Peaches Serval Cat Photo

Exotic Cat Standards

Big Cat Rescue’s Exotic Cat Standards

Serval Photo by Beth Stewart

For general Sanctuary Standards click HERE. The Felid family definitions for the purpose of this document

Small felids (under 20 lbs)
Medium felids (under 60 lbs)
Large felids (over 60 lbs)

(regardless of species as a juvenile bobcat could be too small to be contained by 4 x 4 mesh and would thus fall into the category of small felid until they reach maturity)

Defined as the following adult species:

Small Cats

Medium Cats

  • Canadian lynx (Lynx Canadensis)
  • Bobcat (Lynx rufus)
  • African golden cat (Profelis aurata)
  • Spanish lynx (Lynx pardinus)
  • Fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus)
  • Ocelot (Leopardus pardalis)
  • Asian golden cat (Catopuma temmincki)
  • Caracal (Caracal caracal)
  • Jungle cat (Felis chaus)
  • Serval (Leptailurus serval)
  • Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx)

Large cats (weighing more than 60 lbs.)

  • Lion (Panthera leo)
  • Tiger (P. tigris)
  • Leopard (P. pardalis)
  • Snow leopard (Uncia uncial)
  • Jaguar (P. onca)
  • Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)
  • Clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa)
  • Puma (Puma concolor)

And all subspecies and hybrids thereof

Exotic Cats with Species Needs Standards

Felids are powerful animals who require large spaces to accommodate natural behaviors. In addition to ample size, felid enclosures must provide physical challenges and sufficient environmental complexity. Housing felids in inadequately sized enclosures can result in stress to individual animals unable to express natural behaviors, including the ability to retreat from disturbance. Behavioral indicators of stress in large carnivores include pacing, circling and other repetitive behaviors that are well documented in captive felids. It is incumbent on those housing these species to stay abreast of the current information and work to meet the needs of the animals in their care.

The aggressive nature of most felids, and their physical strength and capabilities, demand that caregivers take extreme care when designing enclosures for any felid species, regardless of their size, to reduce the risk of escape or reaching through enclosure fencing.

Parent-reared felids are typically secretive and shy animals that require large enclosures to accommodate natural activity patterns. Housing felids in inadequately sized enclosures can result in social stress and/or stress to individual animals unable to express natural behaviors, including the ability to retreat from disturbance.

In the wild, all species of felids are more or less solitary, i.e., intolerant toward adults of the same sex, and exhibit a spatially and temporally dispersed social system. With one exception (lions) large felids are solitary carnivores and their group behavior depends on them being related and thus does not carry over into most captive settings.

Felids are predators relying on cover for survival. Felids are inquisitive, exploratory and in the wild are particularly active at night, dawn and dusk. Felids are frequently avid climbers and need trees or wood to shed and sharpen their claws.

Felids are capable of climbing, jumping, tearing and damaging the sturdiest of structures and enrichment items. The physical space for felids should provide varied opportunities for interaction with the environment and key elements that are changed often, resulting in a dynamic living space. Thoughtful facility design and husbandry programming are the foundations necessary to keep these active, intelligent creatures challenged and engaged.

While enclosure size and structure are important, creating a stimulating environment in which captive animals can express behaviors consistent with wild activity is the goal in a sanctuary setting.

I. Housing requirements all include the necessity of a double-entry system so that there are two doors between the felid and freedom at all times. Both doors may not be open at the same time

a.     The four types of enclosures:

i.     Outdoor enclosure: Functions as the primary housing space

ii.     Shelters: Provides secure shelter during inclement weather, extreme weather (hurricane, tornado, heavy snow)

iii.     Indoor: Provides housing for sick or injured individuals needing temperature-controlled areas or restricted space for medical treatment. Cats are nocturnal and should not be locked indoors as a matter of convenience for the facility unless they are being treated for a medical condition that requires such containment

1.     Indoor cages for felids are not recommended, as they are un-natural. Felids are nocturnal and should not be locked up during their most active time of day. For zoo facilities that cannot accommodate the felids’ natural behaviors:

a.     Minimum of one room available per cat

b.     Minimum floor space of 10’ x 24’ for large felids and a minimum floor space of 6’ x 12’ for small to medium felids

c.     The minimum vertical dimension of 8’

d.     All rooms must interconnect without creating ‘dead ends’ for subordinate individuals. Common walls should be constructed so that paws, ears, and tails cannot cross into nearby cages

e.     Must include a minimum of one transfer door to an outdoor yard if used as a night house. If indoor areas are used only for medical recovery, the felids must be transported in secure crates between the hospital and their home cage

iv.     Shift yard or lockout: Small cage area for use while the primary enclosure is serviced and/or for animal management needs including the introduction of a new individual to a group; an outdoor space for animals temporarily separated from the main group for health or social reasons

v.     Shift yards and lockouts

1.     If the felid is expected to spend more than 4 hours in the shift area it must be a minimum of 400 sq. ft. for small and medium felids and a minimum of 600 sq. ft. for large felids.

