What Are Big Cats Fed In Zoos?

Big cats are large felines in the genus Panthera, including lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards, and snow leopards. They are apex predators and play important ecological roles in the wild. In zoos, providing proper nutrition for these large carnivores is essential to their health and well-being.

This article will provide an overview of what big cats eat in their natural habitats, how zoo diets compare, the types of foods fed in captivity, feeding schedules and amounts, special dietary considerations, and the importance of variety. The goal is to give readers a comprehensive understanding of the dietary needs of big cats and how accredited zoos meet those requirements.

Natural Diets

In the wild, big cats such as lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars are carnivores that prey on a variety of animals to meet their nutritional needs. Their preferred prey includes ungulates like deer, antelope, wild pigs, buffalo, and zebra. Big cats employ strategic hunting techniques to catch their prey, either ambushing them from dense vegetation or stealthily stalking them across open grasslands. Once within attack range, they rely on explosive power and agility to seize and overcome prey.

The diets of big cats in the wild consist almost entirely of meat and provide high levels of protein and fat to sustain their large, muscular bodies. Organ meats like liver are especially prized for their nutrient density. Wild felids must eat frequently, gorging up to one third of their body weight at a time. Still, the availability of prey is inconsistent, so they have evolved to endure periods of famine. This feast-or-famine lifestyle requires peak physical fitness achieved through habitual hunting and feeding patterns.

Nutritionally, the natural carnivorous diet provides big cats with ample amino acids from protein-rich muscle meats as well as essential fatty acids, vitamins A and B from organ meats, and calcium from bones. Their bodies are adapted to derive energy from animal fat and protein rather than carbohydrates. Wild felids consume the entire carcass, enabling full utilization of available nutrients.

Zoo Diets

Zoos go to great lengths to provide nutritionally balanced diets for their big cats. While they aim to replicate the cat’s natural diet in the wild, some adjustments are necessary to meet their specific dietary needs in captivity.

Typical diet components include meat, whole prey, and dietary supplements. Meat sources, like beef, horse meat, or ratite, provide protein and fat. Whole prey items, such as rabbits or chickens, offer nutrients found in organs, bones, and skin. Supplements fill any nutritional gaps not met by the main diet ingredients.

Diets vary between big cat species based on their natural eating habits. For example, tigers and lions consume more red meat than leopards, which prefer poultry. The goal is to recreate their wild prey preferences as much as possible. However, some adjustments may be needed for individual animals based on age, health issues, or preferences.

Zoos work closely with nutritionists to formulate and monitor diets through regular bloodwork. This ensures the cats receive proper nutrition to support growth, reproduction, and overall health and wellbeing. It’s a complex process but critical for meeting these captive predators’ needs.


Zoos feed their big cats various types of raw meat to replicate the muscle and organ meat they would consume from hunting prey in the wild. Common meats used include beef, horse, bison, venison, chicken, rabbit, and fish like mackerel or herring. The Akron Zoo notes they feed whole rabbits to provide the skin and organs that big cats would eat from large prey (Source 1). The meat is human-grade and sourced from inspected suppliers, like food fit for human consumption. Meat products are often frozen until ready for feeding to preserve freshness. According to Quora, the meat is prepared raw, unlike the cooked meat humans eat, to better match the natural diets of big cats (Source 2).

Whole Prey

Feeding whole prey provides many benefits for big cats in zoos. Whole prey consists of entire animals such as rabbits, chickens, rats, or other small animals that are fed to the big cats whole, with bones and organs intact. According to the Big Cat Rescue, feeding whole prey provides enrichment for the cats as they have to gnaw and crunch the bones, which helps keep their teeth clean (1). It also allows them to consume the nutrients from the bones and organs that they would get in the wild. The Big Cat Rescue offers whole prey to their cats once or twice a week.

However, there are some challenges to feeding whole prey. It can be more expensive for zoos to source whole prey animals. There is also more prep work involved to thaw and prepare the animals for feeding. Additionally, some big cats may not be used to consuming bones and organs if they have been raised on processed meat diets. So there can sometimes be an adjustment period. Different species have different preferences as well. For example, tigers seem to especially enjoy consuming whole rabbits and chickens (2).

Overall, offering whole prey provides an enriching feeding experience for big cats in zoos while allowing them to consume a diet closer to what they would eat in the wild. But zoos have to balance the benefits with the costs and preparation required.


