Does captivity predispose felids to metabolic syndrome?

What is the problem?

The captivity of wild animals is a practice implemented for a number of reasons, but primarily for the protection and conservation of endangered species. The dietary needs of felids are not yet well understood and may predispose these animals to metabolic diseases. In a group of captive lions in the North West Province in South Africa, body weight was found to be highly skewed as the lions were greatly overweight. Furthermore, as a result of routine feeding, the need for behavioural activities of hunting and chasing prey have been removed, causing these lions to become inactive and rather lethargic.

Along with lions, there are various other felid species, such as caracals, cheetahs, leopards and lynxes, that reside in captivity. Each of these species differ in their biochemical and genetic makeup, and therefore may have different nutritional needs. It is then not surprising that the question “Are these captive felids becoming insulin resistant?” becomes extremely relevant. 

What is the plan?

We have collected muscle samples from 87 lions, with 7 being wild and the rest from sanctuaries. Additionally, we also collected samples from 36 cheetahs. The samples are being processed for:

  • fibre morphology
  • fat content
  • metabolism
  • insulin signalling pathway and
  • glucose transport.

Research team

The research team comprises of:

  • Prof Adrian Tordiffe (University of Pretoria)
  • James Peart – Honours 2014
  • Samantha Knobel – Honours 2016
  • Daneil Feldmann – MSc 2017


This project was funded by the National Research Foundation of South Africa.