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AfriCat's Annual Health Check - 2016

africat health check 2016 africat health check 2016

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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vets ashley tordfiffe
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:


Current research on the cheetah microbiome
Full report: PDF File


and more:

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Last Updated on Saturday, 05 November 2016 05:24

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

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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.
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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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Cheetah Flies and More Flies

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Do they really bite? Do they suck a small amount of the blood while on their host – or are they simply living off dry skin - as previously believed ?

The louse fly of cheetahs belongs to the genus Hippobosca within the family Hippoboscidae, but is commonly known just as the 'louse fly'. Even though these flies have a pair of large wings and are strong fliers, they seldom leave their hosts to which they cling by means of two strong claws at the tip of each of their six legs. The high rainfall over the past few years has perhaps become one of the reasons, that we have noticed an increase in the number of the hardy 'cheetah flies' on the cats that are part of our Care Centre. After discussions with the vets who assist AfriCat and a noted concern from Team AfriCat, that their numbers seem to be increasing – we can now confidently support an article from Iowa State University and an article written by Professor Ivan Horak, which fully supports AfriCat's theory that the Hippobosca longipennis or otherwise commonly known as 'the cheetah fly', are blood sucking and not detritus feeding. They scuttle between the fur, hair or feathers of their hosts and only fly off if they are in immediate danger of injury or capture. They have piercing mouthparts and their bites are irritating and painful and they live off the blood of their hosts.

What this means is that we have to start looking at a much more intensive control programme otherwise, with the numbers we have noticed over the last month, there is a good chance that some cheetah may become anaemic before long.
Additionally, they are not obligate cheetah flies, but have also been found on a number of other carnivores.

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So, to recap for all out there that have been introduced to this fly on a game drive or while tracking cheetah...

Hippobosca longipennis, is a blood-sucking parasite found mainly on carnivores. Its bites can be painful and irritating, although not all animals appear to be bothered. Heavy parasite burdens can occur on some animals: in one case, 180 specimens were found on a single captive cheetah. Extensive blood loss might be possible. H. longipennis is an intermediate host for Dipetalonema dracunculoides, a filarial parasite (thread-like, parasitic nematode worm) of dogs and hyenas. It may also be a vector or transport host for other pathogens.


Species Affected
Carnivores are the preferred hosts, as well as the only effective breeding hosts. H. longipennis has been found on a wide variety of carnivores including cheetahs, lions, leopards, lynx, servals, African wild cats (Felis silvestris libyca), African civets (Civettictis civetta), hyenas, jackals, African wild dogs (Lycaeon pictus), foxes, badgers, mongooses and domesticated dogs and cats. There have been occasional reports of infestations on other species including roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), antelopes, livestock, humans and a bird; it is uncertain whether all of these parasites were correctly identified.


Geographic Distribution
H. longipennis seems to be adapted best to warmer areas and its distribution seems to be limited by low temperatures and high humidity. This fly appears to have originated in Africa, where it is widespread in all but the more humid western and central regions. It can also be found in suitable habitats in much of the European and Asian Palearctic Region south of about 45º north latitude. H. longipennis is occasionally reported from countries on the fringes of this range (e.g., Ireland, Germany, Poland, Taiwan and Japan).
H. longipennis has probably entered the Americas many times without becoming established. The most serious incursion was in 1970, when infested cheetahs were imported from East Africa to the San Diego Zoo in California. The fly was not identified until 1972 and not fully eradicated until 1975. In the interim, other infested cheetahs were discovered in zoos in Georgia, Oregon and Texas. They were also treated successfully. In 1983, H. longipennis flies were found in North Carolina on a shipment of bat–eared foxes from Africa. Outbreaks also occurred in Ireland in 1982 and Japan around 1990, both times on cheetahs imported from Namibia.


Life Cycle
In contrast to most other fly species, louse flies do not lay eggs, but a single egg develops to a pupa within the uterus of the female fly. The pupa is large and gravid female flies can easily be distinguished from males by the size of their abdomens. The female fly leaves the host to deposit the pupa in a sheltered spot, where the pupa casing hardens and from which an adult fly emerges within a few weeks. The newly emerged fly then flies to a host animal and the life cycle commences all over again. The female fly can deposit a single pupa every seven to ten days and she can live for several months.
The winged adults seek out suitable hosts and feed several times a day. On dogs, they prefer the ventral neck and front axilliary regions. After approximately seven days, the flies mate on the host. The larvae develop internally for three to eight days, the female then deposits the larva on the soil, in cracks or crevices, under plants or on debris. After larviposition, she returns to the host to feed and begin another larval maturation cycle. Individual females may live for four or five months, but about half that is more typical. Each female usually bears 10 to 15 offspring over a lifetime.


