“Zoos tell us as much about humans as they do about animals ” Richard Mabey
For many years, I treated wild exotic cats in zoos and private collections in Texas. Later, I cared for large circus cats in Sarasota, Florida. This is some of the information I learned over that time. For it, I am indebted to the Rosaire Family, Show Folks Inc. of Sarasota and to the kind members of the Feline Conservation Federation of America.
Hand-raising big exotic cats is somewhat like baking a cake – there is no one right way to do it but there are some obvious things you want to avoid. What is important is that you are happy with the final results.
Why Would Anyone Want To Hand-raise Big Exotic Cats?
It’s not unusual for exotic wild cats, living in captive situations, to need help raising one or more of their offspring. In captivity, the clues, rhythms and experiences that govern their natural wild behaviors are missing or poorly developed. This often includes the rearing of their young. If all cubs are of equal size and development and one has died or is in serious trouble, I usually suggest all the babies be pulled and hand-raised then and there.
First Time Mothers
Exotic cats giving birth for the first time often have poorer maternal instincts and less success then they do in subsequent litters. If one or more infants are subnormal in temperature or have died, you may be able to save the rest through hand rearing.
People occasionally find these wild infant felines after a parent was killed, injured or when their parental bond was broken – usually through some interaction with humans. These foundlings can be successfully raised. They are rarely suitable for re-introduction into the wild, but they make good educational ambassadors and zoo display cats.
Display and Performance Cats
Many animal professionals raise these magnificent creatures for show or display. They usually find that these big cats lead less stressful lives and are more excepting of human companionship when they are nurtured by humans from birth or shortly there after.
Exceptionally Large Litters
Occasional mothers will give birth to more kittens than they can successfully raise. Those that are slightly smaller will quickly fall behind in growth and rarely survive. For all to survive, some will need to be bottle-fed.
When a male species of cat is bred to a female of a different smaller species, the kittens may be born after a shorter pregnancy than would have occurred in the larger species. These kittens are sometimes slightly less developed than they would normally be and may require bottle-feeding to survive.
Exotic wild felines are commonly raised and sold as pets in the United States. My observation has been that, with the exception of servals and other smaller cats, it is a really unwise idea to keep big exotic cats as domestic pets. Most people greatly underestimate the commitment required to keep these animals, their space requirements, the time their care involves and the cost of keeping them. When you cut corners on any of those things, or when you think you can make them into anything but the wild animals God intended them to be, things will end sadly. But my clients still insist on having them, my job is to keep them healthy and hand raising them is the norm. It does establish a bond and trust that is next to impossible to establish later in the cat’s life. But anyone who tells you you can ever fully trust a large cat has a leak in their attic.
Are There Drawbacks of Bottle-Feeding ?
Bottle-fed big cats are going to turn out quite differently from those raised by their mothers. Depending on your future plans for the cat, this can be a good thing or a bad thing. Other than that, hand-raising infant big cats is a big commitment in time and energy that requires homework and preparation if you are going to succeed.
Once a facility decides to bottle feed its offspring, it may be forced to do so in subsequent generations since human-raised large cats may become poor mothers themselves.
In zoos, bottle-feeding is a time-consuming process that ties up staff time, space and resources. When more than one individual is assigned the chore, slight changes in care technique often causes digestive disturbances in the young animals. Besides, large cats that are raised by their own parents grow up better adjusted to group living.
First Things To Do When Hand-Raising – Initial Physical Exam
When you remove cubs from their mother, the first thing to do is to closely examine them. Each cub needs a notebook, a name or a number. Snip of a small tuft of hair or mark their tails or claws with a dab of nail polish to tell them apart.
Be sure the cubs remain warm
while you are doing it.
First check its mouth and nose to be sure it can breath freely. If any of its amniotic sac remains on its face, remove that material completely.
Weigh each cub with an accurate food scale and record its weight.
Check it’s belly button (umbilicus) to see that it has fully closed and is dry.
If its remaining cord is longer than an inch, cut it off at an inch. If it is damp or infected where it enters the body, swab it off with povone iodine.
Check its mouth to be sure the palate is fully formed.
Check its anus to be sure it is normally formed and not protruding.
Check it for fleas or other external parasites.
Listen to its chest for any sounds of congestion.
Check its eyes for any dissimilarity between the pupils, inflammation or other abnormalities.
Check all its limbs to be sure they are normal.
Check its entire body for any superficial wounds, sores or abrasions.
If you are concerned about anything you observe, consult a seasoned professional who has raised many exotic cats. Your local animal hospital is not a good place to seek advice in raising these animals, neither are your local game wardens or SPCA. ( Professional, in this case, means experienced, wise and practical, not degreed, titled and academic. )
If the cub(s) are cold or wet, dry them completely with a face towel and warm them immediately. I use a hair dryer on low setting. But be sure you keep the dryer a far distance from the animal’s body, away from its face and do not over heat it. Warm it to your body temperature. You will know it is sufficiently warm when its footpads are the same temperature as the rest of its body and its mouth and tongue are a rosy pink in color. Then wrap a hot water bottle in a towel and place it next to the cub. Individual cubs are more susceptible to chilling than a group of snuggling ones.
What Formula Should I Feed?
You can be successfully raising infant large exotic cats on accepted traditional formulas you make from individual supermarket ingredients, from commercially available infant pet formulas and from combinations of the two. When you feed any one of these three options, how you feed is just as important as which one you feed.
Some people still believe that to be successful with a particular species of big or exotic cat, they must feed a milk formula that is identical to the composition of that cat’s milk as they see it recorded in the literature. The largest producer of animal milk replacements, PetAg, has encourages that way of thinking. However, the data that these people use to make their recommendations is pretty much worthless.
Here is why these minor differences in constituents do not matter.
First, the composition of every species of exotic cat changes a lot during the time it is nursing its cubs. Depending on when the sample was taken, the content of fats, protein and calcium varies enormously. It also varies depending on what the mother cat has been eating, the number of kittens it was nursing and even the nipple (ref ) that was sampled. It is somewhat like you averaging your weather forecast during a year and saying that that is what the weather will be like tomorrow. It is OK for making broad general decisions as to what ought to be in an exotic cat milk replacement, but not what the individual levels should be. Much of the published species milk analysis data is just plain silly as another article points out (ref ).
It is relatively easy to cross-breed (hybridize) wild exotic cats. Common sense tells you that for this to happen these cats must be very much alike in their metabolic and nutrient needs at a cellular level. Where the cubs differ is in their starting weight, and how long growth occurs.
After their initial flow of thick, rich colostrum, big cats produce a more dilute milk during their first week of lactation that gradually increases in its protein, fat and calcium content. Calcium content tends to increase slowly, increasing up to 200% in late lactation. Lactose (milk sugar) remains rather constant throughout lactation. By comparison, the cow’s milk you buy is much more constant with a lower amount of protein, less fat and a higher amount of lactose sugar.
I put together some recorded milk sample constituents for exotic cats and comparative species. They are valuable in getting a feel for the general level of nutrients in exotic cat milk – nothing more . No one has ever determined that one species of exotic cat requires a special nutrient or nutrient level that another species of exotic cat doesn’t. And there is no reason to think that any of them would.