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Ultrasonographic adrenal gland findings in healthy semi-captive cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus)

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Cheetahs are known to be particularly vulnerable to a number of clinical conditions when in captivity. Some of these conditions, such as gastritis and gastric ulcers, have been linked to increased stress levels in other species. In order to determine how much of a role stress plays in these conditions in cheetahs, scientists need to be able to measure stress in some way.

Until now this has mainly been achieved by looking at levels of glucocorticoids ("stress hormones") – mainly cortisol – in the animals’ faeces. This method has its drawbacks, though. Not only are there practical difficulties when it comes to sampling – especially in free-ranging animals, or animals kept in groups - but it also gives a narrow picture, as it reflects only corticoid values within the 12-24 hours prior to the sample being produced.

Because glucocorticoids are produced in the adrenal glands, it is possible that measurement of these glands adrenal could give researchers an indication of stress. In fact, in other species, such as mice, enlargement of the adrenal gland has been clearly shown to be associated with increases in stress. Adrenal size (and health) can be measured using transabdominal ultrasonography. This technique has not, though, until now, been verified in cheetahs.

In this study, the adrenal glands of 33 anaesthetised, semi-captive, adult cheetahs were examined via transabdominal ultrasound. The purpose of the study was to describe a technique for locating and measuring the adrenal glands via ultrasound, as well as to establish normal values for adrenal gland dimensions and ratios, factoring in age, sex and captive status of the animals.

The researchers found no significant differences in adrenal volume between the captive and free-ranging cheetahs in the study, nor between males and females. They did, however, find that adrenal dimensions increased as age increased. Ultrasonography was shown to be practical, relatively uncomplicated and repeatable, with useful applications in future studies.

Read the full research report: Robert M. Kirberger and Adrian S.W. Tordiffe, 2016, Ultrasonographic Adrenal Gland Findings in Healthy Semi-captive Cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus)

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