2.     The minimum vertical dimension of 12’ for large felids and 8’ for small to medium felids. Top must be covered with a mesh of the same strength as cage walls

3.     The adjacent shift yards should be easily accessible from the main enclosure

4.     Large felids must become familiar with the shift yards through a regular routine of feeding, transfer and/or continuous access

5.     Must include a minimum of one door to the main cage area

b.     Containment and Cage Size Standa:

i.     Outdoor enclosures for 1 or 2 felids

1.     Minimum of 1,200 sq. ft. per enclosure for compatible large felids. Minimum of 900 sq. ft per enclosure for compatible medium size felids. Minimum of 600 sq. ft per enclosure for compatible small felids. Non-compatible felids may not be housed together. For each additional felid add 50% more floor space

2.     For covered cages a minimum vertical height of 12’ for large felids and 8’ for small to medium felids for covered enclosures

3.     For open-roofed cages for small to medium felids a minimum vertical dimension of 8 ft. with additional 48-inch cantilever angles toward the enclosure at an angle no more than 45 degrees, covered in a material that cannot be scaled by a clawed felid. For open-roofed cages for large felids a minimum vertical dimension of 12 ft. with an additional 48-inch cantilever angle toward the enclosure at an angle no more than 45 degrees, covered in a material that cannot be scaled by a clawed felid, except that lions and tigers do not typically require the cantilever angle

4.     Exhibit length must exceed width by a minimum factor of 2, to accommodate natural walking and running behaviors

5.     The maximum dimension of 4” x 6” for large felids, 4” x 4” for medium felids and 2” x 2” for small felids is recommended for chain link fence or wire mesh

6.     For facilities with multiple cages, common fence lines should be avoided but where they exist they must be wrapped in mesh small enough to prevent paws, ears, and tails from reaching into adjacent cages

7.     Gaps at gates, posts, and other places must not exceed 2” for large felids and 1” for small to medium felids and must prevent paws, ears, and tails from reaching into adjacent areas that contain animals

8.     Fencing of 9-gauge chain link or wire mesh is recommended for large felids. Fencing of 12-gauge chain link or wire mesh is recommended for small to medium felids

9.     Fence mesh must not be vinyl coated as felids may ingest the coating

10.  Must include a minimum of one animal transfer door leading to the shift yard, indoor area or lockout

11.  Enclosure shape may be variable to take in natural landscape features. Curved walls are preferred to straight lines as they discourage pacing. The cage walls must be securely anchored at ground level and supported sufficiently to prevent sagging and to ensure containment of the felid. Fasteners must be of the same gauge wire as the cage walls

a.     If the felid exhibits digging behavior, wire mesh may be buried under the substrate extending 2’-3’ into the enclosure from the fence and a minimum of 12” below the enclosure substrate

b.     In areas where digging to bury fencing is difficult or unlikely, a concrete apron may be poured at the base of the fence and extend into the enclosure 1’-2’ on each side of the fence including at access gates

12.  Water Moat Standards

a.     Water moats are recommended for containment with caution because most felids are strong swimmers

b.     Existing enclosures utilizing water moat containment must take into consideration the following criteria:

i.     Moat width must be greater than 25 ft for large felids and greater than 18 ft for small to medium felids

ii.     Hotwires are an insufficient deterrent at the perimeter barrier as the sole secondary containment

iii.     Rescue equipment must be readily available at the moat area in the event a human falls into the water

iv.     There must be a management plan for regions where moats may freeze

v.     The moat should not serve as the primary source of drinking water

vi.     Water quality must be measured on a weekly basis. The institution must establish acceptable water quality parameters

13.  Dry moat Standards.

a.     Dry moats are recommended for containment with caution.

b.     Moat width must be greater than 25 ft. wide for large felids and greater than 18 ft for small to medium felids to prevent cats from jumping out

14.  Solid barriers

a.     Solid barriers can be used in conjunction with other types of barrier

b.     The barrier supports must be secured in appropriate footings to ensure stability

c.     Concrete block, poured concrete and artificial rock have been used successfully as solid barriers in felid enclosures. When a concrete block is used, the voids must be filled with sand or soil to strengthen the walls and reduce potential harborage for unwanted species

d.     Contours in artificial rock should be used to create elevated perches for large cats. Jump distance must be considered when perches are provided in barrier walls. Walls must be of sufficient strength to anchor caging and furniture

e.     The design of areas using solid walls must allow for sufficient airflow throughout an enclosure

ii.     Indoor Enclosure Exotic Cat Standards

1.     Vertical height must be no less than 8’

2.     The maximum dimension of 4” x 6” for large felids, 4” x 4” for medium felids and 2” x 2” for small felids is recommended for chain link fence or wire mesh

3.     For facilities with multiple cages, common fence lines should be avoided but where they exist they must be wrapped in mesh small enough to prevent paws, ears, and tails from reaching into adjacent cages

4.     Gaps at gates, posts and other places must not exceed 2” for large felids and 1” for small to medium felids and must prevent paws, ears and tails from reaching into adjacent areas that contain animals

5.     Fencing of 9-gauge chain link or wire mesh is recommended for large felids. Fencing of 12-gauge chain link or wire mesh is recommended for small to medium felids

6.     Fence mesh must not be vinyl coated as felids may ingest the coating

a.     The cage walls must be securely anchored at ground level and supported sufficiently to prevent sagging and to ensure containment of the felid. Fasteners must be of the same gauge wire as the cage walls

