Poor diet causes major health issues for big cats in captivity, says UAE study

Dr Ulrich Wernery, the scientific director at the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory, said the study sheds light on an important problem seen in captive felines world wide and also in big numbers in the UAE.

Scientists and activists have long held that a diet of chicken meat lacks the minerals and vitamins that a cheetah needs to stay healthy. Andrew Henderson / The National
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DUBAI // A study on how cheetahs and lions kept in private collections are cared for has confirmed scientists’ suspicions that feeding big cats the wrong type of food causes serious health problems for them.

Samples examined from 61 cheetahs and 15 lions revealed a strong correlation between an improper diet – of mostly chicken meat – and a host of neurological and physical disorders. The animals were tested between 2002 and last year at the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory (CVRL) in Dubai.

As The National has reported previously, scientists and activists have criticised the practice of feeding captive cheetahs – an endangered animal unlawfully obtained by private individuals – a diet of chicken meat as it lacks the minerals and vitamins the animals need to stay healthy.

In the wild, cheetahs hunt a variety of animals and habitually eat the skin, fur, feathers, internal organs and bones of their pray, taking in much-needed vitamins and minerals in the process.

“Captive animals cannot care for themselves, so it is our responsibility to optimise their lives in captivity,” said Dr Claudia Kaiser, the lead author of the study who worked at CVRL from 2012 to last year.

Also collaborating on the project were the Cheetah Conservation Fund, a non-governmental organisation in Namibia, the Institute of Animal Nutrition, Vetsuisse Faculty Zurich, and the Centre for Applied Biotechnology and Molecular Medicine at the University of Zurich.

The study analysed pathology findings and tissue and serum results of cheetahs and lions, and examined the link between the animals’ health and their intake of vitamin A and copper, a trace element required for a number of bodily functions such as haemoglobin synthesis, mineralisation of the skeleton and many others.

The animals in the study, which originated from various private collections within the UAE and were aged from 11 months to 12 years, were divided into three groups depending on their diet.

Group A consisted of 17 cheetahs regularly fed whole fresh quail and pieces of carcass from herbivorous animals as well as supplements.

In group B there were 18 cheetahs and six lions that were fed whole chicken with the bones but no internal organs or feathers, as well as pieces of animal carcass.

The 26 cheetahs and nine lions in group C received whole chicken or chicken muscle meat only, with no additional supplementation.

Out of the 76 animals, 23 had some sort of neurological disorder, such as lack of muscle control during voluntary movements, lack of coordination, swaying gait and hind-limb weakness. In the final stages some were unable to stand, developed hind limb paresis or partial paralysis, and died or were put down.

None of the animals in group A were affected with neurological problems, while three animals from group B were affected. In group C, where chicken was the only food source, a total of 20 animals were affected by hind limb paresis and other neurological problems. Copper deficiency occurs when the mineral is lacking in the animals’ diet and can also be affected by excessive intake of zinc. High stress levels can also contribute to copper deficiency.

Dr Ulrich Wernery, the scientific director at CVRL, said the study sheds light on an important problem seen in captive felines world wide and also in big numbers in the UAE.

“We have seen this problem since many years in felines – mainly in lions, cheetahs, tigers and leopards,” he said.

“Chicken does not have enough nutrition for a growing animal and the main problem is the damage is irreversible.”

Due to extensive awareness drives, more owners know of the need to feed their animals a proper diet, he said. Another step is to explain to owners the negative impact of capturing animals from the wild.

In Sharjah, owning exotic predatory pets was recently banned by a decree from the emirate’s ruler, with only licensed public and private zoos and research centres allowed to do so.