Health Check 2013

Successful start to a new, long-term research and health monitoring programme.

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The 2013 annual health checks on the large cats at AfriCat kicked off on the 25th of June this year under the direction of Dr Adrian Tordiffe from the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa. With help from Namibian vet, Dr Mark Jago and veterinarians Dr Sally Hardie & Dr Lucinda from the UK, in-depth health examinations were carried out on 40 captive cheetahs & 3 rehabilitated cheetahs, 4 captive leopards & 1 wild leopard, 6 lions and 2 caracals. All the cats were darted and then taken to the well equipped, newly built AfriCat clinic for their evaluations. The new clinic was kindly sponsored by long-time supporter and cat lover, Mr Jim Maltman.

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All the cats were vaccinated and treated for both external and internal parasites. Each cat received a thorough dental examination. All the cats were also weighed & measured – an ongoing research project to be able to accurately determine the body mass index of a wild cat. A body mass index is used to calculate the body condition in terms of fat and muscle reserves more objectively. In humans it is calculated using a simple formula by squaring a person’s height and dividing the body mass by the result. A person’s BMI can be used as an indicator of whether that person is over - or underweight. Traditionally, in animals, a body condition score has been used. This is done by feeling the area around the ribs, pelvic bones, girth etc. The problem with this system is that it is very subjective – different people can come up with varying results for the same animal at the same time.


Blood and urine samples were collected and evaluated for indicators of ill health. Some of these samples will also be used for exciting new research projects, aimed at understanding disease in both captive and free-ranging populations. Dr Bettina Wachter from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) in Berlin, Germany - carried out specialised tests on the blood samples to evaluate the immune system function of the cheetahs and other felids.

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DR Wachter and the PhD students that are working with her on this project have been studying cheetah blood and genetics since 2002. The project covers research on free-ranging cheetahs in central Namibia and the genetic makeup, reproduction and health of the cheetahs, as well as their spatial movements and diet composition.


Cheetahs are known to have a low genetic variability and it is generally thought that this is hampering their reproductive performance, cub survival and health status, at least in captive animals in zoos. However, the IZW scientists are proving now, that free-ranging cheetahs are doing very well concerning reproduction and mounting immune responses against pathogen challenges. The latter is of great international interest, because an important part of the immune system is genetically regulated. This new information is part of the reason IZW scientists are interested in how the cheetahs are able to mount an adequate immune response despite a low genetic variability? Because of this new research, the cheetahs at AfriCat comprise a very valuable population to compare with free-ranging cheetahs. The Cheetahs at AfriCat originate from the same gene pool, but a high % are captive held while the rest are free-ranging. Contact rates between animals and pathogen exposure are different between free-ranging and captive cheetahs, which allow the detection of the mechanisms of the immune system under different situations. Dr Wachter performed a series of blood procedures to shed light in this important topic. These results will be compared to previous research results published on free-ranging cheetahs in Namibia.

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Whilst asleep the cats were also groomed and pampered by the STEPPES DISCOVERY volunteers who this year provided additional funding that helped make the 2013 health checks a great success.

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All of the male cheetahs (25) and female leopards (2) received contraceptive implants (Deslorelin 4.7mg).  See: Contraception in wildlife.

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Overall the animals were found to be in excellent health. Four cheetahs, a lion and a leopard required the services of veterinary dental specialist Dr Gerhard Steenkamp who arrived in the second week and performed several tooth extractions and root canal treatments. See: dental check process.

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Sadly a very difficult decision had to be made to euthanase the two old caracals Max and Shingy. Both had lived well passed their expected life spans, but were showing signs of advanced kidney failure and it was decided that their quality of life would only continue to deteriorate despite any efforts to treat them.

The samples and data collected from the cheetahs and other large cats will provide important baseline information for a long-term study on the health of the animals at AfriCat. The knowledge gained in this study will hopefully deepen our understanding of diseases, such as chronic kidney failure in felids, and ultimately lead to better prevention and treatment of this disease in felids around the world. See: A new approach to disease research in cheetahs at Africat.


Dates for next year’s health checks are already being finalised. In addition to the wealth of information collected on each cat this year, examinations planned for 2014, will also include the use of gastroscopy and abdominal ultrasound to further add to our knowledge on the state of health in our animals.


