quarters after tearing the skin in these areas. The skin of the prey is generally not moist and hence very little sand/gravel will be trapped in the hair. When being fed pieces of meat in their camps, captive cheetahs often take the piece of meat out of the bowl and then find a preferred spot where the meat is consumed. In doing so the meat comes into contact with the soil and soil particles stick to the food. As the cheetahs then consume their food, the sand particles acts like coarse sand paper and lead to increased wear of their teeth.

Sand is well known to cause excessive wear on teeth and it is most commonly seen on dogs’ canines. In dogs obsessed with tennis balls, the sand that gets trapped in the fur of the tennis ball can lead to excessive wear of the canines."
More about the dental work done @ AfriCat

As well as the dental and oral examinations Dr Steenkamp also performed the endoscopy of the stomachs and took biopsies to evaluate the level of gastritis in the AfriCat cheetahs. He used a flexible endoscope, a camera with which to visualize the inside of the oesophagus and stomach. Cheetahs in captivity frequently suffer from gastritis, an inflammatory condition of the stomach lining, often associated with the bacteria Helicobacter.

Small biopsies of the stomach lining were collected for examination under a microscope. The underlying cause of gastritis in captive cheetahs is unknown. It is our hope that this work at AfriCat will provide some answers to this mystery. . .

dr gerhard steenkamp
Dr. Gerhard Steenkamp.
checking teethDental checks.


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, Dr Steekamp and Dr Holly Ganz from the University of California Davis. Dr Tordiffe’s metabolomics research has shown that gut bacteria play a potentially vital role in cheetah health. 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.

Microbial effects on tryptophan metabolism may play a pivotal role in the regulation of serotonin, a key neurotransmitter. Pilot data collected by Dr Adrian Tordiffe indicates that captive cheetahs exhibit strong and interesting differences in gut metabolites, including a novel indoleamine compound that is microbially produced and may bind to serotonin receptors."

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.
READ MORE: Publication on microbiomes in free-ranging cheetahs and jackals.
Oligotyping reveals differences between gut microbiomes of free-ranging sympatric Namibian carnivores (Acinonyx jubatus, Canis mesomelas) on a bacterial species-like level.

holly ganz
Dr. Holly Ganz.
dr holly ganz
Dr. Holly Ganz.



"Cheetahs in captivity suffer from a range of conditions which we believe may involve high blood pressure.

In addition it is important to monitor blood pressure while they are under anaesthetic. However it is critical to know that the device being used is accurate as obviously they were not made with cheetahs in mind!

At the AfriCat annual health-checks last year Dr Sant-Cassia was conducting a project to examine the use of a new, non-invasive blood pressure device in cheetahs.

The results were promising therefore Dr Sant-Cassia was invited to return this year to build on that study, headed by Dr Tordiffe. Dr Sant-Cassia collected a large amount of data which still needs to be analysed, but if the device proves to be accurate it will be a useful tool in both further research and clinical work in this fascinating species."

dr emma sant cassia
Dr. Emma Sant Cassia.
adrian team
Left to right: Holly Ganz, Emma Sant Cassia, Jenny Noack (AfriCat) and Adrian Tordiffe.


DR CHRISTIE BOUCHER: SA Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Pretoria

Part of the health check is an ophthalmology examination. This year Dr Boucher evaluated the eyes for any abnormalities. Measurements like the Schirmer tear test and intraocular pressure were also done to establish the normal values for cheetahs. The anterior part of the eyes was examined with a slit lamp bio-microscope and the retina with indirect ophthalmoscopy. With the help of ultrasound, Dr Boucher also examined and measured the eye. A full report will follow shortly on the findings of all the cats that were examined this year – free-roaming and in captivity, which were born in the wild.

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Dr. Christie Boucher, ophthalmology examination.
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Dr. Christie Boucher right, Dr. Robert Kirberger left and Dr. Diethard Rodenwoldt centre.
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Dr. Christie Boucher and Dr. Roxanne Buck.
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Dr. Christie Boucher, ophthalmology examination.



