Clouded Leopard BabiesClouded Leopard Pregnancy
Clouded leopards have a gestation period averaging 90 days. Signs of pregnancy are extremely subtle, however during the last trimester the female may show some enlargement of her abdominal area. At this time her nipples will also become more prominent, with increased mammary development just prior to giving birth. Females are generally separated from males two to four weeks before giving birth. Sometimes closely bonded pairs are kept together longer, but watched carefully.
Clouded leopards that are close to giving birth may become restless, stop eating, and spend more time than usual in their nest boxes. It is extremely important to give the female lots of privacy and not do anything to disrupt her during this time. Many zoos utilize cameras in the cats' den areas to be able to monitor the birth with as little disturbance to the mother as possible. This allows the keepers to watch the cats carefully and intervene to provide assistance only if absolutely necessary. Most clouded leopards will give birth during the middle of the night or very early morning. As a result, zoo staff members often need to spend the night monitoring the female as she nears her projected delivery date.
Delivery may take place over 1-2 hours, with intervals of about 20 minutes between cubs. The mother will chew through the umbilical cord, then lick the cubs to clean and warm them. Unfortunately, clouded leopards are often poor mothers in zoos and may abandon the cubs shortly after they are born. In some cases, she may even show aggression towards the cubs and harm them. Even if a clouded leopard mother provides good care for her cubs initially, she will often harm or kill them later. As a result, some zoos routinely hand-rear clouded leopard cubs to ensure their survival and well-being. In addition, many zoological managers feel that hand-reared cats are more successful and comfortable as exhibit animals than mother-reared cats because they are used to being close to people.
Because so many clouded leopards need assistance raising their cubs, there is a large body of information on strategies to hand-rear cubs successfully. Newborn clouded leopard cubs are very small and helpless, weighing only about 6 ounces at birth. They are born with their eyes closed, no teeth, and unable to walk or move around. Newborn clouded leopards lack the ability to control their body temperature very well, so special attention has to be given to keep the cubs warm. After the cubs are born, their keepers rub them briskly with a soft towel in order to clean them off, dry them, and stimulate them. Then they are placed on soft blankets covering a heating pad in their nursery.
For the first week the cubs are fed bottles every three hours. The cubs drink a special milk formula designed especially for zoo cats. At first it is challenging to teach the cubs to drink from the bottles. The keepers have to be very patient, guiding the cubs' mouths to the nipples to drink. The cubs also have to be stimulated to urinate and defecate. Normally, clouded leopard mothers will lick their cubs to stimulate them, so the keepers gently massage them with wet gauze to mimic this behavior. The cubs are also weighed daily and their temperature is recorded.
By the time they were two weeks old, their eyes open, although their vision is not very well developed. By three weeks, the cubs' teeth begin to emerge. By this time the cubs also become more mobile and can wobble around their nursery on unsteady legs.
As the cubs grow, the keepers start reducing the number of feedings they receive each day, while at the same time increasing the amount of food they receive at each feed. In general, the cubs eat 10-20% of their body weight every day. By the time the cubs are a month old, they are down to four feedings a day. At this time, the keepers begin adding turkey baby food to the milk formula to provide more nutrition and begin to get the cubs used to the taste of meat. The amount of baby food added to the bottles is gradually increased until the cubs receive a "meat milkshake."
At six weeks, the cubs are introduced to solid food for the first time. In addition to their bottles, they are offered meat - not too popular at first! Eventually the cubs learn to eat the meat and begin being weaned off of their bottles. The cubs receive one bottle a day until they are totally weaned at three months of age.
As the cubs grow and become more coordinated and agile, their keepers provide them with developmentally appropriate toys as well as branches for climbing. By the time they are three months old, the cubs have gained enough confidence to climb high in the branches in their exhibit.
Eventually, any cubs born will be placed for breeding in other zoos as recommended by the Clouded Leopard SSP. The keepers who committed so many hours of exhausting round- the-clock care to raise the cubs will be sorry to see them go. However, they have the rewarding satisfaction of knowing they have contributed to the conservation of such a beautiful and endangered species. And, hopefully, there will be new cubs to raise next year!