7.     Solid barriers

a.     Solid barriers can be used in conjunction with other types of barrier

b.     The barrier supports must be secured in appropriate footings to ensure stability

c.     Concrete block, poured concrete and artificial rock have been used successfully as solid barriers in felid enclosures. When concrete block is used, the voids must be filled with sand or soil to strengthen the walls and reduce potential harborage for unwanted species

d.     Contours in artificial rock should be used to create elevated perches for large cats. Jump distance must be considered when perches are provided in barrier walls. Walls must be of sufficient strength to anchor caging and furniture

e.     Solid concrete or concrete block walls must be sealed to make them impervious to contaminants and pathogens if used indoors

f.      Solid barriers must allow for sufficient ventilation


d.     Substrate

i.     Outdoor enclosures

1.     All outdoor enclosures will have a natural substrate. Concrete floors are not suitable substrate

2.     The substrate can be amended with organic materials including but not limited to soils, sand, leaf litter, bark mulch, grasses, straw and hay

3.     Joint discomfort, especially in older animals, and excessive wear on footpads can result from housing on concrete

4.     The substrate must drain well

ii.     Indoor Enclosures

1.     All indoor enclosures will have a concrete floor sloped to a drain.

2.     For new construction, the indoor area will be designed to accommodate a deep litter substrate

3.     Existing construction should insure that all floors are sealed

4.     Bedding materials must be provided in sufficient amount/depth to prevent contact with the concrete

5.     Bedding material suitable for use includes but is not limited to bark mulch, leaf litter, wood wool, straw hay, and wood shavings

6.     All felids must be observed to insure they do not consume wood shavings, hay, bark mulch or other materials that may pose a hazard if ingested


iii.     Shift areas

1.     Shift areas can have a soil or concrete substrate

2.     Concrete must be covered with substrate to minimize risk of footpad abrasions

3.     Suitable substrate materials include but are not limited to soils, sand, leaf litter, bark mulch, grasses, straw and hay

4.     If the felid exhibits digging behavior shift areas should be secured with buried fencing or poured concrete pad or apron

e.     Transfer doors

i.     Animal transfer doors are a key element of facility design

ii.     Doors must be designed to allow caregiver view of enclosures while operating doors

iii.     Doors must have safety mechanisms to insure they can be ‘locked’ into the closed or open position for both human and animal safety

iv.     Transfer doors for large felids can be located at ground level

v.     The minimum dimensions of a transfer door is such that the felid can leap through the opening without hitting the top or sides

vi.     Facility design must include a sufficient number of transfer doors to insure that caregivers have two secured transfer doors between them and felids when entering enclosures to service them. Caregivers must be able to manipulate doors safely and from outside the enclosure.

f.      Shelter

i.     Shelter structures must be available to provide protection from wind, weather or social partners

ii.     Shelter areas must provide dry space during wet weather

iii.     Shade and shelter must be provided in multiple locations within enclosures to insure that all occupants simultaneously have access to shade/shelter throughout the day/night

iv.     Shelter can be created through natural and artificial means within outdoor yards and indoor spaces

v.     Examples of shelter include hollow logs, rock overhangs, underground dens, shade structures, trees or shrubs, indoor areas or den boxes

vi.     If more than 2 felids are housed together, shelter should not create or result in ‘dead ends’ in which subordinate individuals can be trapped by more dominant felids

g.     Enclosure furnishings

i.     Outdoor enclosures

1.     Plantings

a.     Some of the outdoor enclosure plantings must provide visual barriers, shade and resting sites

b.     All plant materials in an enclosure will be evaluated for potential toxicity, including leaves, buds, seeds, fruit, bark and flowers.

c.     It is also advisable to plant enclosures with grasses, shrubs etc. that the felids do not tend to eat and in sufficient quantities to survive spraying by the felids

2.     Trees

a.     Large trees can provide important shade areas

b.     Large felids may damage bark by scratching

c.     Key shade trees within an outdoor enclosure must be identified and protected from severe damage that would jeopardize the survival of the tree

d.     Felids can leap great distances (up to 20 feet for several species and up to 40 feet for the snow leopard) thus trees should be positioned far enough away from cage walls that the felid cannot jump free

e.     Arboreal species must be provided high climbing areas. Cages shall be designed to allow terrestrial species the ability to utilize the vertical component of the enclosure by providing aerial pathways



3.     Topography

a.     Varied topography provides visual barriers, increased enclosure complexity and elevations that enable felids to see over a long distance

b.     The slopes and undulations associated with varied elevations provide beneficial physical challenges to the felids as they move about the enclosure

c.     Must accommodate natural locomotion patterns for the species

d.     Elevated areas must be designed so that they can be negotiated by all ages of animals being held to prevent accidents that could result in injuries particularly to the very young and the very old

e.     Variation can be achieved using naturally occurring topography at a selected construction site or through addition of soils, culverts, rocks, logs etc

f.      Insure that sufficient pathways exist throughout the enclosure so subordinate individuals do not reach ‘dead ends’ in the enclosure

g.     Must be accessible by staff for routine sanitation, repairs and updates

h.     Enclosures should be furnished with deadfall, logs, or boulders

i.      Placement of perches or platforms should include consideration for access to animals for close observation, medication or training sessions

4.     Visual barriers

a.     Secluded areas must be provided within felid enclosures as visual barriers and places for animals to retreat from disturbance

b.     Examples of visual barriers:

i.     Plantings

ii.     Climbing structures

iii.     Fallen logs

iv.     Culvert pipes

v.     Shade structures/shelter

vi.     Large enrichment items

5.     Climbing structure

a.     Must include horizontal and vertical elements

b.     Must accommodate natural locomotion patterns for the species

c.     Must include resting platforms or perches

d.     A minimum of 50% of total climber space must be designed to allow access by individuals of all ages and physical capabilities

e.     Soft substrate such as soil, bedding material, mulch or leaf litter should be installed below climbers to minimize risk of injuries from falls, especially to youngsters and older individuals

f.      Metal pipe should not be used to construct climbers as it becomes dangerously hot in summer sun and can damage skin during cold weather

g.     Must be accessible by staff for routine sanitation, repairs and updates

h.     Must include locations and/or mechanisms to provide enrichment above ground level

i.      Horizontal perching areas must be provided to allow resting, sleep, social behavior and feeding above ground

j.      Placement of perches or platforms should include consideration for access to animals for close observation, medication or training sessions