Since 1998 the contraceptive Suprelorin (Virbac) has been used on approximately 120 female and male cheetahs to prevent breeding at AfriCat. The opening of the 20 000 ha Okonjima Nature Reserve created the ideal opportunity to test the return to fertility (reversibility) of two males and two females after 2-4 annual treatments with the 4.7 mg implants.

They were released onto the reserve at the time of the final treatment. One female produced 2 litters and the other 1 litter approximately 40 months after the last treatment. In the male, time elapsed since last treatment to mating was approximately 36 months. The same male sired another litter with a wild cheetah female. This clearly demonstrates that both female and male recover their fertility after repeated treatments with the implant. These are important findings, both for cheetahs and other wild African carnivores, particularly if they are endangered or rare species.

With such species population control is often required, particularly in smaller fenced reserves, sanctuaries or zoos, but equally, animals may be required to breed from time to time to maintain the population. We are now studying reversal rates after 4 to 6 years of annual treatment. Contraception in Wildlife
More about Prof. Bertschinger's work at AfriCat

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Dr. Henk Bertschinger.
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Dr. Henk Bertschinger, contraceptive specialist.
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Dr. Henk Bertschinger, contraceptive specialist.
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Dr. Henk Bertschinger with vet student Ayla Newmarch.


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.
The 2 attending anaesthetists from Onderstepoort, Dr Zeiler and Dr Buck joined Team AfriCat this year to monitor the cheetah while they are anaesthetised, but this has also given them the opportunity to study two different anaesthetic protocols.

"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 has been 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."

dr boucher dr roxanne buck
Dr. Christie Boucher and Dr. Roxanne Buck.
dr gareth zeiler
Dr. Gareth Zeiler.


A lack of high-energy fat in the big cats' diets may cause depression.

July 31 2015
Which is more stressful: being free, but having to fight for your own food and survival, or being confined in captivity, with all your food and security needs provided for?
In cheetahs it seems that unnatural food – rather than captivity itself – is the cause of their known health problems in captivity.
Captive cheetahs commonly suffer from chronic inflammation of the stomach lining, various forms of kidney failure, apparent low libido and immune system abnormalities, which are rarely seen in their wild counterparts. Also, members of the cat family are known to groom themselves meticulously, yet captive cheetahs are often covered in burrs and biting flies and hardly seem to notice these discomforts. Cheetahs in zoos and other facilities have shorter life expectancies and lower breeding success than other big cats in captivity. In these confined environments, cheetahs often produce large amounts of the stress hormone cortisol and many believe that, for cheetahs, life in captivity is simply too stressful.

READ MORE: Cheetahs in captivity need a better diet. 
By Dr Adrian Tordiffe




STEPPES DISCOVERY UK, & ULTIMATE SAFARIS NAMIBIA, ARE THE MAIN, AFRICAT ANNUAL HEALTH-CHECK SPONSORS and have long been admirers of AfriCat’s innovative approach towards the conservation of Namibia’s large carnivores!

"We have been impressed with their ability to adapt as the demands of conservation change and commend their commitment to using responsible tourism as an essential tool in protecting Namibia’s big cats. While they continue to rise to the ever changing challenges of conservation in Namibia we will continue to support their crucial work." Jarrod Kyte.
UK & EUROPE: Contact JARROD or JACKIE for wildlife and conservation travel.

"Ultimate Safaris, through the Conservation Travel Foundation (nee Tou Trust) and Wilderness Travel USA, are committed to conservation in Namibia. The AfriCat Foundation’s work with regards to large carnivore conservation in Namibia is crucial, from both a conservation perspective but also from and environmental education perspective. We are proud to be associated with the AfriCat Foundation and feel that our contribution towards their efforts is of national importance."
USA: Contact TRISTAN COWLEY for wildlife and conservation travel.

