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Health Check 2015

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.
vet check lion
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.
vet check a well earned lunch break
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

adrian gerhard with team
L to R Dr. Emma Sant Cassia, Prof. Henk Berschinger, Dr. Adrian Tordiffe,
Dr Gerhard Steenkamp and team.
dr adrian tordiffeDr. Adrian Tordiffe
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.
dr hartman procedure
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."

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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.
prof bertschinger
Dr. Henk Bertschinger, contraceptive specialist.
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Dr. Henk Bertschinger, contraceptive specialist.
prof bertschinger vet student ayla newarch
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."

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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.

cheetahs need exercisecheetahs need exercise

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.





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


volunteers africat healthcheck
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.
volunteers with dr tordiffe discussing procedures research
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.
volunteers africat healthcheck
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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