6.     Pools

a.     A pool or comparable water source must be available for tigers and jaguars

b.     Permanent pool structures must have an adequate filtration system to maintain institutional water quality parameters

c.     Permanent pool structures lacking a filtration system must have an amply sized drain to allow frequent drain, cleaning and refill of the pool

d.     In the absence of a pool structure, large stock water tanks may be substituted. However, care must be taken to insure proper drainage of pools for cleaning and that standing water or marshy areas do not result within the enclosure

ii.     Indoor enclosures

1.     Benches and climbing structure

a.     Areas must be provided to allow resting, sleep and social behavior

b.     Caging must include multiple access points for caregiver/animal interaction to allow medication and treatment of individuals, observation and treatment of injuries and other medical and husbandry procedures

c.     Benches must be at appropriate height for animal

d.     Multiple benches and access points must be included to accommodate individual felids as well as pairs or groups such that each felid has a bench or elevated space and has his/her own access point for medical care where he/she can be segregated from the others in the colony

e.     Logs for scratching must be provided when felids are routinely housed indoors overnight


iii.     Enclosure furniture – Shift yards

1.     Required when the shift yards are used as alternate outdoor access for cats temporarily housed indoors and when felids are restricted to shift yard for more than 4 hours



II. Sanitation

a.     Staff/cat safety while cleaning enclosures with cats present

i.     Felids must be transferred out of enclosure areas when caregivers enter the enclosure

ii.     Caregivers must not enter felid enclosures alone

iii.     The ‘two person rule’ must be observed when transferring felids and servicing from inside enclosures

iv.     Caregivers should establish a predictable protocol for servicing enclosures to minimize stress for the enclosure occupants. Where possible the cages should be serviced from outside

b.     Daily protocol

i.     Uneaten food must be removed daily and amount/type of food noted

ii.     Animal waste must be removed daily

iii.     Soiled bedding material and substrate are removed and replaced with fresh materials daily

iv.     Damaged and soiled enrichment items are removed daily

c.     Daily servicing of enclosures

i.     Important element of pest control and disease prevention

ii.     Enables caregivers to monitor changes in food consumption

iii.     Minimizes risk for consumption of spoiled food items

iv.     Key step to control biting flies

v.     Enables caregivers to monitor animal health

vi.     Enables caregivers to collect fecal samples in a timely manner

vii.     Can reduce or help minimize occurrence of intestinal parasites

viii.     Opportunity for animal observation

d.     Tools

i.     Each enclosure should have dedicated tools to prevent cross contamination.

ii.     When resources restrict ability to have dedicated tools, tools must be disinfected between enclosures to prevent the spread of parasites and disease

iii.     Tools and quarantine cages must be labeled when use is restricted

iv.     Sanitation tools or equipment must not be used for transport or storage of foodstuffs or bedding

e.     Disinfection and Sanitizing

i.     Water containers and drinkers are sanitized daily

ii.     Food containers and feeding areas are sanitized daily

iii.     Animals must be transferred from indoor areas prior to cleaning and/or sanitizing

iv.     Care must be taken to minimize over spray of waste directly or via aerosolizing, into adjacent cages during cleaning

v.     Care must be taken to minimize exposure of animals in adjacent spaces to over spray, disinfectants or waste materials

vi.     Animals must never be sprayed with a hose and enclosures should not be hosed with animals present

vii.     Concrete floored enclosures must be dried with a squeegee and fans to insure floors are dry before bedding material is replaced

viii.     All hard surfaces including walls, floors, ceiling, benches, cage mesh and staff work areas must be sanitized regularly to the extent possible

ix.     Staff must follow proper disinfecting procedures when moving between enclosures

f.      Chemical use

i.     Disinfectants used in outdoor areas must not accumulate in soil and pose hazards to enclosure occupants or to the environment

ii.     Disinfectants used in indoor areas must be rotated on a regular basis

iii.     Disinfectants must be evaluated for hazards to both staff and animals

iv.     Disinfectants must be used in well-ventilated areas and label instructions for proper use and safety must be observed

v.     A degreaser must be used to clean fatty accumulations from meat products on floors and benches

vi.     An MSDS sheet will be readily available for all cleaning products in use

vii.     All containers must be properly labeled as to contents

g.     Local, county, state laws regarding proper waste removal are observed

h.     Efforts are made to prevent native wildlife access to carnivore waste

i.      Composting regulations should be reviewed prior to composting carnivore waste


III. Temperature, Humidity, Ventilation, Lighting

a.     Temperature

i.     Outdoor enclosures and shift yards

1.     Felids typically can tolerate temperatures as low as 30 degrees F

2.     Snow leopards, tigers, Canada Lynx, Siberian Lynx and some bobcats and some cougars can tolerate lower temperatures but must be provided dry, well-bedded shelter

