The cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) has been considered a paradigm for disease vulnerability due to loss of genetic diversity. This species monomorphism has been suspected to be the basis for their general poor health and dwindling populations in captivity. North American and South African captive populations have high prevalences of hepatic veno-occlusive disease, glomerulosclerosis, gastritis, and systemic amyloidosis, diseases that are rare in other species. Unusually severe inflammatory reactions to common infectious agents have also been documented in captive cheetahs. The current study compared disease prevalences in free-ranging Namibian cheetahs with those in two captive populations of similar ages. The occurrence of diseases in the free-ranging population was determined from 49 necropsies and 27 gastric biopsies obtained between 1986 and 2003 and compared with prevalences in 147 North American and 80 South African captive cheetahs. Except for two cheetahs, the free-ranging population was in robust health with only mild lesions present, in contrast with significantly higher prevalences in the captive populations. Despite widespread heavy Helicobacter colonization in wild cheetahs, only 3% of the free-ranging population had moderate to severe gastritis, in contrast with 64% of captive cheetahs. No severe inflammatory reactions to viral infections were detected in the free-ranging animals. Because free-ranging Namibian cheetahs are as genetically impoverished as captive cheetahs, these findings caution against attributing loss of fitness solely to genetic factors and attest to the fundamental importance of extrinsic factors in wildlife health.
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Vol. 41 • No. 3