H. longipennis is a member of the family Hippoboscidae and order Diptera (suborder Cyclorrhapha). This fly is related to sheep keds. Hippoboscid flies have a sleek, dorsoventrally flattened head and body, powerful piercing–sucking mouthparts and robust legs tipped with large, strong, tarsal claws. The veins on their wings are crowded into the leading half of the wing. HIPL_A2009


Wild louse flies, although irritating, never reach numbers at which they pose a threat to the health of their hosts. However, when hosts are kept in captivity, the numbers of flies increase considerably because of the ready availability of hosts and hence blood-meals. Consequently, cheetahs in breeding programmes and cattle in feedlots can become heavily infested with flies and the constant irritation of their bites can lead to extreme discomfort.

Because it is impractical to track down and destroy the pupae, one has to resort to treatment of the host animals to control the number of adult flies. This can be done by means of insecticides administered as powders, or as dips, or in topically applied formulations.

cheetah with fliescheetah with flies

Last Updated on Friday, 01 May 2015 14:06

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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.

captive cheetahcaptive cheetahcaptive cheetahcaptive cheetah

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 04:53

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Radio-Collars & Research versus Tourism & Photographers

Different VHF radio collars used within the Okonjima Nature Reserve.

One of the most distinct features the carnivores that live on Okonjima share - is that radio-collar each rehabilitated or researched predator wears.

radio collar leopard in riverwilddogs with collars

It is the one feature that creates the most 'talk' – controversial at times - between keen photographers, operators and the guests staying at Okonjima that have come a long way to experience the AfriCat rehabilitation project. It is the one 'sighting' that puts us apart from most other game reserves.

As we all know - Okonjima is home to AfriCat. AFRICAT and the OKONJIMA NATURE RESERVE are dedicated to carnivore research and the rehabilitation of captive predators. Visitors come to Okonjima to learn about the work AfriCat is doing. They come to see a 'working project', and if well informed, understand why most of our cats are collared!

The collars we use today have come a long way from the older, and clumsier looking collars. The old ones use to have massive battery packs which enabled them to last up to 3 years before they needed replacement. They had wide leather bands which gave them durability and also long antennas to give them better range – a photographer’s nightmare!

Today you get the same performance from a collar that is a third of the size of the collars we used 10 years ago. Technology has allowed for a much smaller, lighter and more pleasant looking and feeling collar. This feature has been welcomed by so many tourists as well as those of us researching these carnivores and I am sure the predator as well, for wearing this heavy collar must be uncomfortable and irritating at times, especially during hot, summer days or while pulling down prey.

As the performance of battery life increased, the size of the battery became smaller and so in turn the battery pack, - which is the most distinct feature on the collar - became smaller. The direction technology is taking looks to be towards making battery packs smaller and smaller.

Today you get collars that have no external antennas and very small lithium battery packs.

The good thing is that they are not that obvious on the animal and seem to be more reliable in the long run. They are more lightweight and on average only weigh about 150g.

Now, if you take the average weight of a cat at 35kg, that collar weighs less than 0.5% of the animal. The other good thing is the battery will last more than 5 years on average, so the chances are that the battery will outlast the leather the collar is made of. The other positive point is that the carnivore will most probably only have to be collard twice in its lifetime, which saves them from the stress of having to be constantly darted to change the collar.

The downside is the fact that the range is only about 1.5km to 2km on average. If the vegetation is thick, this range goes down to below 1km, which means if you work with animals that cover huge distances in a day, finding them can be very difficult. Animals that are very territorial and stay in the same fairly small area - are more easily found, but predators like the wild dog and the cheetah that are always on the move, can become quite a challenge to find in 160 sq/km.

radio collarradio collar

These are the collars that most of the Okonjima leopards as well as some of the AfriCat cheetahs are wearing, which has made photographing these researched cats - a more pleasant experience.