3.     Jaguars and clouded leopards must have access to heated areas when temperatures drop below 50 degrees F. Snow leopards must have access to air-conditioning when temperatures exceed 80 degrees F

4.     Weather must be considered in addition to temperature. Wind and rain reduce the temperature range that can be comfortably tolerated

5.     Dry, well-bedded den space must be available at all times

6.     Allowance must be made to accommodate individual animals not able to tolerate temperatures above or below the usual range of comfort for the species. For species who are not typically found in areas that are colder than 50 degrees, bedding should be sufficiently stuffed into the dens so that the felids can burrow and utilize their own body heat reflected from the burrow walls to stay warm

7.     Care must be taken to prevent direct animal contact with heat sources

8.     Infrared bulbs or ‘heat lamps’ are not recommended as heat sources due to risks associated with bulb breakage, fire potential and tissue damage in animals

9.     Windbreaks must be sufficient in number to accommodate all animals simultaneously with consideration for social structure and relationships in a group

10.  Shade must be available throughout the day in a number of areas and adequate size space to accommodate all animals simultaneously with consideration for social structure and relationships within a group

ii.     Indoor enclosures

1.     Average ambient temperature range of 30 degrees F – 85 degrees F for most felids

2.     The indoor temperature, for jaguars, clouded leopards and other felids who are not native to areas that experience cold of 50 degrees, must be above 50 degrees F

3.     Must keep indoor temperature above freezing to protect plumbing and insure water is available

4.     Individuals with health concerns, aged individuals, kittens and cubs may require warmer temperatures

5.     When ambient temperatures rise above 85 degrees, fans, air conditioning or similar relief must be provided

6.     Providing animals with opportunities to choose temperature ranges within an enclosure is preferred

b.     Humidity

i.     A humidity range of 40-70% is generally adequate

c.     Ventilation

i.     Indoor enclosures shall have a negative air pressure, with a regular air change of non-recirculated air

d.     Lighting

i.     Indoor enclosures

1.     Natural lighting is optimal and can be obtained from skylights, windows, roll up doors or other means

2.     Animals must have access to natural shade and sunlight

3.     Supplemental lighting must be provided to insure adequate lighting for caregivers to observe animals, clean enclosures and perform related animal care tasks

4.     When animals are confined indoors sufficient lighting must be used to extend the daylight period to allow animals time to eat and select sleeping sites if natural light is not available indoors

5.     A minimum illumination of 75-foot candles is recommended in one reference

6.     When needed, fluorescent lighting is an efficient light source.

ii.     Outdoor enclosures and Shift yards

1.     While not necessarily required, consideration should be given to supplemental lighting or power sources for use in outdoor areas in event of emergencies

e.     Photoperiod

i.     A day/night cycle of 12/12 hours should be implemented to extend the daylight period, thus allowing animals adequate time to eat when confined to indoor areas

ii.     An artificially shortened day length period can adversely impact food consumption and other natural behaviors.

IV. Nutrition

a.     Water

i.     Fresh clean water must be available at all times

ii.     Multiple water sources must be available for colonies of felids to insure high-ranking individuals do not dominate water sources

iii.     Potable water sources should be tested for contaminants annually

iv.     Automatic water devices can provide a clean and reliable source of water with minimal waste

1.     Great care should be taken when introducing felids to unnatural water sources such as automatic devises that do not pool water to ensure the cats are readily drinking from the system and are obtaining the necessary volume of water each day. Such drip systems are not recommended

2.     The bowl diameter of automatic water devices must be selected carefully to insure the felids can and will access the bowls. Felids will not stick their heads down into any container that touches their whiskers. Standard widths for livestock may be too narrow for some felids

3.     Devices must be tested daily to insure water is available

4.     Devices must be cleaned daily

5.     Some devices can be installed with heat sources to prevent freezing and to insure water consumption does not decrease with lower ambient air temperatures

6.     Automatic devices are easily disabled when animals must be fasted for medical exams

7.     It is not possible to monitor individual water consumption using automatic devices. When monitoring of water consumption is required, alternative means of providing water must be devised

v.     Water bowls or tubs

1.     Felids routinely defecate in water. Water bowls should be cleaned daily or more often if needed. Elevating the bowls above the tail of the felid protects them from the cats’ natural tendency to eliminate in streams and ponds to avoid predators

2.     Care must be taken to insure bowls of water are available at all times. This can be done by securing the bowl in such a fashion that the felid cannot tip it, play with it or hide it from view

b.     Animal protein

i.     Felids are true carnivores and must be offered a meat-based diet in captive settings. The best diets are nutritionally balanced, prepared diets that have been flash frozen and are not laden with byproducts, hormones, antibiotics and preservatives. One excellent choice is Natural Balance Carnivore Diet

ii.     Meat products should be offered when large felids are most active and likely to consume the diet. Meat products spoil quickly in temperatures above freezing

iii.     Bones can be offered once or twice weekly and are usually beneficial to dental health

iv.     Care must be taken to avoid feeding brittle bones that can splinter

v.     Diets that are not balanced include those consisting of primarily muscle meat and those that are comprised primarily of chicken or turkey necks. While these foodstuffs may be fed, they should only supplement the balanced diet for texture and variety

c.     Carcass feeding

i.     Whole carcasses can and should be offered to felids to mimic their natural diet

ii.     Carcasses are sometimes offered to facilities housing large felids during hunting season or as the result of ‘road kill’ but are not safe food sources as there is no way to ensure that the animal was not diseased or poisoned and no way to ensure proper storage between the time of death and delivery to the sanctuary. If hunted meat is offered, all lead must be removed and a veterinarian should inspect the carcass internally for lesions and signs of illness prior to feeding

