Everything You Need to Know About Pet Cheetahs
Looking for Information on Pet Cheetahs?
If you're looking for information about cheetahs as pets, you've come to the right place. In this article, learn the following about cheetahs as pets and more:
- A brief history
- Are cheetahs safe?
- The problems with keeping and breeding cheetahs in captivity
- Living with and caring for cheetahs
- Where do people get cheetahs?
- The ethics of pet cheetahs
- The Schoeman family's Cheetah House
- Alternatives to owning a cheetah
- Volunteering opportunities to work with cheetahs
Are Cheetahs Kept as Pets?
When the question “If you could have any pet in the world without consequence, what would it be?” is asked, a cheetah is a popular response. For many people, cheetahs exemplify grace, agility and, although unwarranted, ferocity. Therefore, it is not surprising that there are many who have an interest in keeping these iconic animals as personal pets. However, this is rare in the US due to strict regulations and the difficulty in importing cheetahs. More on this further down in the article.
The keeping of exotic pets is very controversial, largely due to ignorance—many are uninformed about what an exotic pet actually is. However, cheetahs by most definitions do qualify as exotic pets, even within their home range.
A Brief History on Cheetahs as Pets
Cheetahs have never been domesticated; however, they have been kept as pets for thousands of years.
- They were often the companions of the rich and high profile. Historically, emperors, kings, and pharaohs kept them as a sign of wealth. Akbar, a Mughal ruler of the 16th-century modern-day India, was said to have owned 9,000 cheetahs over 49 years. In more modern times, not much has changed.
- American celebrities like Phyllis Gordon and Josephine Baker (both pictured above) traveled with them back when regulations were looser.
- They are also kept as pets by some of the rich in the United Arab Emirates.
- Sometimes they are seen assisting hunters in African and Middle Eastern countries (although dogs perform this service just fine as well.)
Are Cheetahs Safe as Pets and in General?
Cheetahs may be considered by some to be big cats, but viewing them as dangerous or violent is a huge misconception.
- They are nowhere near as dangerous as lions, tigers, leopards, and all other animals in this category. Obviously, this will not apply if you are a small child or around the same size as one, it's better to err on the side of caution. Generally though, cheetahs are the least dangerous of the group.
- Cheetahs are the only big cats that visitors allowed to have direct contact with in zoos without jeopardizing human life. At the very worst, keepers entering cheetah enclosures will arm themselves with very intimidating weaponry, such as brooms and rakes.
- Cheetahs also typically flee if a human approaches them or makes direct eye contact, unlike other animals which may prepare to pounce instead.
- Simply put, if you are an average-sized adult, cheetahs do not see you as prey. Lions have even been known to take down small elephants in groups, and tigers, which are solitary hunters, can take down large water buffalo by themselves.
What is the explanation for cheetahs being safer than other big cats? Well, cheetahs, unlike other big cats, are rather selective about the animals they hunt (such as small to medium-sized antelope species), and they kill their prey by tripping them and biting the neck. Cheetahs, which weigh around 100 pounds, do not possess the muscular bulk of other big cats and have smaller heads. They know their place in the predator hierarchy and do not 'bite off more than they can chew.' They never want to attack humans, unlike some dogs.
Therefore, fears of cheetahs being dangerous beyond any other similar-sized animal with teeth are overblown, but there are other issues with cheetah ownership to be discussed below.
The Issue With Captive Cheetahs
While cheetahs live on average about 8 years in the wild, 17 years is not uncommon in captivity. However, although there has been increasing success, there's an issue with this in that cheetahs breed very poorly in captivity. Hence, this is why they are uncommon. Cheetahs are also sometimes poached in the wild to provide babies for the pet trade.
Only around 44% of zoological facilities attempting to breed the animals have succeeded, with only 20% of captive-bred and 15% wild-caught cheetahs reproducing. Infant mortality is around 37 percent due to low sperm count and other abnormalities, which result from varying factors of insufficient husbandry standards. Read on to learn about the reasons for this.
Why It's Hard to Breed Cheetahs in Captivity
- They need space. Facilities that have been the most successful in breeding cheetahs provide at least one hectare per animal group, or 2.5 acres (the size of a standard American football field is approximately 1.3 acres.) Small enclosures have been shown to be linked to lower male fertility and hampered breeding success.
- Specific social structures must be adhered to. Cheetahs aren't like tigers, which breed very well in captivity and even do so in the wild despite their endangered status. Breeding these naturally solitary animals requires sufficient knowledge of the mechanisms that entice them to breed. In order to encourage cheetah breeding, males and females must be isolated from view of each other. Males are generally released into an enclosure where the female has been, and if he exhibits signs of wanting to breed, the female will then be introduced. This all of course requires many large enclosures, luck, and good animal sense to achieve.
- Nutrition. Cheetahs have very specific nutrition needs. They should be provided with the appropriate calcium and phosphorus ratios and other vitamins in their diet. Cheetahs that are removed for hand-rearing are especially prone to nutritional deficiencies. Poor nutrition of the mother cheetah will also affect the cubs that are receiving her colostrum. In addition, if other aspects of husbandry are not adequate, such stress may inhibit lactation, cause the mother to abandon her cubs, or even result in her cannibalizing them.
- Crowds stress cheetahs out. The traditional public zoo environment is noisy and often too stressful for successful breeding efforts.
- Low sperm count and inbreeding. Poor genetic representation of cheetahs results in a small portion of captive cheetahs that end up breeding successfully.
