Zoological institutes are a draw for people from all walk of life and all ages. People yearn to see the exotic, the mystical tiger with all its many stripes, the lion who is the king of the jungle, and the hulking white polar bear which haunts the tundra. These animals provide enormous educational opportunities for the public, but housing these species has its own set of challenges, especially in regards to feeding carnivores to properly support their health.
A carnivore refers to animal that consumes animal products and this can be blood, eggs, whole animals, meat, or fish. When feeding a huge tiger at the zoo people imagine a huge chunk of roast being thrown in for them to devour and the more meat the better when it comes to feeding large carnivores. However, this is an inaccurate assumption. In a nutritional sense when carnivorous animals are fed just meat this refers to just the flesh of another animal and this is nutritionally incomplete for these animals.
If carnivorous are fed just a diet of meat or flesh alone there are numerous consequences. The first being that this type of diet does not provide the proper calcium to phosphorus ratio. In order to optimize health, carnivores should have a 2:1 calcium to phosphorus ratio, but in reality a meat only diet provides the inverse of this at a 1:2 ratio. The implications of this can be severe in the form of Metabolic bone disease. Metabolic bone disease is a blanket term that encompasses bone diseases that animals suffer from due to an imbalance in minerals that can include osteoporosis and osteomalacia. Feeding meat presents several dangers due to the nature of it. Meat easily accumulates bacteria which is why in the food industry, there are several “scares” each year with salmonella. Much of this comes from improper thawing and storage. Improper feeding of meat is also an issue since if it is placed on the ground, it comes into contact with urine and all the bacteria which grow on the meat and can make the animals ill. Lastly, there are severe dental impacts with a meat only diet. Meat alone is not very abrasive since tissue is soft and if carnivores are consuming just this there is nothing to remove any of the plaque build up on their teeth and they can suffer from severe dental disease.
Most of this can all be rectified by not just feeding a meat only diet. This includes feeding a diet that is more natural and mimics what the animals would naturally consume in the wild. A varied diet including bones and some grasses is essential. A lion or a jaguar would hunt in the wild and consume the prey in most of its entirety which includes portions of bone. This is essential is providing the correct calcium to phosphorus ratio which meat alone does not. Bone is also abrasive and aids in removing some of the plaque build up to ensure proper dental health. The only concern in providing bone to animals in captivity are fragments perforating or puncturing sometime in the tract which can lead to health complications. Carnivores should also have access to grass since it is consumed by them of their own free will, especially felines, and from the stomach contents of their prey. The fiber provided by the grass and stomach contents is great in avoiding obstruction in the gastrointestinal tract of carnivores.
Seeing large carnivores in a zoo up close and in person is an incredible experience that leaves most people in awe. However, keeping the carnivores in tip top shape is a challenge, especially in regards to ensuring a balanced diet since meat alone will not cut it!