Ultra-healthy: OKC Zoo’s Cats Participate in Ultrasound and Radiograph Training

No cat-itude, just gratitude! At the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden, medical training is a critical part of our animal family’s health and wellness. These voluntary training sessions not only monitor the health of our animal family, but also strengthen the relationships between caretaker and animal, while providing an enriching opportunity. When training for medical behaviors, the Zoo’s carnivore care team typically begins with medical injections, as well as blood draw training, but that is not where the training ends!

Depending on the individual cat, other medical behaviors include participating in voluntary ultrasounds and radiographs (X-rays). Many of the Zoo’s small cats participate in radiograph training. When caretakers would like to evaluate bone health, radiograph training becomes an important step in the training process. Training for this behavior helps the care team to determine proper bone growth in young cats like Dodger, the Zoo’s two-year-old bobcat, as well as identify signs of arthritis in the Zoo’s geriatric cats, including 17-year-old caracal, Azalea. Radiograph have also been utilized to confirm pregnancies at the Zoo. This was the case for Miri, the Zoo’s 14-year-old female fishing cat, and mother of three-year-old, Puddles, when care team members were able to see Puddles’s developing bones in the womb. While ultrasounds are helpful when evaluating the health of animals, they are primarily used to view organs and soft tissue.

Ultrasound training is especially important with female cats at the Zoo who may become pregnant in the future. Achieving successful ultrasounds through training sessions in advance ensures that animal will be comfortable with the process when pregnant. As an active participant in the Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s (AZA) Species Survival Plan® (SSP) programs, the Zoo partners with other AZA-accredited zoos to determine viable breeding matches for various animal species, including 10 cat species.

Similar to the way humans attend regular ultrasounds to monitor fetal development and health, the Zoo’s carnivore team performs ultrasounds for the animals in their care. With felids, or cats, there is a strong chance that multiple offspring will be born in a single gestation period, as many cats have litters of kittens or cubs. Confirming how many individual offspring to expect helps the care team to prepare properly for their arrival. Ultrasounds also provide a helpful reference for the timing of the birth and expected weight gain for the mother to make sure she stays a healthy weight throughout the pregnancy.

Because most cats are solitary animals and only come together for mating purposes, caretakers often know when to expect a pregnancy. However, there is one special case at the Zoo that presents more of a unique challenge when confirming conception. The Zoo is home to a bonded pair of clouded leopards, female Rukai, 2, and male JD, 2, who were matched as part of a breeding recommendation in AZA’s SSP for Clouded Leopards. The bonded pair spend each and every day with one another in their habitat at Cat Forest, making it challenging to observe all breeding behavior. The method of introducing juvenile, genetically valuable male and female clouded leopards began about a decade ago when the clouded leopard population began to drastically decline.

Clouded leopards are listed by the IUCN as vulnerable to extinction due to deforestation, poaching and the pet trade. Clouded leopards are protected in most range countries although enforcement in many areas is weak. Precise data on clouded leopard population numbers is not known (they are among the most elusive cat species) but researchers estimate there are around 10,000 clouded leopards in the wild.

Because Rukai has been trained to voluntarily participate in this behavior since she was one year old, she is now extremely comfortable with ultrasound training and enjoys the interaction with her caretakers. This proactive approach to ultrasound training will prove to be crucial when a pregnancy is confirmed.

Are you cat fan? Join us and Bob Moore Subaru on Sunday, August 8, for International Cat Day, and enjoy learning more about our feline family while participating in event activities. Learn more on the Zoo's Facebook.

- Libby Hayes, senior carnivore caretaker

Photos: Kyla Flatley, carnivore caretaker and Libby Hayes

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