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 . . .
Darting a captive cheetah in a hold-over or catch-camp is very stressful!
Even if it’s a habituated cat, for they feel captured and cannot get away from man.
The cheetah realizes something is different and starts pacing before the vet darts and after the dart has hit, stress-levels shoot even higher before the drug takes effect – temperatures then rise fast.
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.
Read the full story on the AfriCat website with lots of photos from this years Annual AfriCat Health Check. One of our young male cheetahs is Swakop. 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. Read how he got on this year in the full article.