 Steppes logo us lej green


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Steppes Discovery UK Volunteers.
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Ultimate Saf Namibia + Wilderness Tvl USA Volunteers.
volunteers with dr zeiler
Ultimate Saf Namibia + Wilderness Tvl USA
Volunteers with Dr. Zeiler.
Ultimate Saf Namibia + Wilderness Tvl USA Volunteers.
Steppes Discovery UK Volunteers.
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Volunteers with Dr. Tordiffe discussing procedures and research of the day.
volunteers africat healthcheck 
Ultimate Saf Namibia + Wilderness Tvl USA Volunteers.
volunteers africat healthcheck
Steppes Discovery UK Volunteers.
volunteers africat healthcheck
Steppes Discovery UK Volunteers.
volunteers africat healthcheck
Ultimate Saf Namibia + Wilderness Tvl USA Volunteers.
volunteers africat healthcheck
Ultimate Saf Namibia + Wilderness Tvl USA
Volunteers with Dr. Bertschinger.
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Steppes Discovery UK Volunteers with AfriCat's North Director, Tammy Hoth-Hanssen.


Team AfriCat would like to thank all our sponsors and volunteers for making this event a 'once-in-a-lifetime-experience' for all!

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Last Updated on Wednesday, 02 September 2015 12:19

Hits: 5861

Wild Dog Introduction Report

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An attempt of social integration of two unrelated wild dog packs and re-introduction in the Okonjima Nature Reserve

With an estimated 6 000 - 7 000 (Creel & Creel, 2015) individuals left in the wild, the African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) is classified as "Endangered" according to the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species (IUCN, 2015.2). Habitat degradation and fragmentation, relentless anthropogenic persecution, prey depletion as well as the exposure to infectious diseases such as rabies and canine distemper, are contributing to a continuing decreasing population trend. Once distributed throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa, at present, wild dog distribution is restricted to areas with low human population densities in East and southern Africa. Conservation efforts are diverse and include intensive population monitoring programmes, human-wildlife mitigation, habitat restoration and rabies vaccination campaigns for domestic dogs. A new management approach in South Africa involves the re-introduction of wild dogs into suitable conservation areas (Mills et al. 1998) whereby geographically isolated sub-populations are managed as a single meta-population. In order to preserve and enhance gene flow translocations and introductions among packs are implemented. Even though the artificial augmentation of packs was successfully recorded in a few cases where wild dog packs adopted unrelated pups (McNutt et al. 2008), little is known about the process of pack formation of unrelated adult individuals. Therefore more data is required in order to understand the underlying factors that are influencing the outcomes and to establish artificial pack augmentation as an integral part in the conservation of African wild dogs.

Even though wild dogs have been successfully re-introduced to several fenced nature reserves in South Africa - due to a high failure rate and the majority of conservation efforts generally targeting existing populations (Potgieter et al. 2012), the re-introduction of wild dogs has yet no high priority in the field of wild dog conservation in countries outside South Africa.

Rehabilitation and re-introductions of wild dogs are often unsuccessful due to the lack of survival skills and their complex social and foraging behaviour (Woodroffe & Ginsberg1999). Wild dog packs, exclusively consisting of captive-reared individuals, were released into the Etosha National Park in 1978, 1989 and 1990; all experienced problems in the co-ordination of their hunting behaviour (Scheepers & Venzke, 1995) and suffered from the predation by higher-order carnivores such as lions (Panthera leo) (Scheepers & Venzke, 1995). However, studies showed that captive-bred animals - when released together with wild caught-individuals - obtained hunting skills more rapidly (Maddock, 1992; Mills et al. 1998) than groups that solely consisted of captive-raised individuals.


Study Animals

On the 14th of July 2014, the AfriCat Foundation was requested by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) to collect three orphaned wild dog pups (two males - Jogi and Messi, and one female, Robin) from the Okakarara area, Otjozonjupa Region, after they had been handed over by community members; six additional pups were found dead by the time they were rescued.

Initially housed in a semi-open holding facility at the AfriCat headquarters, the pups recovered, from malnourishment, episodic fever and deep skin wounds around their necks, under the care of the AfriCat team. All dogs were vaccinated against rabies and canine distemper before they were moved into a larger, more open camp in September 2014. In August, one of the two male pups (Jogi) suffered from an initially undetected tibial green stick fracture of his right hind leg. X-rays were taken approximately eight weeks later, but revealed a full recovery and healing of the tibia. The two males were vasectomized in June 2015.

