Cheetah cubs get checkup before transfer

Tye Chandler :
Posted December 4, 2017

Fossil Rim Wildlife Center Veterinarians Dr. Holly Haefele and Dr. Julie Swenson, along with their team, executed an exam with uncommon circumstances on Nov. 30.

The patients were six-month-old cheetah cubs “Cersei” and “Sansa.”

Dr. Holly Haefele auscultates Sansa’s heart, listening for any arrhythmias or murmurs that could indicate an abnormality.
Cheetah Specialist Alex Sharkey stands by to help restrain if Sansa starts to wake from anesthesia too early. Dr. Holly Haefele palpates the six-month-old cheetah’s abdomen.

“We got to do something pretty fun – an exam on two healthy cheetahs,” Haefele said. “These cubs are hand-reared and will be going to the Caldwell Zoo in Tyler soon, but first we wanted to give them a thorough checkup.”

One of the aspects that made the exam unusual is where it happened – at the Robert B. Haas Family Cheetah Conservancy aka “Cheetah Hill” instead of at the veterinary clinic.

Dr. Julie Swenson draws blood from Cersei’s medial saphenous vein. The blood is used to run multiple lab tests to help ensure the cub is healthy prior to transfer to another facility, in this case the Caldwell Zoo in Tyler.
Veterinary student Tess Rooney multitasks; she is labeling blood samples and keeping track of vitals during Cersei’s anesthesia.

“As opposed to a standard adult cheetah exam, we didn’t do these in the vet clinic,” Haefele said. “It is an easier process at the clinic for several reasons, but we talked about it and decided that doing the exams in their enclosure on both of them at once would be the least stressful route for them. Otherwise, we’d probably crate them and take them to the clinic; if we only did one at a time, they would’ve been pretty nervous.

“Instead, they went to sleep and woke up at the same time, so they didn’t miss each other. When they are separated, they are pretty upset.”

Veterinary Technician Allyssa Roberts keeps track of blood samples from both cubs making sure everything is labeled correctly.

Also, conducting simultaneous exams is a seldom-seen tactic.

“It is unusual we would do two exams at the same time,” Haefele said. “Injectable anesthesia doesn’t last forever, so I wanted to get these exams done as soon as possible because we had about 30-45 minutes before they started waking up. I think we ended up at 35 minutes, which was good.”

The method in which anesthesia was administered would not be an option for many of Fossil Rim’s animals.

Cersei’s heart can be seen nicely on the ultrasound exam by Dr. Julie Swenson.

“We know we can handle them, so we decided to utilize hand injection,” she said. “If they were six months old, but not hand-raised, we would have probably netted them and then done the injection. Most animals out here require that we dart them or use a pole syringe, but these cubs are used to our animal care staff.”

Carnivore Curator Jason Ahistus and Cheetah Specialist Alex Sharkey each secured a cub for a vet to hand inject.

“Even though they are hand-reared, they can be troublemakers – especially Sansa,” Haefele said. “I cannot get a blood sample from 27 pounds of angry cheetah without having the animal sedated. We used our normal anesthesia protocol, which worked nicely.”

With ultrasound guidance, Dr. Julie Swenson obtains a urine sample from Cersei’s bladder.

Before the injections, Haefele asked Sharkey when the cubs had their most recent food and water.

“Anytime we do anesthesia, it’s preferable for patients to have fasted in the previous 12-24 hours,” she said. “It’s just a safety precaution; we don’t want them to vomit while under anesthesia. Restriction of water is variable based on their environment and situation.”

Haefele shared the exam process.

“We did a very thorough physical examination,” she said. “We used an ophthalmoscope to look at the eyes, we did an abdominal palpation to feel the kidneys and intestines, we did radiographs and ultrasound to check the heart and abdomen, plus we used the ultrasound to collect urine samples via syringe.”

The cubs get supplemental oxygen during their exams. This helps keep their blood oxygenated while under anesthesia.

The age of the cubs was another atypical aspect of the exam. In fact, the vets had never done an anesthetic examination on cheetahs approximately this age.

“Cubs are usually with their mothers for 18-24 months before they would be considered to go to another facility and thus need a pre-shipment exam,” Haefele said. “The hearts of these cheetahs are still small enough that we could see them entirely at once with ultrasound, as opposed to viewing them in sections. Cersei and Sansa both look really healthy, so it’s always enjoyable to see an exam go well for cubs.”

While it is more likely that male cubs will stay together for the long haul, it looks like these two females may remain with each other for the foreseeable future.

Cersei is positioned for radiographs by Carnivore Curator Jason Ahistus and Dr. Julie Swenson. Thoracic and abdominal radiographs are routine when cheetahs are being examined.

“Sansa and Cersei aren’t actually sisters,” Haefele said. “Sansa was born at Fossil Rim with her brother, while Cersei was born with her brother at another facility. They were close enough in age that we decided to bring all four cubs together, and then pull the two males to go to another facility and keep the two females together. They think they are sisters and are tightly bound, so it will be nice for them to go on exhibit together at the Caldwell Zoo and play nonstop.”

Dec. 4 is notable for these cubs and their entire species, considering it marks International Cheetah Day.

“International Cheetah Day is a big deal for a number of reasons,” Haefele said. “We have 33 cheetahs currently, and they are one of our more prominent species, as well as an important conservation effort. This is a time to bring awareness to the species. Currently, the estimated population is 7,100 in Africa, which is down considerably over the last 30 years.

Alex Sharkey (right) helps position Sansa for cystocentesis, the sampling of urine from the bladder using a needle and syringe.

“The population is shrinking for several reasons, including loss of habitat. Whatever we can do at Fossil Rim to get people thinking about conservation of endangered and threatened species while teaching them about cheetahs, it is definitely worthwhile.”

To learn about how you can help Fossil Rim’s cheetah program keep building off its 190 cubs born since 1986, check out https://fossilrim.org/cheetahchallenge/.

-Tye Chandler, Marketing Associate 

Sleepy Sansa has her heart rate monitored during her exam by Vet Tech Allyssa Roberts.
Success is golden! This urine sample from Sansa will be analyzed by Vet Tech Allyssa Roberts when the team returns to the animal hospital.
The “sisters” check in after their procedures. They are reassured by touching and rubbing up against each other.
Having just woken up from anesthesia, Cersei still looks a little sleepy. The anesthetic drugs are all reversed so both cubs woke within a few minutes, and were walking around just minutes after that.

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