You may have seen one of the videos in recent years of a cheetah and a dog romping playfully or cuddling in a zoo exhibit. You may have even thought this was just another unscrupulous “zoo” using a dangerous gimmick to attract attention and attract visitors. The good news is that this isn’t the case at all. There is a science behind the cheetah and dog bond, and it’s a carefully curated and monitored relationship.1 Let’s talk about the relationship between cheetahs and dogs and how it benefits the animals.
Why Do Cheetahs Need Support from Dogs?
In the wild, cheetahs tend to be quite solitary animals, spending most of their life alone. Sometimes, male cheetahs will bond with other males, creating small groups of companions. These relationships with other cheetahs provide support and an extra layer of safety for the cheetahs. In captivity, grouping cheetahs together with other cheetahs may not work well due to their territorial nature. This is where dogs come in!
Cheetahs in captivity can become anxious, which can lead to stress. In nature, cheetahs are built for ‘flight before fight’, which can make them prone to high stress in situations where they have limited escape routes. By providing a canine companion to a cheetah, the cheetah feels safe and has the companionship of a trusted friend for emotional support, decreasing stress.
Why Does This Relationship Work?
The dogs used in these programs are carefully selected for temperament, although most are rescue dogs. The dogs are patient dogs tolerant of the rough play put on them by the cheetah. The presence of the dog is highly calming for the cheetah, helping to reduce their stress and providing them a feeling of safety and companionship. In stressful and new situations, the dog is often willing to trot ahead, checking out the situation, which helps the cheetah feel safe and be more willing to explore the environment.
There is a lot more to the relationship than just sticking a cheetah and a dog together, though. Slow introductions start when the dog and the cheetah are both still very young, usually around 3 months of age. Oftentimes, the cheetahs have been abandoned by their mother or were taken away for some reason, like the mother not producing enough milk to support the growing kitten. By introducing the kitten and the dog to each other, the cheetah is given a playmate that helps them learn proper socialization and healthy play boundaries.
Do They Live Together?
The dog and cheetah spend multiple hours per day together, but they also get time apart as well. This allows the dog to spend time with humans and other dogs, and it allows the cheetah to learn to function on its own comfortably.
Interestingly, most accounts report the dog being the dominant member of the relationship between the two. They are separated from each other at meal times to prevent fights and disagreements over food. The other big reason they are separated at meal times is to prevent the dog from taking food from the cheetah. Since the dog is often the dominant participant in the relationship, they are more likely to steal food from the cheetah, although you’d expect the situation to be the other way around.
Most zoos separate the dog and cheetah permanently around 2 years old, although some do keep them together for life. Most zoos find that cheetahs don’t desire or need the companionship of the dog beyond 2 years old, which is the age in the wild when cheetahs leave their mother and start living independently.
Separating them decreases the chance of aggression developing from the cheetah, and generally, cheetahs no longer require the extra emotional support of the dog by this age. The separation is started well ahead of time, slowly decreasing the time the two animals spend together to prevent stress. The dogs are adopted out, often to zoo staff.
The relationship between dogs and cheetahs is unique and interesting, but it is also based on science and animal behavior. A dog is a healthy addition for many cheetahs, helping them to navigate the world around them with minimal stress and fear. It is also a great way to provide proper socialization and safe companionship to the cheetah.
These relationships are carefully created and monitored, and there’s a lot more to it than just tossing a dog and cheetah into an enclosure together. Both animals are provided time apart to allow them to develop independence and self-reliance, as well as healthy boundaries and to decrease stress when they are apart.
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