Cheetah-Dog Friendship Isn't As Strange As It Sounds

Raising puppies and cheetah kittens together helps refocus the big cats’ nervous energy, zoos have discovered.

Mixed-species friendships are all the rage these days, even between infamously mortal enemies like cats and dogs.

Take best friends Kumbali the cheetah and Kago the yellow Labrador Retriever. The duo came to be after kitten Kumbali, at the Metro Richmond Zoo in Virginia, wasn’t thriving in her mother’s care. Mama cat had a litter of three and faulty nipples that weren’t releasing enough milk to go around. So zookeepers had to take over.

While the bottle-feeding technique was successful and the kitten grew fatter and happier, Kumbali needed something the keepers couldn’t give him: a warm (and constant) companion.

Male cheetahs can be solitary and territorial, but often they’ll group together with other males for support. Importantly, cheetahs in captivity can be easily agitated.

Built for flight rather than fight, as they grow older the cats are always on edge—eyes out for lurking predators—and ready to leap into action with incredible bursts of speed. In a zoo setting, such nervous energy has nowhere to go. (Related: "Cheetah Breaks Speed Record—Beats Usain Bolt by Seconds.")

So in recent years, inspired by success at the San Diego Zoo, a number of other zoos have begun raising puppies and cheetah kittens together to help combat the big cats’ stress and focus their wild energy.

It’s worked beautifully for Kumbali and Kago, who fast became like brothers, seemingly unaware of the typical dog-chases-cat relationship. (Also see "A Perfect Storm of Cute: Cheetah Cubs Grow Up With Puppy.")

The combination works because the chosen dogs, usually rescue mutts but sometimes pure labradors or shepherds, are a calming influence and are tolerant of kitty play—including tooth and claw.

Cheetahs 101 You may already know that cheetahs are the world's fastest land animal. But did you know their tails play a crucial role in hunting? Check out this and other fun facts about cheetahs.

Dogs are also great teachers, offering up social cues the cheetahs need to thrive and would normally get from their mother and siblings.

Dogs Still Chase Cats

In an interesting twist, dogs and cheetahs engage in a very different relationship in parts of Africa, but one that is equally good for the big cats.

In Namibia, which is one of few strongholds for the endangered felines, cheetahs sometimes take down livestock where farms and cat territory overlap. Communal farmers, to whom a dead cow is a serious financial loss, may retaliate; in the 1980s alone they nearly halved the cat population, killing more than 3,000 cheetahs while trying to protect their property.

A partial solution came in the 1990s from the nonprofit Cheetah Conservation Fund, which has been cooperating with local people ever since to bring in an unusual conservation tool. Specially bred dogs, mostly Anatolian shepherds and Kangal dogs, are now raised with the herds and chase cheetahs away before farmers have to load their guns. The program has been wildly successful, according to the group, reducing cheetah trappings and killings by 80 percent or more.

Is it friendship? Of a sort. These livestock guard dogs may not romp around with cats the way dogs do at U.S. zoos, but they are taking care of cheetahs just the same.

Jennifer S. Holland is the author of the Unlikely Friendships series, about unusual animal relationships. Her latest book is Unlikely Heroes.