iii.     Meat from animals that have died from disease, are suspected to have been diseased or sick or have died of unknown causes must not be fed

iv.     Animals euthanized with chemical agents must not be used for food

v.     Deer carcasses in regions where CWD is known to be present in the deer population must have the brain and spinal cord removed prior to feeding to felids

vi.     Uneaten portions of carcasses should be removed from enclosures after 12 hours if temperatures exceed freezing

d.     Vitamin supplements

i.     Prior to offering supplemental vitamins, the health and condition of the individual felid as well as the diet should be reviewed with a nutritionist experienced in exotic felid care or with the attending veterinarian

e.     Food presentation

i.     Felids must be offered their diet a minimum of once daily, no less than six days per week, during the active period of their day

ii.     Food can be placed in stainless steel buckets or bowls or easily sterilized pads. Felids will not stick their heads down into any container that touches their whiskers. Standard widths for other animals may be too narrow for some felids

iii.     Felids should be separated and fed individually to avoid aggression over food

iv.     Diet can be offered in the shift yards and indoor areas to increase felid comfort levels with those areas and reliability transferring from one area to another

v.     It is not advisable to fast felids more than one day per week. Kittens, cubs, ailing cats and those under 15 pounds are not to be fasted.

f.      Diet increases or decreases

i.     Adjustments made to an already formulated and nutritionally balanced diet must be made to the entire diet to insure continued nutritional balance

ii.     Weight and condition must be carefully considered; captive felids can easily become obese

iii.     Considerations for diet increase include weight and condition, overall food consumption, activity level and other medical or behavioral considerations

iv.     Considerations for diet decrease include weight and condition, overall food consumption, activity level and other medical or behavioral considerations

v.     Diet increases or decreases must be made in modest increments with animal response to the change assessed for a minimum period before additional changes are made

vi.     Felids may experience decreased appetite/food consumption seasonally during warm weather. Amount of food offered must be adjusted accordingly to avoid consumption of spoiled food

vii.     During warm weather months felids must be fed during the coolest part of the day

viii.     Each individual’s weight and/or condition will be monitored closely and considered when adjustments are made to diets

g.     Food Preparation

1.     Separate cutting boards, utensils, food preparation surfaces must be used when meats, fish and produce diets are prepared in a common kitchen area

2.     Food preparation surfaces must be thoroughly cleaned after use.

h.     Guidelines for thawing frozen food items

1.     Meat chunks, fruits and vegetables can be fed frozen into an ice block, especially as a ‘treat’ during warm weather

2.     Frozen food items, that are not intended to be fed frozen, must be thawed in a refrigerator to minimize risk of spoilage

3.     Refer to USDA guidelines on proper thawing of frozen foods

i.      Food storage protocols

i.     Frozen items should be dated and labeled

ii.     Dry goods should be stored in clean, dry storage areas. Must be dated and rotated to use the oldest stock first. Expired foods must be discarded on or before expiry date. Bags damaged by pests must be discarded


V. Social, Psychological, Physical and Behavioral Well-Being

a.     Social Housing and Management

i.     Species appropriate housing

1.     Felids are solitary by nature and should be afforded their own private space if they are not amenable to living with other felids

a.     Felids can be housed together in some situations where the felids were raised together or were raised in other pairs or groups

b.     Sanctuary felids should be neutered and/or spayed to prevent breeding. All males in groups should be neutered. Spaying females often decreases aggression and prevents some medical problems caused by constant cycling

i.     All felids must have ample space to retreat and hide as needed while social tensions are resolved

c.     Clawed felids shall not be housed with de-clawed felids

ii.     Mixed species

1.     Mixed species situations are not recommended with felids unless they are of comparable size, compatible temperament and were raised together

iii.     Solitary housing

1.     Is preferred by most felids and should be afforded to the cats based upon their personal preferences

2.     The vast majority of injuries sustained by captive cats are the result of forcing them to live in pairs or groups. Even good, long term relationships often turn deadly with no warning. The sanctuary’s commitment is to each individual animal’s health, safety and well being and this can be best accomplished, in most cases, by providing individual housing

iv.     Introductions of unfamiliar individuals

1.     Felid introductions must begin with visual and olfactory contact through a wire mesh barrier before they are permitted physical access to one another

2.     Ideally visual contact and physical introduction should be conducted in a neutral area

3.     Felid introductions must be monitored closely for several days for tension, aggression, shifts in dominance, territoriality etc

4.     Food and water consumption must be monitored carefully to insure that both felids are able to access food/water

5.     Insure felids have access to areas during an introduction (indoors, outdoors) arranged so there are no opportunities for an animal to be cornered

6.     If the introduction is not successful, do not attempt to reunite the individuals until housing or social circumstances can be changed or other factors that may have contributed to the problems have resolved


v.     Preparation for introductions

a.     Identify animals to be introduced

b.     Outline the background of each animal including but not limited to:

i.     Age, gender, social history

c.     Physical location of animals during the visual contact period

d.     Behavioral goals of visual contact period

e.     Benchmark for proceeding to physical introduction

f.      Locations to be used for physical introduction and reason for selection

g.     Emergency equipment that might be needed

h.     Criteria for separating animals if introduction is not proceeding safely

i.      Post introduction management and husbandry protocols

2.     The plan should be developed with involvement of caregivers for the species

3.     The plan should detail a series of steps that will be taken to integrate the individual animals involved

4.     Necessary modifications to enclosures must be identified and completed prior to beginning the process. (e.g. installation of ‘howdy’ doors)