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The orphaned wild dog trio Yogi, Messi and Robin. From left to right: Robin, Messi, Jogi.
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Messi, Robin, Jogi.
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Messi, Robin, Jogi.
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Messi (front), Jogi (back)
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Messi (front), Jogi (back)


After spending eight months in close proximity to the AfriCat Carnivore Care Centre, as part of their rehabilitation programme the three young dogs were relocated into a 5 ha soft release camp situated within the 20 000 ha Okonjima Nature Reserve. A fence dividing the camp into two sections (2 x 2.5 ha), was erected in preparation for the introduction of the three young wild dog to the two ten-year old wild dog females, Ricky and Raine.

Just like the youngsters, Ricky and Raine arrived together with their five siblings, as orphans at the AfriCat Carnivore Care Centre in 2005. Together with Ruby and Rex, Ricky and Raine were successfully released and rehabilitated into the Okonjima Nature Reserve in 2010. At a mature age of 10 years, during the last few months Ricky and Raine were struggling more and more to take down large enough prey to fully sustain themselves. Thus, we had hoped that by increasing the size of the pack by introducing the three young wild dogs (i) Ricky and Raine could gain direct benefits from an increased and stronger pack, and (ii) the three youngsters would acquire the needed hunting skills from the experienced females, in order to survive in the wild.

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Ricky (front) and Raine (back)
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Ricky (front) and Raine (back right) together with their brother Rex (left).


Table 1. Steps of rehabilitation programme of orphaned wild dog trio Ypgi, Messi and Robin, July 2014 - July 2015

Time Frame Steps of Rehabilitation Programme
13 July 2014 - 14 Sept 2014 Semi-open holding facility at AfriCat Carnivore Care Centre.
15 Sept 2014 - 01 Dec 2014 Translocation to 200m2 holding camp at AfriCat Carnivore Care Centre.
02 Dec 2014 - 27 May 2015 Move into 3 ha camp displaying natural vegetation and surrounded by electrical fencing.
28 May 2015 - 12 July 2015 Translocation to 5 ha soft release camp, located within 20 000 ha Okonjima Nature Reserve (known as Alcatraz).
31 May - 12 July 2015 Social acclimatization phase: 5ha camp divided in half, Ricky and Raine housed adjacent to the trio, in the other side of the soft release camp (31 May 2015).
09 July 2015 Opening of dividing fence; and first physical introduction of the two wild dog packs.
13 July 2015 Release into 20 000 ha Okonjima Nature Reserve.
13 July 2015 - 26 July 2015 Initial excursions and explorations in close proximity to the release site and regular returns to release site.
27 July 2015 Second physical introduction to Ricky and Raine outside of soft release camp (Alcatraz).
28 July 2015 Raine sustained fatal head and body injuries after repeated attacks from the young dogs.
30 July 2015 (Temporal) integration of Ricky into pack.


Bonding Attempt 1

Curiosity was displayed by both groups upon initial contact and was accompanied by a constant running up and down the dividing fence. No aggression was displayed. From the offset, both groups remained close to the fence and were observed resting alongside the fence line. Wild dogs commonly rest in close proximity to their pack members; hence, the strength of social bonding is often reflected in the resting pattern of the packs (McCreery, 1999). The two older females uttered continuous 'whining' calls, showing submissive behaviour from the start. Contact through the fence was initiated by both groups and involved sniffing as well as licking; developing social bonds is a prerequisite for successful pack formation (Potgieter, 2009). Scat of both groups were collected and respectively scattered in the camp of the opposite group.

Therefore, social acclimatization, where animals are kept in adjacent camps allowing olfactory, auditory and visual contact and then remain as a newly formed pack within a soft release camp for a certain period of time before release into the wild, seems to promote social bonds and integration (Woodroffe & Ginsberg, 1997; Graf et al. 2006; Gusset, Slotow & Somers, 2006,).

After a soft acclimatization period of 39 days, the gate of the dividing fence was opened and the dogs experienced their first direct physical contact.

The first few hours were dominated by excited chasing, where the three youngsters actively chased the older females; while Ricky sought direct physical contact with the young dogs and was showing submissive behaviour in response to aggression, Raine generally avoided confrontations through physical withdrawal. Submissive behaviour was tested by the younger dogs through continuous nipping at hind legs and ears which caused multiple, superficial bite wounds to the two older females. Escalated fighting was observed, usually occurring after a period of rest and was mainly initiated by the young female (Robin).