Living With Cheetahs
- If cheetahs survive cubhood, the adults still must be maintained on specific diets that address their nutritional needs or they will be at risk for malnourishment, which is a condition they often suffer from when they are removed from private homes. The diet should consist of a specially prepared carnivore diet and whole prey with supplementation (vitamins A, D, and E), including bones to prevent the occurrence of focal palatine erosion, calcium deficiency, and other dental problems that can become life-threatening over time.
- Just the same as other pets like dogs, they are in need of their own species-specific stimulation and environmental enrichment. It has been shown that the welfare of cheetahs is enhanced if they can view their natural prey.
- As one would expect, exercise is also important. While captive cheetahs often won't reach their top speed of 60mph in captivity due to a lack of conditioning, it is important to exercise them with short distance, quick-burst running. This can be accomplished with a mechanical lure.
- Although cheetahs can seem tame, their care is not like that of a typical dog and cat. Wild cats can often be destructive in the home, and they are prone to urine spraying.
Where Do People Get Cheetahs?
Many people ask if it is possible to obtain a pet cheetah.
- In the United States. Straight off the bat, if you are in the United States, forget about it. Cheetahs are rare in the U.S. and are not even so common in zoological facilities because they are hard to breed and are not imported easily. Furthermore, it is illegal to keep them as pets in the U.S.
- Other countries. Private owners of cheetahs both legally and illegally obtained probably live in either the United Arab Emirates, some Western Asian countries where they can be purchased (and aren't illegal), or an African country where they can be found in the wild or bought at auctions.
- Specifically in the United Arab Emirates. In the UAE, cheetah importation (along with other big cats and wildlife species) has recently been banned, due to illegal and ill-informed purchases of animals like these. This has often led to poor welfare and negligent abandonment of the cats. There are captive breeders of cheetahs in the UAE, but it is likely that most of them have originated from now illegal methods. Unfortunately, even if a breeder claims an animal was captive-bred, it might not be so. While buying captive-bred animals is legal, some owners take pride in obtaining cheetahs through illegal methods.
The Ethics of Keeping Cheetahs as Pets
It is not in the best interest of the species as a whole to keep cheetahs as pets, unfortunately. As described above, the extremely poor breeding success of these cats make them unsustainable as pets.
- Animals that are not captive-bred are more than likely to have been obtained by immoral practices such as removal from the wild, which may result in the death of the mother.
- The cubs, as previously described, are very hard to care for. On top of that, the babies are often treated poorly on the way to their destination. The surviving animals are sold indiscriminately to people who buy them solely to show them off, which alone may not be negative, but yields difficulty in allowing the cubs to receive the strict care standards they need.
- The current cheetah population is around 12,000–15,000, down from the approximate 50,000 the count was at before human interference. According to the Cheetah Conservation Fund, 104 cheetahs were "lost" to the pet trade in 2012.
- While the pet cheetah trade is by no means the number one threat that the animals face against their wild populations, removing any animals from threatened populations, especially if the numbers are lower in a specific locale, could bring a significant impact.
Cheetahs are an example of an exotic pet in which the pet trade actually harms wild populations for these reasons, but all exotic pets do not fall under this label, contrary to the erroneous belief.
A Word on the Schoeman Family's "Cheetah House"
Animal trainers Hein and Kim Schoeman have a video about their cheetahs which has recently gained popularity. The cheetahs are supposedly being prepped for release into the wild. The video startles viewers because, in it, the animals were allowed to interact with young children, then one and three years old. The owners claimed the cheetahs were adopted because they felt the mother could not care for them.
A note on this: Most zoology professionals understand the importance of avoiding hand-rearing big cats if at all possible if they are going to be integrated into a natural setting, and especially if the animals will be released. Animals that are treated like pets are very poor candidates for successful integration because the wild cat's critical period of development entails important non-replicable changes take place that adapt them to the demands of wild living (which exceed basic hunting skills). A domestic pet cheetah, therefore, is not privy to this training.
It is not mentioned in this short clip why efforts were not made to reintroduce the cubs to the mother after they gained enough strength, or exposed to her and their siblings to avoid to problems associated with human imprinting.
Servals: An Alternative to Owning a Cheetah as a Pet
For those who live in the U.S. whose dreams of owning a cheetah have been crushed, don't fret: there are alternatives. African servals are smaller and cheaper wild cats which closely resemble cheetahs. According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species they are not threatened in the wild and have sustainable, captive-bred populations.
However, there are caveats:
- These animals require a committed owner who is willing to endure possible house destruction in addition to providing an outdoor enclosure.
- African servals are only legal without special permits in about five states, and even that number is decreasing.
- It is advised to check first if you decide to own one. In states where they are legal, it's also still likely your county, city, or neighborhood association may not permit it.
Note: If servals are illegal where you live, Savannah cats, which are hybrids of domesticated cats and servals may not be, depending on the generation (F1-F6).
Experience Cheetahs Up Close by Volunteering at a Zoo
Another way for one to experience cheetahs up close is to volunteer at a zoo that has them. Hopefully, you can work your way up to a position where you can interact with them. If you don't have the time commitment to do this, you can also just attend the zoo frequently and enjoy them. Your money will be put to good use for conservation of the species.
If other animals at the zoo aren't to your preference or liking, or if you just aren't a zookeeper type willing to put up with the annoyances of non-domesticated animals, there are fully domesticated cat breeds with spots such as the Egyptian Mau. You can look into owning a cheetah-lookalike, legally.
Additional Related Links
Video: Trailer for Duma (Cheetah Movie)
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
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© 2013 Melissa A Smith