A Cat’s Best Friend

Posted October 2, 2019 by Andrea Haugen
Remus and Kris

One of the most frequent questions we get asked is why in the world would we put a dog in with a cheetah? At first glance, it does seem a bit strange. Typically, people assume cats and dogs just don’t get along, let alone a dog and a cheetah. The Cincinnati Zoo’s Cat Ambassador Program has been debunking this myth for years. Many cheetah dog pairs have been in our program, from Sara and Lexi, to Tom and Pow Wow and even our current pairing Donni and Moose, who have been together for over 3 years. Yet the question remains, why put them together? Well, there are many reasons why pairing a cheetah cub with a puppy helps to form excellent ambassador cheetahs.

Sara and Lexi

Most cheetahs that come be to a part of the Cat Ambassador Program are single cubs. Often these cubs come from a cheetah mother who did not have the most successful litter. Cheetahs can have upwards of six cubs in a litter at a time and they will stay with their mothers for up to nearly two years. When a cheetah mom has only one or two cubs survive in her litter, often she will abandon those cubs and even stop producing milk for them. This allows her to be able to breed again and have better luck next time in having a larger litter to survive. This happens to cheetahs in their natural range, but it also happens to cheetahs in zoos. In Kris’s case, she was born on July 7, 2019 at the Cincinnati Zoo’s Mast Farm Breeding Center. Her mother, Neema, only had one surviving cub. That is why the zoo made the decision to hand-raise Kris. This did, however, leave Kris without the companionship that she would have received in a larger litter with her siblings. That’s where Remus comes in.

 Remus is a rescue puppy from a shelter called the Animal Rescue Fund in greater Cincinnati. He was hand-selected by the Cat Ambassador Trainers to be a cheetah companion for Kris because of his great personality. The team spent quite a bit of time with all the puppies available for adoption at the shelter to assess their temperaments, how well they did in new environments and how they interacted with the other dogs. Remus was a clear frontrunner from the beginning because he was very playful, outgoing, had a good energy level and was just a very good boy. There is not one breed in particular that makes for a good cheetah dog ambassador, it is the dog’s personality that matters the most.

Max and Savanna

The main reason we pair cheetah ambassadors with a dog is for companionship. It gives the cheetah a surrogate “sibling” to grow up with and experience the world together. There is a lot of training that goes into shaping a successful cheetah ambassador. The dog helps with this as well. We start from a young age with the cheetah to teach it an acceptable way to interact with her trainers. For example, we do not want her jumping up on us, biting etc. While it may be cute when Kris is this little, it’s not very cute when she is full grown! That is another reason why Kris will have Remus, to allow her to do all that fun jumping and play behavior that she wants to but cannot do with her trainers. Dogs can communicate with cheetahs in a way that we as humans simply cannot. As it turns out, dog play is pretty comparable to cheetah play. There are definitely a few differences (like when Kris first met Remus and didn’t understand the play bow), but after some time, the pair learn how to play together. The new fun play activity this week was chase. Remus loves to be chased! And Kris will run after him nonstop.

Moose and Donni

The idea to pair a domestic dog with a cheetah has been quite common in zoos for some time, but it wasn’t always that way. At the Cincinnati Zoo, the first cheetah dog duo started back in 1981 with a cheetah named Angel, the first ambassador cheetah. Back then Angel was being raised by our programs Founder, Cathryn Hilker, at her home. Cathryn had a Great Dane named Dominic, who had been a substitute parent for cats many times before. After some successful introductions between the two, Angel and Dominic became playmates and the rest is well, history!

Dominic and Angel

In our program alone, we have had six successful cheetah dog pairings. Each cheetah and dog have a different relationship and they grow and develop at their own pace. The cheetah and dog dictate how long they stay together which depends on their individual personalities. Some dogs have stayed with their cheetahs for a long time, like Moose and Donni who are three years old and still interact, but cheetahs are solitary by nature. Usually cheetahs will venture on their own away from their mother and siblings when they reach 2 years of age and sometimes this is the age where the dog and cheetah will separate as well. We like to compare it to how we (humans) love our siblings and have fun growing up with them, but at a certain point we’d rather live on our own. When this happens, the dogs usually go home with someone in the Cincinnati Zoo’s staff. And don’t worry, we already have a long list of employees wanting to take Remus home when it’s time. But that probably won’t be for a while, the two still have a lot of growing, bonding and play to do first!

Tommy T and Powwow

While pairing a dog and cheetah together might seem unconventional, it has an immeasurable benefit to our cheetahs, our zoo and wildlife conservation. Our cheetah dogs are not only companions for the cheetahs, but they are ambassadors for the zoo and cheetah conservation. They allow us to educate guests about the amazing efforts the zoo supports to help save cheetahs. One of the programs is providing guard dogs to farmers in Africa to help protect their livestock from predators like cheetahs. This allows the local people and wildlife to live together and share the landscape thus reducing conflict between humans and wildlife. We also educate people about how dogs are one of the most effective ways to help save all kinds of wildlife worldwide. From TSA dogs helping prevent the spread of trafficked ivory by detecting it in airports to scat detection dogs who help scientists track endangered plants and animals, dogs are helping to save wildlife across the globe.

Nia and Cali

Kris and Remus are quickly on their way to becoming excellent animal ambassadors. They are now spending nights together and seem to enjoy each other’s company more and more each day. As they grow and mature, their relationship will no doubt become stronger. For now, they can play only inside, until Kris gets all her vaccinations, but once they can start playing outside it will be a sight to see. Maybe Remus will teach Kris that swimming in the pond is fun, probably not, but you never know! Stay tuned to the zoo’s social media pages for more frequent photos, videos and undoubtedly adorable updates on this dynamic duo.

If you are interested in learning more about the conservation efforts or want to know how you can help cheetahs in Africa, donate to the Zoo’s Angel Fund or learn more here.