cheetahs in captivity are suffering from an ailment about which very little is known. In a new study, researchers from Japan and China have tried to show how the disease spreads among the population. The disease is a protein disorder similar to the mad cow disease where normal proteins get converted to abnormal proteins. These then get deposited in organs such as liver and spleen, the researchers said in the May 20 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
To examine potential routes of transmission, the researchers isolated the aa protein from diseased animals' livers. They traced it to faeces of diseased cheetahs, but wrote in the paper that "at this juncture, the manner in which faecal matter is absorbed by the cheetahs is not clear". They suspect this may happen when cheetahs lick fur (which may be contaminated) while grooming or from contaminated soil while eating food. Based on their findings, they suggest that zoos or captive-breeding stations could limit the spread of the disease by removing faeces.
Previous epidemiological studies have indicated that breeding conditions have a prominent effect on the incidence of this disease. There are about 12,500 cheetahs left and the disease has increased from 20 per cent in pre-1990s to 70 per cent in 1995. For cheetahs, this could spell extinction soon.
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