5.     The plan will establish behavioral goals for introductions and will not be driven by schedules imposed by caregivers

6.     Advisable to have a veterinarian on grounds or on call for introductions

7.     All caregivers must have a clear understanding of the plan, contingencies for problems that might occur and must be empowered to take appropriate action

vi.     Felid – Caregiver Relationships and Enrichment

1.     A positive relationship between the felid and regular keepers, animal manager, and veterinary staff is essential to well being

2.     The animals should not become fearful or aggressive in response to human presence or routine care procedures

3.     A protocol for introducing animals to new keeper staff should be developed

4.     Where possible, animals must become familiar with the veterinary staff, allowing close observation

5.     Facility design plays a key role in keeper-animal safety and the ability to maintain a positive relationship

6.     Negative interactions should be avoided. However, when they occur, efforts should be made to recover trust and a positive relationship

7.     Each enclosure shall have accessible devices to provide physical stimulation or manipulation compatible with the species. Such device shall be non-injurious, and may include, but is not limited to, boxes, balls, bones, barrels, drums, rawhide, pools, etc. Tires, milk jugs and most commercial dog toys should not be left in the cages while unsupervised as these are easily chewed by the cats and many have died from ingesting pieces of such toys. If bowling balls are used, the holes should be filled to prevent the breaking of teeth

8.     Felids are intelligent animals and easily bored. Enrichment that is appropriate to the species shall be provided no less than weekly in a form that is different from their daily use of toys and cage furnishings

VI. Handling and Restraint

a.     The safest method to capture and restrain a felid is through simple conditioning to enter a squeeze cage or lockout area that is easily accessed on all sides, including the top by the caregiver

b.     Manual capture and restraint must not be done when dealing with large felids and is not recommended in most cases of dealing with small to medium size felids

c.     Chemical restraint must not be used when multiple animals are present in an enclosure

d.     Attachments for lockouts, crates and squeeze cages must be included in facility design or modifications

e.     Voluntary injection training of individuals is an effective means to safely deliver anesthetic and vaccines to an animal

f.      Use of operant conditioning for medical purposes is superior to any type of restraint

g.     See Appendix __ for resources such as The Shape of Enrichment, Safe Capture courses and lockout / squeeze cage designs

VII. Record Keeping

Detailed individual and group records are necessary for good husbandry, management and veterinary care. Additionally, some records and programs are required by federal regulations. An electronic database format is recommended for most record keeping. Records that are recommended and/or required include but are not limited to:

a.     Individual animal records showing origin, previous owner, age, species, gender, microchip number, tattoo, photo, bio, etc.

b.     Individual veterinary record

c.     Reproductive history if known

d.     Contraception records

e.     Estrus charts for female felids if repeated cycling indicates potential medical trouble

f.      Current diet and record of diet changes

g.     Food consumption and preferred food items

h.     Weight

i.      Enrichment dates, items used and felid’s response

j.      Training record to show completed behaviors and those in development

k.     Social partners or cage mates

l.      Introduction record and response to various phases of introduction and response to other individuals

VIII. Contraception: Where felids are housed together, all males must be neutered. Spaying females will often decrease aggression and can have medical benefits for the felid

a.     Cautions

i.     Vasectomy or castration of males will not prevent potential adverse effects to females from prolonged, cyclic exposure to endogenous steroids associated with the obligate hormonal pseudo-pregnancy that follows ovulation in felids. Endogenous steroids and steroid contraceptives cause similar side effects

ii.     Progestin contraceptives are associated in large felids with progressive uterine growth that can result in infections and sometimes uterine cancer; mammary tissue stimulation also can result in cancer. Signs of diabetes mellitus have also been reported

1.     If a progestin is used, treatment should only be short term, because of the increased likelihood of side effects with prolonged exposure

2.     If a progestin is used, treatment should start well BEFORE any signs of proestrus, since the elevated endogenous estrogen can exacerbate side effects of the progestin

3.     Progestins should not be used in pregnant animals, since they may suppress uterine contractions necessary for normal parturition.  Thus, progestins should only be administered to females confirmed non-pregnant

iii.     MGA Implants are not recommended, but if they have been used, they should be removed in less than 4 years.

VIII. Veterinary Care

a. Preventive heartworm medication shall be given to all felids housed in areas where this parasite is prevalent, and an occult heartworm test performed periodically

b. Periodic (at least yearly) fecal examinations shall be required to check for parasite infestation, and appropriate parasite therapy instituted as necessary

c. Fleas can be a problem in some areas and shall be controlled by spraying the enclosure with an approved insecticide. Topical insecticides as approved by the attending veterinarian as safe for feline species may also be used if necessary

d. Footbaths shall be used prior to entering and exiting all quarantine felid enclosures or areas containing quarantined animals. Each shall be filled with a disinfectant and its use strictly adhered to by all personnel

e. Upon arrival, all felids shall undergo quarantine for a minimum of 30 days according to protocol as established by the attending veterinarian. All felids shall be tested for Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV), Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP), Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV), and Toxoplasmosis prior to placing the animal with or near other felids




Keeper training. Our training is specific to the dangers involving felids so it is included here. As of 2009 we spend less than 15% of our money on admin and fundraising combined and we can do that because of our highly structured volunteer program. We have three volunteer paths; Keepers, Partners (admin) and Interns. To be in our program at all requires a commitment of 4 hours per week, monthly meetings, passing all classes and being approved to move up through the program for higher levels of privilege, such as caring for the larger cats.


