An Unlikely Duo: How Dogs are Helping Cheetahs in Zoos

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Historically, dogs and cats aren’t known for their mutual camaraderie. But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Take the San Diego Zoo, for instance, where trailblazers in species conservation have made incredible discoveries about the positive effects a dog can have on an edgy cheetah.


An unusual friendship at the San Diego Zoo

Image by Zach Tirrell via Flickr

The first dog-and-cheetah pairing was established in 1980 when a male cheetah named Arusha was teamed up with a golden retriever named Anna. Their friendship blossomed, revealing the rather remarkable effect that a canine companion can have on a wild cat. 

San Diego zookeepers noticed the benefits these friendships provided and developed a dog-and-cat buddy system that has caught on in at least 15 zoos across the country, including Virginia and Dallas. Zoos have seen success with different dog breeds, but primarily employ labs, golden retrievers, and Anatolian shepherds. 

One of the most close-knit friendships seen at the San Diego Zoo developed in 2014, when Raina, a female Rohdesian ridgeback puppy, hit it off with a male cheetah cub named Ruuxa. Raina watched over her playmate vigilantly while he recovered from surgery, and the two became inseparable—playing together during the day and cuddling together at night.


Why are zoos pairing dogs with cheetahs?

Image by Heather Paul via Flickr

Beyond the obvious cute factor, why are zoos playing matchmaker with their cheetahs? What are the benefits of this relationship?

According to National Geographic, cheetahs can be easily agitated. Timid and shy by nature, a cheetah in captivity has tremendous amounts of nervous energy. A dog, on the other hand, has an easygoing and confident demeanor. Dogs are also comfortable around humans—a trait trainers hope will rub off on their cheetah counterparts. 

No doubt you’ve experienced the calming effects of a dog yourself. Cheetahs also pick up on that mellow vibe, and they learn to model their behavior after their canine pal. Dogs offer important social cues that help the cheetahs thrive.

Ultimately, the end goal here is the long-term preservation of an increasingly vulnerable cheetah population. Since anxiety doesn’t exactly encourage breeding, zookeepers have been seeking ways to comfort and relax their stressed out cheetahs. They found that bringing a sweet pupper into the mix puts the cheetahs at ease, which improves the overall survival of the species. 

What’s in it for the dog? The benefits are actually mutual. Typically, zoos recruit dogs from shelters, giving these sweet doggos a second chance at life. Plus, they gain a lifelong friend and snuggle buddy!


What does the dog-and-cheetah pairing process look like?

A cheetah-dog friendship doesn’t develop overnight. The pairing process takes place gradually, over weeks, or even months. 

When a cheetah reaches the age of three months, zoologists pair him with a friendly, 6-month-old rescue puppy. First, the animals are introduced with a divider between them so they can see and smell each other. After they’ve become comfortably acquainted, the partition is removed and the pair can experience brief, leashed visits, supervised by handlers.

Every dog-and-cheetah pairing is unique, and the amount of time it takes to establish a friendship varies—sometimes it takes weeks, sometimes months. But once that special bond is formed, the two will be virtually inseparable, and they will spend every waking—and sleeping—moment together. The only exception is meal time, which is enjoyed separately.


Dogs and cheetahs in the wild

Image by Sharon Joy via Pixabay

Beyond the symbiotic bond they share with cheetahs in captivity, dogs are also being employed to further conservation efforts in the wild. 

Farmers in Namibia, Africa have frequent run-ins with cheetahs who try to prey on their livestock. To protect their property and livelihood, farmers resort shooting and trapping wild cats, drastically slashing their population in the process. 

In 1994, the Cheetah Conservation Fund found a solution and established the Livestock Guarding Dog Program to help save this dwindling species. The program breeds and raises dogs (mostly Anatolian shepherds) alongside herds for protection. If a hungry cheetah comes lurking, the dogs spring into action and scare the cat away. 

This clever predator management system has been hugely successful, with the wild cheetah population steadily rising since its implementation. According to the organization, cheetah killings have been down by 80 percent!


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