Both older females suffered from bite wounds on hind legs, necks and head. Ricky required medical attention and needed to be immobilized to determine the extent of her injuries; her wounds - mainly superficial cuts on the hind legs - were cleaned and disinfected and she was treated with a long-acting antibiotic. Based on the high degree of aggression towards the two older females and perceived reluctance by the three to incorporate Ricky and Raine into their pack, we decided once again, to temporarily separate both groups again.

introducing two groups wilddlog introducing two groups wilddlog introducing two groups wilddlog introducing two groups wilddog introducing two groups wilddogintroducing two groups wilddogintroducing two groups wilddog

First physical introduction of Ricky and Raine to the wild dog youngsters Jogi, Messi and Robin. The first hours were dominated by excited chasing, where the three young dogs actively chased the older females. While Ricky sought direct physical contact with the young dogs and was showing submissive behaviour in response to aggression, Raine generally avoided confrontations through physical withdrawal. Submissive behaviour was tested through continuous nipping at hind legs, neck and ears which caused multiple, superficial bite wounds to the two older females. Escalated fighting was observed on a few occasions and was interrupted by the use of pressurized water hosed from firefighting machines.


4 days later - on the morning of 13 July 2015 - the three yearlings were released into the 20 000 ha Okonjima Nature Reserve without the two females. Initial excursions and explorations in close proximity to the release site (max. distance covered: 3.5 kilometres) resulted in regular returns to Alcatraz; the trio generally rested close to the fence line or close to the camp. Uncoordinated attempts at chasing game which included oryx, giraffe and blue wildebeest, were observed, but remained unsuccessful; thus supplementary meat was provided every 2 - 3 days. The closest water points are located 1.6 km and 1.9 km from the release site and were frequently visited by the young dogs.

The two older females - which still remained within Alcatraz - constantly uttered whining 'calls' when the yearlings where close by and so called "hoo-calls" (a long distance communication call that commonly signals distress and is used when individuals get separated from the pack), when the dogs were out of sight.


Bonding Attempt 2

Two weeks later, the gates of Alcatraz opened for Ricky and Raine. In preparation, the youngsters were encouraged away from Alcatraz (approx. 2 kilometres) using pieces of meat; after approximately 45 minutes, the trio ran back to Alcatraz to meet up with Ricky and Raine. During this encounter there was less excitement and less aggression was directed towards the two older females, the contact was rather accompanied by curious sniffing and nibbling. While Raine kept her distance, Ricky initiated contact by constantly approaching the three young dogs constantly, but was usually chased away by Robin, the young female. By that afternoon, all five dogs were found resting at Alcatraz - the two groups lying approximately 30 metres apart.

The next morning the dogs were found about 3 kilometres away from their release site (so far unknown territory for the three youngsters), with the two older females leading the pack. Four hours later, Team AfriCat was informed that Ricky and Raine had once again been attacked by the three young dogs. Raine was found separated from the group while Ricky, who only displayed minor bite wounds, remained with Jogi, Messi and Robin. Raine on the other hand, had suffered severe injuries to the head and hind legs. After a temporary re-union with the other four dogs, Raine left the pack in the afternoon.

Raine’s condition deteriorated rapidly within the next two days and we immobilized her to clean up her wounds and treat her with antibiotics and painkillers. Subsequently, Raine was placed into Alcatraz to recover from her injuries. However, Raine didn’t show any signs of improvement; she appeared weak and exhausted and refused food intake. Three days later Raine was euthanized to prevent unnecessary suffering. Post mortem analyses revealed multiple puncture wounds around the abdomen, sternum and head which eventually caused a septic peritonitis due to a bacterial contamination.

second bonding attemptsecond bonding attemptsecond bonding attemptsecond bonding attemptsecond bonding attemptsecond bonding attemptsecond bonding attempt 

The second bonding attempt was accompanied by less aggression and excitement and resulted in the temporary integration of Ricky into the pack.
Raine sustained fatal injuries after repeated attacks from the youngsters.


