South Africa – Captive cheetahs frequently suffer from chronic gastrointestinal and kidney disease, unlike their wild counterparts and other big cats. An inflammatory condition of the stomach known as lymphoplasmacytic gastritis affects the majority of captive cheetahs. Also, captive cheetahs frequently have a form of kidney damage known as glomerulosclerosis.
Dr Adrian Tordiffe, from the Department of Paraclinical Sciences in the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Pretoria (UP), has long been intrigued by diseases in captive cheetahs. In his study, Tordiffe analysed the fatty acids, amino acids and acylcarnitines in the blood of both captive and wild cheetahs in Namibia, as well as organic acids in urine samples from captive individuals. He found dramatic differences between the serum fatty acids of captive and free-ranging cheetahs.
Captive cheetahs had much higher concentrations of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids in their blood and high concentrations of several phenolic compounds in their urine. He argues that the levels of these compounds could have serious negative effects on the health of these animals. Cheetahs are very sensitive to dietary changes. In the wild they typically hunt small antelope and consume most of the carcass, including bones, organs and hair, within a few hours, while it is still fresh.
Captive cheetahs, by contrast, are primarily fed the muscle meat of domestically farmed species. This food is particularly high in the aromatic amino acids tyrosine, phenylalanine and tryptophan. While further studies are underway, Tordiffe suspects some of these amino acids arrive undigested in the cheetah’s colon where they are fermented by bacteria into phenolic compounds which are absorbed into the bloodstream. Some of these phenolic compounds have been shown to suppress the enzymes that are important in the production of dopamine, an important neurotransmitter in the gastrointestinal tract and kidneys. The suppression of dopamine production could potentially be a primary factor in the chronic gastrointestinal and kidney diseases suffered by captive cheetahs.
Tordiffe also suggests that cheetahs may not have sufficiently potent anti-oxidative pathways to deal with a diet high in polyunsaturated fats. Farmed monogastric animals like chickens, horses and pigs have a relatively high polyunsaturated fat content when compared to that of the fresh ruminant prey that cheetahs typically eat in the wild. Polyunsaturated fats are sensitive to oxidation, particularly if the meat is stored before being fed to the cheetahs. These oxidised fats may cause further damage to the health of captive cheetahs.
While the obvious notion would be to feed captive cheetahs food that is more closely aligned to their natural diets, this is not always feasible. Fresh sources of small ruminants are not necessarily a viable option – ethically, financially or practically – but keeping high-value animals and feeding them poor quality food does not make sense.