Zoos need to provide additional supplements to big cats to ensure they get all the vitamins and nutrients they need. In the wild, cats would get vitamins and minerals from consuming whole prey animals including the bones, organs, and stomach contents. Since zoo diets consist mostly of muscle meat, supplements help mimic nutrients cats would get in the wild (Source).

Common vitamin supplements given to big cats include calcium to support bone health, taurine for heart health, and Vitamins A, E, D3, and B-complex. Mineral supplements like zinc, magnesium, and selenium are also important. Manufactured carnivore supplement mixes like Vetafarm’s Predamax provide a balanced blend of essential vitamins and minerals (Source).

In addition to vitamins, enrichment items are often added to feeds to stimulate natural foraging behaviors. These can include whole carcasses, large bones with meat, hanging treats, puzzle feeders, and more. Enrichment encourages cats to work for their food and prevents boredom or frustration (Source).

Feeding Schedules

Zoos have specific guidelines and schedules for feeding big cats to ensure proper nutrition. According to the Lion Care Manual from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, lions are fed “an average of 1–1.5% of the cat’s body weight daily.” This amounts to about 4–8 kg of meat for an adult lion (Lion Care Manual, 2012).

Feeding usually occurs once per day, typically in the morning before the zoo opens. The food is weighed into proper portions and delivered to each enclosure. To encourage natural hunting behaviors, the meat may be hidden around the enclosure, presented whole, or attached to enrichment devices. Portions are adjusted based on appetite and health on a daily basis (Lion Care Manual, 2012).

For large meat meals, zoos often utilize a “scatter feed” technique where pieces of meat are scattered throughout the enclosure to promote natural foraging. Carcasses may also be given whole to allow ripping and tearing. Formula diets can be presented in pans, on bones, in toys, or hand-fed for training. Varying presentation helps prevent boredom and encourage species-appropriate behaviors (Lion Care Manual, AZAA, 2013).

Dietary Variety

Providing a variety of foods for captive big cats is very important for their physical and psychological health. In the wild, big cats like lions, tigers, and leopards would hunt and eat a range of prey animals. Restricting their diet solely to one type of meat in captivity can lead to nutritional imbalances over time. Variety helps ensure big cats receive a complete range of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients needed for good health.

Additionally, providing novel or enrichment foods stimulates their natural hunting behaviors and prevents boredom. Zoos and sanctuaries may offer whole carcasses, parts like bones or organs, live fish, or puzzle feeders to encourage natural foraging. This provides mental stimulation and allows cats to express their natural behaviors. While the bulk of their diet is meat, adding diversity through techniques like this enhances overall wellbeing for captive big cats.

According to https://www.quora.com/Why-do-big-cats-like-meat-but-not-fish-and-why-do-small-cats-like-fish-but-not-meat, some zoos will occasionally feed fish to lions and other big cats to encourage dietary variety.

Special Dietary Needs

Some zoo animals have special dietary requirements due to health conditions or age. Older big cats, for example, may need softer food that is easier to chew and digest. The Jacksonville Zoo takes steps to accommodate animals with special needs, such as an elderly tiger named MeeJee. According to this article, MeeJee’s regular meals include meat chunks tailored for the zoo’s aging big cats.

Very young cubs also require specialized nutrition. Zoos may supplement milk from the mother with bottle-feeding of formula to ensure the cubs get adequate nutrients. Soft, mushy versions of meat may be fed as cubs transition to solid foods.

Elderly big cats can present challenges due to their advanced age and special needs, as noted in this news announcement about aging tigers at the Idaho Falls Zoo. Keepers work to adjust diets as needed based on observations of each animal.


In conclusion, ensuring proper nutrition for big cats under human care is essential for their health and wellbeing. While their diets in captivity differ from what they would eat in the wild, zoos aim to provide balanced, naturalistic diets that meet their nutritional needs. Meat, whole prey items, and dietary supplements make up key components. Variety, special dietary considerations, and proper feeding techniques also play an important role.

Providing appropriate diets tailored to each species and individual is crucial. Though challenging, ensuring big cats receive the nutrients they need supports good health and allows them to thrive. Their care and keeping relies on a thorough understanding of their dietary needs and how to meet them responsibly.

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