The artificial bonding of unrelated wild dog packs.

The success of artificially bonding two unrelated packs depends on several factors such as group size, sex ratio, relatedness within and between packs as well as the total time spent together in adjacent enclosures (Potgieter et al. 2012). According to the theory of group augmentation, individuals are more willing to except unrelated individuals when group size is below a critical threshold and members of the group could benefit directly from the recruitment of additional helpers (Graf et al. 2006). A larger group size is beneficiary in terms of improved foraging efficiency, breeding success and individual survival. Hence, the artificial integration of two packs consisting of a minimal number of pack members - in theory - would favor a successful pack formation.

The biggest risk is rejection and the occurrence of fatal aggression between the two groups. To reduce aggression and to make pack members more familiar to one another, the use of scat or saliva is recommended. In this way individuals will be become more familiar with each others’ scent.

The formation of a new pack gives each member the opportunity to adjust existing relationships to other pack members as well as their own position in the hierarchy and therefore is commonly accompanied by excitement and aggression. Wild dogs emigrate from their natal pack on average at 22 months (females) and 28 months (males) of age, respectively (McNutt, 1996) in same-sexed groups. The dispersed group will eventually join an opposite-sexed group which may or may not lead to the establishment of a stable reproduction unit. Separated hierarchies exist in males and females and are therefore maintained within each sex (Frame et al. 1979). The integration of same-sexed individuals is rare and has only been observed in packs smaller than the average (≤6) (McNutt, 1996). For this reason, artificial integration of opposite-sexed groups is favourable (Potgieter, 2009) mimicking a natural situation where a dispersing male group is joining a dispersing female sibling group from another pack where hierarchies are already established upon formation process. The fact that both our groups included females represented a difficulty from the starting point and implied a tendency for aggression between the females of both packs (Graf et al. 2006). Personal communication with wild dog specialists in South Africa established that the bonding of different sexed groups poses challenges and the success rate was found to be extremely low. Same sexed individuals will compete directly with each other for rank and hierarchy. Consequential fights may result in injuries and even fatalities, with smaller and weaker packs usually losing during these encounters (Graf et al. 2006).

The majority of the agonistic behaviour originated from the young female and was directed towards the two older females, while the two young males only followed their sisters’ lead. Ricky, who was the subordinate female in her previous pack, remained submissive and didn’t challenge Robin’s alpha-position during the encounter, but rather showed submissive behaviour and didn’t retaliate during aggressive meetings. Raine, who was dominant over Ricky, generally avoided physical encounters with the young dogs and didn’t show submission towards Robin.

To date, it seems that the young dogs have accepted Ricky into their pack. She still seems to be very careful and restrained, but amiable and gentle behaviour has been observed between the dogs; furthermore, no aggression is involved during feeding. However, due to her mature age and a severe limp of her right fore leg caused by a previous fracture, we are not sure for how long Ricky will be able to keep up with the 1- year old trio.

Almost two months after release Jogi, Messi, Robin and Ricky are covering large areas of the 20 000 ha Okonjima Nature Reserve with occasional returns to their release site. Contrary to all expectations the pack claimed their first successful hunt just four weeks after release; with Messi and Ricky in the lead, the dogs managed to dig their first warthog out of its hole. Obviously establishing a routine, the dogs added four more successful warthog hunts during the last few weeks. Ricky remains the lowest ranking member of the pack, but is regularly found lying close to the three youngsters. Constant monitoring of movement and pack dynamics will tell if Ricky is accepted into the pack as a full member and if this attempt at introduction will ultimately be a success.

newpack wild dogsnewpacknewpacknewpack

Ricky remains the lowest ranking member of the pack, but amiable and gentle behaviour is regularly observed between the dogs. Constant monitoring of movement and pack dynamics will tell if Ricky is accepted into the pack as a full member and if this attempt at introduction will ultimately be a success.



Creel, S., & Creel, N. M. (2015). Opposing effects of group size on reproduction and survival in African wild dogs. Behavioral Ecology, arv100.

