At various zoos around the world zookeepers have started pairing the notoriously nervous big cats with companion dogs. Everyone has seen the stories about companion dogs that greatly improve the lives of people who have been through a traumatic experience, but one of the world’s most famous predators, who would’ve expected that?
The project started over 30 years ago at the world-famous San Diego Zoo as an experiment to improve their cheetah breeding program. Cheetahs are often too stressed in captivity to be considered viable breeding candidates and with wild cheetah populations falling to critically low numbers, researchers had to find a way to fix this problem. The answer came when zoologists noticed that dogs seemed to have a calming effect on the big cats.
Science doesn’t move quickly most of the time and the next two decades were spent perfecting the companion program. After years of research they found the combination that suits both the dogs and the cheetahs. .
First, the zoologists and their staff search animal shelters and rescue organizations for the perfect dog. As it turns out, any size dog will work as long as is has the right personality. Age is also an issue because the pairings always start when the dog is six months old and the cheetah at four months. Dogs that fit the program must be dominant but playful. In this relationship the dog is the boss and the best friend.
After they have picked the right dog, the zookeepers start slowly introducing the two animals. It usually takes a while for the cheetahs to warm up to a puppy that always wants to play but eventually they chase balls, cuddle, and run around the cheetah exhibit together.
Although they are best friends, it is crucial to split the two up daily for their physical and mental health. As I said earlier, the dog is the boss in this relationship and even though the cheetah is a fearsome predator, it will let the dog eat all of the food if they are kept together at mealtime. As for the companion dogs, it is important to get them away from the cheetahs so that they have time to socialize with people and other dogs.
Unfortunately, the cheetahs can only be paired with one dog in their lifetime. If the companion dog dies, the cheetah will have to live out the rest of its life with only the companionship of the zoo staff.