The other type of collar we use is larger and has a very visible, external antenna. The good thing about this is the range it gives you when tracking in very thick vegetation. On average the distance you pick up the collar’s signal will stay around 4km on average. Although the collar might look bigger - the weight is not that much more than the smaller collar. Thus if you work with animals that are monitored solely for research purposes - the one with the external antenna is a better option.

radio collar

Note the external antenna as well as the bigger battery pack, but which does give you better range.


GPRS collars:

The third collar is the more technologically advanced, GPRS collars. These collars will be placed on animals that are leaving our reserve and going to areas that are not easily accessible by vehicle or foot. These collars not only just send out a VHF signal, but also collect data in the form of GPS coordinates, as well as other technical data on temperature and movement. The other great characteristic of this type of collar is the fact that you can draw up 'alert boundaries' with GPS coordinates, which means - if the animal moves beyond these boundaries you will be alerted immediately via sms to a specified cell phone number of your choice. Other than that you will receive a sms with GPS coordinates for the day - every day, or less frequently if so requested. All the data the collar collects are saved on the collar and then downloaded to a website which you can then download to a computer on a daily basis. This will make very accurate data on movements of cats when relocated to a new area, but will also enable us to keep an eye on problem animals that have been relocated.

The only down side is that you have to release the predator in an area with cell phone coverage, or at least coverage in some part of the area the animal will be moving in. The collar can store up to 250 points in its memory, but then will have to come into cell phone coverage to download the data.

Collars becoming that small that most photographers do not notice them, will most probably not be an option in the near future, for in the end the general design of all VHF collars will stay the same. They still have to be strong enough to survive the daily onslaught that is part of the normal life of the animal being researched.

They will never be able to make the actual leather band, much thinner or narrower than what we have now as the chances are the animal will break it and the collar will not last the daily assault these collars have to endure. The only way to go, is to make the battery smaller and smaller and the transponder stronger and stronger. At the rate technology is developing at the moment, we are pretty sure we will see smaller and smaller versions of these collars in the near future. Some companies are already looking at certain kinetic energy sources to replace large power storing batteries.



Another point to take into consideration about the collars – is the financial burden. The normal VHF collars we use at AfriCat costs about N$2 500.00 per collar and are the more popular collars used by most researchers. The GPRS collars however are N$23,000.00 a piece! The decision on which cats get these collars becomes a very difficult one. If you only buy 10 collars, it will cost you close to a quarter of a million Namibian dollars which is a big investment for any non-profit organisation.

Let us hope technology will surprise us in the future, but at the moment we will stick to what works the best for our situation, what we can afford and what is the least stressful procedure for the researched animal.

Using 'internal transmitters' that are completely "tourist friendly" and preferred by photographers – and that are hidden inside the animal – will not be used on Okonjima! This technology is invasive – and is very stressful for the animal who has to carry this transmitter inside, for its tethered to the abdominal wall and there have been reports that it has come loose, which could kill the animal . . . . . and because of its weight can tear out during a hunt or fight, and most probably cause cancer over a period of time.

Tourists have to start understanding that when an animal is seen wearing a radio-collar – it’s a positive sighting. It means research is being conducted and more information about that specie or that animal 'in a certain environment' will be available in the near future. They should welcome the efforts made to come up with regular and new and constant information, instead of complaining that they did not get an opportunity to photograph it without a collar. There still is so much to learn about the animal species all around the world, and 'responsible' radio-collaring will help us understand their behaviour, their needs, their weaknesses and their uniqueness and beauty!

Report by AJ (Andre Rousseau) – Okonjima research co-ordinator

Radio tracking wildlife will always be part of what we do here at Okonjima and AfriCat, and we will always be on the lookout for better VHF technology and always make sure that the animals that have to wear these collars will receive the best suitable collars for that animal.

radio collar

radio collar

These pictures show the GPRS collars. The battery pack at the bottom also houses the internal memory bank, and on top it has the GPS receiver as well as the GSM receiver.

radio collar

The 3 different collars used by AfriCat.


radio collars cheetah radio collars tracking radiocol sitting leopard
radio collars cheetahs radio collars hyeana radio collars tracking
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Last Updated on Friday, 01 May 2015 14:06

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