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Cheetah Health

January 29, 2014

Smithsonian’s National Zoo Euthanized Male Cheetah

We are mourning the loss of eight-year-old adult male cheetah, Draco, who was humanely euthanized earlier this morning. A final pathology report will provide more information. Typically, male cheetahs in human care have a median lifespan of ten years. Longevity studies have not been conducted in the wild.

According to his keepers, Draco was a finicky eater his whole life. Recently, he began to show even less interest in food. In order to ensure Draco received the nutrients he needed, keepers and Zoo nutritionists placed meat chunks on a modified tool to interest Draco in the food. Often, it took several feeding sessions throughout the day to entice him to eat.

Smithsonian’s National Zoo Euthanized Male Cheetah
Smithsonian’s National Zoo Euthanized Male Cheetah

"When you dedicate so much time and attention to an animal, you want that animal to thrive," said Tony Barthel, curator of the Cheetah Conservation Station. "Our team worked tirelessly for a long time to get Draco to eat on his own. Ultimately, his long-term prognosis would not permit him a good quality of life."

Although Draco initially responded well to the staff's efforts, his appetite never normalized. An examination performed by Zoo veterinarians on December 11 revealed an abdominal abnormality. A follow-up exploratory surgery December 14 with a consulting veterinary surgeon revealed a constricted, ulcerated area in his gastrointestinal tract, which likely contributed to his poor condition.

Draco arrived at the National Zoo in April 2007 from the White Oak Conservation Center in Florida. He was on exhibit with his brothers, Granger and Zabini. In the wild, male cheetahs from the same litter often live together in groups called coalitions. The bond among animals in a coalition is extremely strong, and managers maintain this natural social grouping in zoos. Draco never sired offspring; rather, he served as an educational ambassador for his species, illustrating the social nature and behavior of cheetahs to scientists, keepers and Zoo visitors.

Cheetahs live in small, isolated populations mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. Many of their strongholds are in eastern and southern African parks. Due to human conflict, poaching, and habitat and prey-base loss, there are only an estimated 7,500 to 10,000 cheetahs left in the wild. The International Union for Conservation of Nature considers cheetahs vulnerable to extinction.

Zoo visitors can see Granger, Zabini, and two sub-adult cheetahs at the Cheetah Conservation Station.

Smithsonian’s National Zoo Euthanized Male Cheetah

December 13

We are happy to announce Granger cheetah is doing well following his surgery last week and will be joining Draco and Zabini back at Cheetah Conservation Station.

Cheetah Draco’s health, unfortunately, has taken a turn for the worse. He continues to lose weight and refuse to eat. Yesterday, he was examined at the veterinary hospital and found to have both jaw and gastrointestinal issues, which are likely part of what’s making him lose weight.

Draco is receiving medications to treat his symptoms, alleviate any discomfort, and hopefully stimulate his appetite. This morning, the Department of Nutrition sent down a number of new food items to try as well as some of Draco’s old favorites, to try to tempt him to eat. If he continues not to eat, Draco will have another exam today or tomorrow, which may include exploratory surgery if necessary.

The animal care, nutrition, and veterinary teams are working hard to make Draco as comfortable as possible, and they continue to give him the very best individual care and devotion. We will be sure to keep you updated on his condition.

December 10

When you work closely with someone day in and day out—regardless of whether they’re a human coworker or an animal you care for—you get to know their quirks and behavior. So when animal care staff noticed that Granger, one of four male cheetahs that live at the Zoo, wasn’t eating as much as he usually does, they watched him closely. They observed his stomach looked a little unusual and that he was stretching more than usual—a sign that he might be uncomfortable. The team decided that a veterinary exam was necessary.

At the exam, the veterinary team discovered a mass on Granger’s belly and took a biopsy. The results of the biopsy are pending, but the animal care team determined that the mass needed to come out immediately. The animal care team collaborated with a veterinary surgeon to remove it.

Granger is being treated at the Zoo’s Intensive Care Unit at the Veterinary Hospital for several days until he is cleared to return to the Cheetah Conservation Station where he can be near his brothers Draco and Zabini. The veterinary team is working closely with animal care to monitor his health and give him the best care possible. He is recovering as well as we could hope, but this is a very serious health issue, and the animal care staff will continue to watch him very carefully.

Granger’s illness and consequent treatment is an excellent example of the way that, even with a large and varied animal collection, the Zoo’s professional staff is able to provide individual attention and care to each animal.

As some of you may recall, Granger’s brother Draco has also been having some health problems this fall. He has a long history of not eating well and was consequently losing weight. The animal care team worked extremely hard developing innovative ways to make sure he ate every day. He still doesn't eat as much as the animal care team would like and is underweight. Animal care staff continue to keep a close eye on him and think of ways to tempt to eat as much of his diet as possible. To further assess Draco's health and any possible underlying issues, he will have an exam, including X-rays and ultrasounds, at the veterinary hospital later this week.

September 29

Draco, our cheetah who was losing weight, has gained a little weight and seems to be doing better this week!

He showed a three-pound weight gain when he was weighed last week, and showed another weight gain when he was weighed this week. He has eaten his full allotment of food and medicine all week. His keepers say he looks bright and alert, and is back to hissing and snarling at them, as he usually does when he’s feeling well.

The team is still cautious, and still watching Draco very closely, but they're feeling encouraged by his progress.

September 17

As we mentioned last week Draco, one of our cheetahs, hasn’t been eating and has been losing weight. As he isn’t improving, the animal care team gave him a complete examination yesterday.

During his examination, the team found that Draco was very thin, which reflects what animal care had observed. He also had fluid in his ear, which may mean that he has an ear infection. An ear infection could explain some of his symptoms (his slightly wobbly balance and his lack of appetite.) The team collected a number of samples to analyze further to see if they can determine what’s causing the ear infection and other symptoms.

In the meantime veterinarians, husbandry, and nutrition team members are working closely together to encourage Draco to eat, and he’s on medications to help treat his symptoms. The animal care team will continue to monitor his status closely.

September 12

Regular Zoo visitors are probably familiar with the sight of our three cheetah brothers: Zabini, Granger, and Draco. One of the brothers, Draco, has never had a robust appetite. It's typical for cheetahs to lose weight in the spring and summer and to gain it again in the fall and winter. While he Draco has always been a finicky eater, according to his keepers, recently he hardly seems interested in food at all. He's lost weight and is starting to look skinny. Concerned about his health, the animal care team is keeping a close eye on him, and recently gave him a comprehensive veterinary exam. The animal care team was able to determine that Draco has more fat stores than you'd guess by looking at him (he's not as skinny as he looks), but they do not know what is causing his loss of weight and appetite.

In order to ensure Draco gets the nutrients he needs, keepers are giving him extra care and attention and "hand-feeding" him. They place carefully cut meat chunks (Draco prefers his meat to be cut in perfect cubes rather than in amorphous lumps) on a kind of long modified shovel they call a "spoon" and attempt to interest Draco in the food. Sometimes he's interested, but it often takes more than three or four feeding sessions throughout the day to get a reasonable amount of food into him.

Animal care staff are hopeful that as the weather turns cooler, Draco may recover his appetite and work his way back up to a healthy weight.