Frame, L. H., Malcolm, J. R., Frame, G. W., & Lawick, H. (1979). Social organization of African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) on the Serengeti plains, Tanzania 1967–19781. Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie, 50(3), 225-249.

Graf, J. A., Gusset, M., Reid, C., Van Rensburg, S. J., Slotow, R., & Somers, M. J. (2006). Evolutionary ecology meets wildlife management: artificial group augmentation in the re‐introduction of endangered African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus). Animal Conservation, 9(4), 398-403.

Gusset, M., R. Slotow, and M. J. Somers. Divided we fail: the importance of social integration for the re‐introduction of endangered African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus). Journal of Zoology 270.3 (2006): 502-511.

Maddock, A. (1992). Reintroduction of Wild Dogs to Hluhluwe and Umfolozi Game Reserves, South Africa. In Unpublished report. Workshop on the Conservation and Recovery of the African Wild Dog, Lycaon pictus, Arusha, Tanzania. Natal Parks Board, Pietermaritzburg, Natal, South Africa.

McCreery, E. K. (2000). Spatial relationships as an indicator of successful pack formation in free-ranging African wild dogs. Behaviour, 137(5), 579-590.

McNutt, J. W. (1996). Sex-biased dispersal in African wild dogs, Lycaon pictus. Animal behaviour, 52(6), 1067-1077.

McNutt, J. W., Parker, M. N., Swarner, M. J., & Gusset, M. (2008). Adoption as a conservation tool for endangered African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus). South African Journal of Wildlife Research, 38(2), 109-112.

Mills, M.G.L., Ellis, S., Woodroffe, R., Maddock, A., Stander, P., Rassmussen, G., Pole, A., Fletcher, P., Bruford, M., Wildt, D., Macdonald, D. & Seal, U. (Eds.) (1998). Population and habitat viability assessment for the African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) in southern Africa. Final workshop report

Potgieter, K. (2009). Pup provisioning and artificial pack formation in African wild dog Lycaon pictus in South Africa.MSc thesis. University of Cape Town. South Africa

Potgieter, K.R., Whittington-Jones, B ., Gusset, M., Mills, M.G.L. & Davies-Mostert, H.T. (2012). The South African wild dog metapopulation compendium. Wild Dog Advisory Group South Africa. Carnivore Conservation Group. Endangered Wildlife Trust

Scheepers, J. L., & Venzke, K. A. E. (1995). Attempts to reintroduce African wild dogs Lycaon pictus into Etosha National Park, Namibia. South African Journal of Wildlife Research, 25(4), 138-140.

Woodroffe, R., & Ginsberg, J. R. (1999). Conserving the African wild dog Lycaon pictus. II. Is there a role for reintroduction?. Oryx, 33(2), 143-151.


Last Updated on Thursday, 18 February 2016 00:06

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Cheetahs In Captivity Need A Better Diet

cheetahs need exercisecheetahs need exercise

A lack of high-energy fat in the big cats' diets may cause depression.

July 31 2015

Which is more stressful: being free, but having to fight for your own food and survival, or being confined in captivity, with all your food and security needs provided for?

In cheetahs it seems that unnatural food – rather than captivity itself – is the cause of their known health problems in captivity.

Captive cheetahs commonly suffer from chronic inflammation of the stomach lining, various forms of kidney failure, apparent low libido and immune system abnormalities, which are rarely seen in their wild counterparts. Also, members of the cat family are known to groom themselves meticulously, yet captive cheetahs are often covered in burrs and biting flies and hardly seem to notice these discomforts. Cheetahs in zoos and other facilities have shorter life expectancies and lower breeding success than other big cats in captivity. In these confined environments, cheetahs often produce large amounts of the stress hormone cortisol and many believe that, for cheetahs, life in captivity is simply too stressful.

cheetahs need exercisecheetahs need exercise

Besides stress, many have proposed that a lack of exercise, low genetic diversity and the provision of unnatural diets may play some role, but despite several studies, explanations continue to elude both vets and researchers.

Using a new approach, a research collaboration between the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa (colloquially known as the Pretoria Zoo), the University of Pretoria and North-West University was established to generate some basic information about captive cheetah physiology and metabolism. The research uses new technologies developed in the field of metabolomics.