Management of the animals at AfriCat is of a very high standard. Suggestions that were made last year for improvement of feeding management and nutrition have been implemented successfully and there have been noticeable improvements in particularly their dental health as a result.

We have made additional management recommendations in light of the increase in cheetah flies on the animals (likely as a result of higher than usual rainfall over the past few years (see: cheetah flies and more flies) as well as the fact that these animals play an important role in current and future research projects.

1) We recommend the construction of smaller "capture crushes" so that cheetahs can be habituated to close inspection, examination and ectoparacidal treatments can be conducted and applied without the need for immobilisation. This has been shown to be highly successful in South Africa. Designs have been discussed with AfriCat. These changes will be implemented by June 2014.
2) This will also facilitate future cheetah research in which these particular animals are playing an increasingly important role. See: Research

The AfriCat team is very grateful to those who volunteered their time and helped finance this valuable project. A special thanks goes out to Sarah Cullen who kindly donated monitoring and other equipment that was used during the health checks.
Dr Adrian Tordiffe


sarah cullensarah cullen

Word from Sarah Cullen: (New South Wales, Australia)

I am a vet nurse with small animals in a country town. However, I have had a break for the last year.

I have always had a passion for Africa and its animals ever since I can remember, especially the cats and, of course, the cheetah.

I first came to AfriCat on holiday in 2011. I fell in love with Namibia and then AfriCat! The conservation and educational work done here is what attracted me. I came back for the annual dental checks in 2012. I was helping the vets setting up the clinic and preparing everything for the dentals. I also kept a record of the dental procedures done by Doctor Steenkamp.

I then came back in 2013 for the annual health checks and dental checks. My job this time was to monitor the animals from darting time until they woke up. This included keeping records of vital signs, etc.

It is the most amazing place and the best experience. I will be back for 2014. I feel very privileged working with these amazing cats and the wonderful vets.

sally and  lucindasallylucinda 

Word from Sally Hardie: (UK Veterinarian)

"I graduated from The University of Liverpool in July 2007 with a Bachelor of Veterinary Science, and a Bachelor of Science in Veterinary Conservation Medicine, which I completed in an intercalated year in 2004. I worked in a small (2.5 vet) mixed practice in Northamptonshire for a year before heading closer to home and specialising in small animals. I have worked at my current practice for four and a half years now; it is a busy five vet practice in north Hampshire. I have an interest in wildlife and exotics, and did a four week elective with an exotic vet in my final year at University. I work with domestic cats everyday and have had a fascination with large cats for as long as I can remember.

At AfriCat, we have taken body measurements, listened to their chests, palpated their abdomens and examined their limbs to check for abnormalities. We found thorns in the pads of their feet and some wounds from fighting which we cleaned and treated.

We have learnt a lot about different combinations of drugs for big cats, darting techniques and treatment for overheating, which is not so much of a problem in the UK. It has been great to be able to use our skills to help AfriCat and large cat conservation"


Word from Lucinda (Lu) Nash: (UK Veterinarian)

"I graduated from the University of Liverpool in 2007, studying for a BVSc in veterinary science after completing a BSc Hons in Zoology. I spent the first 6 months after graduating in mixed practice and have since been in small animal practice. I am currently working in a busy 4 vet practice in the New Forest, which is a beautiful National Park. My interests are both in small animal medicine and surgery and I am currently studying for a RCVS Certificate in Advanced Veterinary Practice.

My mother lived in Cape Town before meeting my dad and so I have always dreamed of visiting South Africa. I was truly very excited about exploring Namibia and particularly visiting and volunteering at AfriCat!

The AfriCat Health Check has been an amazing experience; we both work with domestic cats every day in the UK, so to be able to work with large cats has been a fantastic opportunity! We have helped to intubate cats to give them oxygen and put them on intravenous fluids. We have been taking heart rates, respiratory rates, temperatures, blood pressure and then examining the cats’ ears, eyes, teeth, skin.

We have enjoyed lectures from the main wildlife vets and so learnt more about wildlife conservation in Namibia. Everyone has been so enthusiastic and friendly – we feel so privileged to have been part of a great team!"

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