Our animal caregivers are Trainees for six months, and wear Red shirts so that they are easily identified. They can never be alone and can not clean cats the size of cougars on up. After six months, if they pass all of their tests, they can move up to Keeper.


Keepers wear Yellow shirts and can care for cougars on down in size for another year. They must volunteer no less than 6 hours per week. They can work alone. After a year, if they pass all of their tests, they can be recommended by the Volunteer Committee to move up to Senior Keeper. They cannot ask for this level, but rather have to demonstrate such a high level of commitment and professionalism that they are invited to be Senior Keepers. It usually takes about two years from their original start date to achieve this, if they ever do. Most do not.


Senior Keepers were Green shirts and are the only ones who may clean and feed or be within 3 feet of a large felid cage, such as a lion, tiger or leopard. They must volunteer no less than 8 hours per week. Paid staff are selected from the Senior Keepers. At all levels they must maintain their required hours, attend monthly meetings, continue taking and passing classes and cannot break any of the rules. Touching a cat is grounds for expulsion from the program permanently.


It is because of this highly structured program that we have such an excellent safety record. It should be a guide for all who work with felids as any less will likely result in tragedy.




How can you tell a real sanctuary from a fake?

It’s actually easier than telling a diamond from a cubic zirconium because if you look at them, under any light at all, they are easy to tell apart. The problem is that the fake ones insist on keeping you in the dark. Some legitimate sanctuaries believe that their animals should never have to see humans, other than for their daily feeding and cleaning, and are closed to the public. Pseudo sanctuaries use this same tactic to keep the public from seeing the deplorable conditions that their animals are kept in.

Fake sanctuaries often have wonderful web sites full of self serving documentation about all the wonderful ways your donations save lives. They rely heavily on direct mail campaigns and paid solicitors. New laws have enabled these mail houses to front the costs and then pay themselves, exorbitantly, from the proceeds making it that much easier for pseudo sanctuaries to solicit funds. This means that even less of your donation is actually going to the cause (assuming any of it was before).

There are a few fool proof ways to know if the sanctuary you support is a real sanctuary or a fake:

  • Real sanctuaries don’t breed or buy animals. If there are babies, they were probably bought or born there. People don’t get rid of them until they are too big to handle. If there is a baby, ask how it got there and ask for proof.
  • Real sanctuaries don’t exploit animals. They don’t take dangerous animals out in public on leashes or in cages. Many pseudo sanctuaries do and they say they are educating the public that these animals don’t make good pets, but when people see that they can be walked on leashes or taken out in public to be shown off or to make money, then they will want to buy one of their own. It is the equivalent of saying to your audience, “Do as I say, and not as I do.”
  • Real sanctuaries adhere to the law. They will be licensed by the state, and usually by the USDA. They will be classified by the IRS as a non profit 501 c 3 charity. They will be licensed by the state to solicit donations, and every piece of solicitation that you see, from print to web site, will have documentation of the fact that they are so licensed. Some states, such as Florida, go a step further and require that the percentage that goes to the program services of the cause be included in all solicitation materials. Big Cat Rescue spends 100% of its donations on program services (ie: taking care of the cats).
  • Real sanctuaries meet the highest sanctuary standards. Fake sanctuaries will say that they don’t like the politics, or it’s a waste of donor’s money, or that they don’t want someone else telling them how to take care of their animals, but none of those are valid reasons for not meeting the highest sanctuary standards. Many fake sanctuaries are licensed by their state and by USDA and will tell you that these governing bodies are the watchdogs of the industry, but neither USDA nor any state law defines a sanctuary as being a place where animals are not bred, sold or exploited. USDA’s standards only require that an animal’s cage be big enough that he can stand up and turn around in it.

The Global Federation of Sanctuaries only accredits real sanctuaries. It only costs $150.00 per year to be a member and the application is only four pages long, so it is not a huge investment of time and money. Accreditation is only granted after an on-site inspection if the facility meets the high standards of care and responsibility. The facility must continue to maintain those standards and be re-inspected regularly to insure compliance. Membership provides real sanctuaries with a method of demonstrating their excellence to the public and donors. Membership also enables small sanctuaries across the nation to unite as one voice for the animals because The Global Federation of Sanctuaries is a member for the Captive Wild Animal Protection Coalition which is made up of 20 huge organizations including the Humane Society of the United States, The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, The Animal Protection Institute, Peta and many more.

  • Real sanctuaries spend your donated dollars on program services. This means they spend the money on the things that made you select them as your charity. lists all non profit organizations and posts their tax returns so that you can see how the money is being spent. If you type in the key word “animal” almost 15,000 organizations are listed, but only a handful of them are accredited by The Global Federation of Sanctuaries. The industry standard allows that charities spend up to 35% of their donations on soliciting and still be considered reputable. A search of the 990s on GuideStar will show that fake sanctuaries often spend as much as 75% of their donations on raising more money. In almost all of these cases you will see that the biggest expense in the pseudo sanctuary is in providing a salary to the founder. Big Cat Rescue’s founder never has and never will be paid from your donations.

As in every aspect of life, the truth is out there. With the right tools you can discover it for yourself.

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