Metabolomics involves analysing a large number of chemical compounds in biological samples such as blood, urine or spinal fluid. The analysed and quantified samples provide a fingerprint, or profile, of an individual cheetah’s metabolic state. Scientists hope to identify more areas of investigation, which could lead to more effective disease prevention and/or treatment.

Our ongoing study analysed the blood and urine samples from more than 50 captive and wild cheetahs at the AfriCat Foundation near Otjiwarongo in Namibia.

The samples were initially injected through a gas chromatography machine which separates the various compounds in the sample according to their level of volatility. Through this process, each compound is isolated and sorted so that it can be individually scrutinised with a mass spectrometer, which helps to identify and accurately quantify the compounds.

Organic acids make up a large proportion of the compounds excreted in urine. For the most part, they are the intermediate and end-stage waste products of the metabolism of proteins, fats, carbohydrates and hormones. Organic acid analysis is like sorting through a household’s garbage bin. The different compounds in urine are like individual waste items, providing information about what and how much was consumed, and how it was utilised.

wild roaming cheetah

The wild cheetahs excreted much higher concentrations of compounds associated with the breakdown of fats, indicating that they are eating significantly more fat than the captive cats. This makes sense, because we know that wild cheetahs tend to eat the high-energy fat that surrounds the abdominal organs of their prey first, and then move on to the rest of the carcass (including the blood, internal organs, skin and bones). In contrast, captive cheetahs are largely fed relatively lean beef, horse or donkey muscle meat. Cheetah keepers often trim off the surplus fat, and discard nutrient-rich organs.

We also found that the captive cheetahs excrete a variety of "phenolic compounds" in high quantities in their urine. Scientists suspect that in humans and mice these phenolic compounds are produced when the proteins in their diet somehow escape digestion in the small intestine and end up in the large intestine. Phenylalanine, tyrosine and tryptophan are three amino acids converted into a variety of phenolic compounds, which are then absorbed into the bloodstream. The liver removes some of them from the blood and they are then excreted in the urine. At low concentrations, phenolic compounds pose no real threat to humans or animals, but at higher concentrations they can have toxic effects.

One possible negative toxic effect is that these phenolic compounds can suppress the production of key neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine and serotonin play a critical physiological role in almost every part of the body, but are particularly important in the brain, gastrointestinal tract and kidneys.

In humans, low dopamine and serotonin levels are often implicated in major depressive disorder. Drugs like fluoxetine (Prozac) or pramipexole are often prescribed to patients with depression to make more serotonin available in their systems or to mimic the action of dopamine.

We found evidence of reduced dopamine production in a number of the captive cheetahs.

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Like most humans with clinical depression, captive cheetahs also have enlarged adrenal glands and produce excessive amounts of the stress hormone cortisol. We are now investigating whether the dopamine and cortisol systems are linked and if these animals are depressed or suffering from some form of physiological stress. Also, it is possible that the lack of grooming behaviour observed in captive cheetahs is related in some way to this depression, much like depressed people take less care with their grooming.

depressed cheetahdepressed cheetah

But dopamine does more than regulate an animal’s mood. It also appears to play an important role in gastrointestinal disease. It protects the lining of the stomach from stress-induced ulceration, improves intestinal contractions, and increases blood flow to the stomach, pancreas and colon. In the kidneys, dopamine regulates filtration rates, stimulates sodium excretion and influences systemic blood pressure. This also raises some interesting questions about the role of dopamine in the chronic stomach and kidney diseases that develop in many captive cheetahs.

The results of our study seem to indicate that the muscle-meat-rich, high-protein diets fed to captive cheetahs lead to increased levels of undigested protein in their colon. In turn, this could be responsible for a cascade of biochemical reactions that ultimately affects their serotonin and dopamine production and leads to chronic psychological problems and organ damage.

hunting cheetahcheetahs on a kill

A more balanced healthy diet of fat, skin, blood, organs and just a little muscle meat may be what cheetahs need to thrive.

cheetah diets articlecheetah diets article

Adrian Tordiffe attends North-West University.


Last Updated on Wednesday, 26 August 2015 03:42

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