Tigers do not just eat meat – they eat animals which provide a complete and balanced diet although the water and fat content can be variable. It is therefore important to feed whole animal carcasses (including intestines and skeleton) wherever possible. In the later stages of rehabilitation live prey should be fed, and before release, rehabilitated tigers must demonstrate the ability to hunt and kill prey successfully. If they came into the rehabilitation facility as very young animals, tigers need to develop these skills on site.
- It is very important that any tigers that are likely to be released in the future are not fed domestic animals. If tigers develop a taste for domesticated species whilst in rehabilitation, they may predate on them once released.
- Natural prey species such as wild pigs and wild deer appropriate to the region should be fed to adults whereas younger animals can be offered wild birds and lagomorphs as well as small, young pigs and deer.
- For example at the Tambling rehabilitation centre in Sumatra, Indonesia, the principle food for tigers is sambar deer and wild boar, and feeding with beef, goat or sheep is strictly prohibited. For very young tigers wild boar liver is used and live prey suitable for the individual introduced gradually.
- Freshly killed carcasses should be fed if possible and must be handled hygienically using disposable gloves. They should be stored in dedicated areas that are regularly disinfected.
- Food can be a source of pathogens, and rigorous hygiene standards are essential. Hands of staff preparing food must be washed in clean water (boiled if necessary) using bactericidal products. Wash both sides of hands for at least 30 seconds. Equipment should be cleaned in detergents to remove organic material.
- All carcasses/ animals fed should be inspected first to ensure that they are healthy.
- Never feed blood, offal or meat from foetuses, stillbirths or animals that have died from disease or unknown causes. In areas where glanders occurs do not feed horse or donkey (glanders – also known as farcy – is caused by infection with a bacterium Burkholderia mallei and has been reported as causing the death of a captive tiger in Iran – see Khaki et al, 2012). In areas where outbreaks of highly pathogenic influenza viruses (eg: H5N1) have been identified do not feed chicken or wild birds.
- If fresh carcasses are not readily available, it is generally more practical to store batches of food animals deep-frozen. These should be slowly and thoroughly thawed in a clean refrigerated area so that the surface temperature is kept low. (Bacterial growth is greatest on the surface). It is important to ensure that carcasses are not fed whilst the inside is still frozen as this may lead to stomach upsets. Once thawed, carcasses should be offered to the cat at or around blood temperature if possible. Skin, hair and feathers act as roughage to aid the passage of food through the gut and play an important role in maintaining good dental hygiene.
- Adult tigers should generally be fed to maintain body condition – not too fat or too thin. Captive tigers can easily become over-weight, but this can be avoided by staff visually monitoring their general body condition and varying the amount fed accordingly. Such monitoring should be done remotely using CCTV if possible.
- A wild tiger, depending on the size of the prey and its reproductive status, may only make a kill once every 4 – 7 days or so. If there is a need to carefully monitor a new arrival, a smaller meal every day is probably advisable, but once a tiger has settled and is apparently healthy, a large meal every few days is more suitable. There is wide variation in suitable quantity and frequency of feeds, from 4 to 8 kg per day, to < 60 kg once per week.
- Vitamin and mineral supplements commonly added to the diet offered to tigers in zoos should not be necessary, although may be advisable if individuals in rehabilitation are recovering from particularly severe illness, have not yet recovered a healthy appetite or are juveniles without a mother. The key role of the powdered supplement is to ensure that food provides a ratio of calcium to phosphorous of approximately 2:1.
- Recently captured tigers may be too stressed to eat. In the beginning, feed close to or in the den, and be prepared to try several different food types. It may even be necessary to feed small live animals. Try feeding late in the day as some tigers eat more easily under the cover of darkness.
- Clean water should always be available. A stream running through the main enclosure is best but in the small enclosures fresh water can be used (boiled first if necessary). Water troughs/ bowls should be robust and able to be filled and drained from outside the enclosure. In Russian winters water freezes, but this is not a problem if there is snow on the ground which tigers will use as a water source.
Feeding records should be kept for each tiger – including the type of food, amount offered, and amount consumed.
The feeding of live prey brings its own complications.
- Feeding live prey may require facilities on site for holding sufficient animals.
- Animals fed as live prey should have been well cared for and fed regularly to ensure good welfare and body condition, and therefore provide suitable quality prey for the tiger. Prey species fed live must be able to must exhibit natural behaviour in the enclosure before being caught by the tigers, so there needs to be enough space and appropriate enclosure features for prey to run, climb and/or hide. Prey should be introduced into the enclosure through a boxed area that opens remotely. It is important that a tiger does not associate food with humans, and release of prey into enclosures should be carried out with minimum sound. Enclosures with right angled corners give tigers an unfair advantage in catching prey (See Facility Design).
- At the Alexeevka rehabilitation centre in the Russian Far East small live prey (rabbits, pheasants) are provided to tigers at 7-8 months. At 11 months live young wild boar and sika deer are offered. Tigers over 15 months are given larger prey. For 6 months prior to release tigers are only provided with live prey items at intervals of 7 – 12 days. Each cat must successfully kill at least 8 wild boar / sika deer before release.