Best Practices: Ideas for Improving Big Cat Care
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2005
Laurie J. Gage, DVM
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Animal Care, Napa, CA, USA


Best Practices are standards set and methods employed by various zoological institutions, sanctuaries, and private individuals for the care, husbandry, and housing of big cats. Big cats, for the purpose of this paper, include all species of leopards, tigers, lions, jaguars, cougars, and cheetahs. These Best Practices typically exceed the minimum standards set by the USDA Animal Welfare Act for the care and housing of big cats.

Enclosure designs for big cats employ a variety of elevations, vegetation, and water elements, making the environment pleasing for both big cat and viewing public alike. While ample space is desirable, providing elements such as water for the species that like to swim, such as tigers, and tree branches for the arboreal species, such as jaguars, contribute to the appeal of the enclosure and provide enrichment for the animals that live there.

Housing non-domestic cats properly may be a challenge. Fencing should be designed to be strong enough to safely hold the species if hit with full force. There is no written standard for fence height other than it must be appropriate for the species and must securely contain the animal. Tigers have been seen jumping as high as twelve feet in the air. Many curators at larger facilities agree that tigers and lions require fencing height in excess of 14 feet high for safe containment. Many institutions house tigers and lions behind 18-foot-tall, reinforced cyclone fencing with kick-ins at the top or behind a moat surrounded by smooth cantilevered walls. Climbers and jumpers (such as cougars or leopards) require a completely enclosed exhibit. Regardless of the choice of containment, cats should not be able to extend any body part through enclosure walls, barriers, and/or fencing.

Many clever methods of housing cats were found in use at both sanctuaries and zoological institutions. Efforts to provide housing that is insulated from the extremes of heat and cold result in a variety of methods that work well in the situations where they are located. Consideration of local environmental factors is important. For example, elevated housing in regions where fire ants are prevalent is desirable and adds to the comfort of the animals.

The Animal Welfare Act does not regulate enrichment; however, it is encouraged for all captive big cats. A simple wooden den box offers shelter, an elevated resting space, and a place to hide. The sides and floor of the wooden box may also provide enrichment when the animal uses them to sharpen its claws. Big cats often utilize elevated resting platforms when they are offered. These may vary from a simple sturdy wooden spool to a more complex arrangement of rocks or branches. Big cats will utilize toys, and while this play activity varies by individual, offering an assortment of big cat-proof toys is encouraged. The safety of toys for big cats should be considered carefully, as some may be damaged and could pose a threat if the cat were to ingest portions of the toy. Rubber tires generally are poor choices of toys for the larger species; however, there are those individuals that never show any desire to bite or ingest the tires. Boomer balls are generally very hardy toys but may still be damaged by the bigger cats, and should be checked regularly for wear. Small amounts of spices, perfumes, or other scents may be strategically placed in the enclosure for the cat to find and explore. Large clumps of grasses, branches, or tree trunks may also provide interesting enrichment for cats.

Water must be available to big cats at all times. Watering devices should be indestructible and difficult to overturn. Stainless steel livestock containers have proven to be durable and easy to clean. Stainless steel buckets attached to an enclosure fence may work for some big cats; however, some of the larger species have been known to destroy these. Due to their flimsy construction, galvanized buckets are poor choices for water containers.

Big cats may be trained to perform a variety of simple behaviors to aid in their care. Those that have been hand-reared and handled by experienced trainers may allow fairly advanced veterinary procedures such as obtaining blood samples, auscultation of the lungs, administering fluids subcutaneously, as well as ultrasound examinations. Big cats that are held in protected contact may be trained to station on a target for simple visual examination by the veterinarian and may even allow hand-injections of vaccines or other drugs. Occasionally, protected contact animals have been trained to allow blood sampling or the administration of subcutaneous fluids, but these are more difficult behaviors to train.


Speaker Information
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Laurie J. Gage, DVM
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service
Animal Care
Napa, CA, USA

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