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.
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.
Dr Adrian Tordiffe attends North West University and is one of our vets who regularly attends and organises teams during our annual health and dental check at AfriCat.