Polar Bear Nutrition Guidelines

Polar bears, the most carnivorous of the Ursidae family, prey primarily on ringed seals (Best, 1985; Derocher, et. al, 2000; Stirling and Archibald, 1977).  When brought into captivity, maintaining their nutritional and mental health can be challenging.  Due to the lack of indepth species-specific research, captive polar bear diets must be based on a combination of known requirements of related...

Macronutrient selection in mammalian insectivores at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay

This study determined macronutrient target of several mammalian insectivore species including 3-banded armadillo, aardvark, tamandua (lesser anteater), and greater anteater. These insectivores are often maintained on a commercial insectivore diet, which may or may not be appropriate for every species in this diverse and polyphyletic group. Animals were fed three experimental diets that varied in their proportions of calories from...

The Hungry Hungry Hippo

In January 2017, Fiona the baby hippo was born at the Cincinnati Zoo six weeks premature and some 30 pounds underweight. Getting Fiona to put on pounds was a life-or-death matter. Unfortunately, nursing wasn’t an option, and the only hippo formula recipe on file was old and out of date. To devise a new one, team Fiona turned to the...

Featuring a great inter-institutional collaboration!
“A hippo, an orangutan, and a scientist walk into a milk bar…” or so our story goes.

Click the image to take a listen.

This story is also featured on CNN as a Great Big Story.

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Body Condition Scoring Resource Center

  The following body condition scoring (BCS) scales have been obtained from a variety of sources.  We have credited the authors where we can, and encourage you to submit newly developed or modified scales or corrections to attributions.

The following body condition scoring (BCS) scales have been obtained from a variety of sources.  We have credited the authors where we can, and encourage you to submit newly developed or modified scales or corrections to attributions.

Click to expand

Pangolins, Aardvarks, & Xenarthrans (Sloths, Anteaters, Armadillos)

About BCS Scales

Body condition scoring (BCS) is a subjective measurement of an animal’s muscle definition and superficial fatty tissue.BCS for Zoo Animals

BCS has been used for many years in the livestock industry to improve the productivity, health, reproduction and longevity of herds.  BCS has become increasingly common in zoological settings for many of the same reasons.  Our greatest challenge in zoos is to develop practical systems or scales for the diverse species with which we work.  Some scales have been well-developed and validated, while others remain works in progress.  The NAG encourages the careful and thoughtful development of new scales, the refinement of those that already exist, and the diligent attention to their implementation for the good of the animals in our care.

About BCS Scales

Body condition scoring scales are numerical, and they typically range from 1 (emaciated) to either 5 or 9 (obese).  When using a 5-point scale, many people will assign half points (2.5 or 4.5 out of 5), which effectively turns the 5 point scale into a 9 point scale.  Whenever possible, we recommend the use of a 9 point scale.


Implications of BCS Scores


Low BCS scores have been associated with lowered reproductive success, poor recovery from illness, and may be a sign of disease or age.  High BCS scores have been associated with an increased risk of dystocia (difficulty giving birth), reproductive disorders, arthritis, diabetes, and other chronic conditions (Chan-McLeod et al. 1994; Burkholder 2000; Aeberhard et al. 2001; Busato et al. 2002; Berry et al. 2007; Boudreau 2012).  Despite the known risks of being too far at either end of the BCS spectrum, a BCS score should be non-judgmental.  You may be pleased that an animal recovering from a serious illness has moved from a 2 to a 3 (on a 9-pt scale), yet worry that a healthy animal has dropped from a 4 to a 3.  You may be glad that an obese animal has dropped from an 8 to a 5, yet endeavor to raise an animal preparing for hibernation from a 5 to an 8 or 9 (which may be “normal,” physiologically, for the species in question).  Keep in mind that just because it may be “normal” for a species to be over-conditioned at a specific time of year or life stage, this does not impact the BCS scale (a score of 8/9 remains 8/9, even if declared “appropriate” in terms of animal management; the scale does not “slide” to make that over-conditioned animal a 5/9). In addition, the scale is does not slide for growing, geriatric, or pregnant animals (regardless of stage of life, metabolic status, etc, the scale is designed to assess condition as objectively as possible).

Tips for Body Condition Scoring

  • BCS is best learned and implemented through consistent practice.  Often, it helps to have multiple staff involved at the start (animal managers, keepers, veterinarians, nutritionists, etc.) to make sure everyone is on the same page regarding terminology, anatomy, and the scoring system being used.  In the end, however, it is often best to have a limited number of scorers so that consistency can be maintained.  In addition, having someone who does not see the animals every day perform the scoring can be helpful.
  • Scorers should be familiar with the anatomy of each species.  If multiple scorers are utilized, they should be objectively evaluated for consistency with the same animals.  It can be helpful to note the initials of the scorer when a BCS is performed and recorded.
  • Although there are many different systems/scales (even for a single species), it is a good idea to pick one scoring system for each species and stick with it.  This allows for increased familiarity and proficiency, over time.
  • BCS is a particularly useful tool for animals that aren’t very tractable or for those who are unable to be weighed regularly.  If body weights are available, BCS acts as a complementary assessment for management purposes.  Ensure that the interval between BCS is reasonable and practical.
  • For growing animals, body weights can be paired with appropriate growth curves to assess development. However, body weights in growing individuals often vary, even within species, and may not be the best assessment of growth. In these cases, BCS can be used not only to assess appropriate growth, but also to establish target weights for individuals.
  • If your species of interest does not have a scale established, please consider developing one.  If you do, look at those that have already been thoughtfully developed. Ideal BCS scales are easy to use, distinguish biologically relevant changes in status, provide enough description that multiple observers will obtain similar results, and, ideally, have been validated through other means (ultrasound, TOBEC, necropsy).  Photographs and drawings should clearly show points of interest and be coupled with clear written descriptions.   The NAG encourages you to share your systems by presenting a poster or presentation at our conference, or publishing in another format that can be accessed by the zoo community.
    • Aeberhard K, Bruckmaier RM, Kuepfer U, and Blum JW. 2001. Milk Yield and Composition, Nutrition, Body Conformation Traits, Body Condition Scores, Fertility and Diseases in High-Yielding Dairy Cows – Part 1. Journal of Veterinary Medicine Series A 48:97–110.
    • Berry DP, Lee JM, Macdonald KA, and Roche JR. 2007. Body Condition Score and Body Weight Effects on Dystocia and Stillbirths and Consequent Effects on Postcalving Performance. Journal of Dairy Science 90:4201–4211.
    • Boudreau L. 2012. Effect of Moderate Diet Restriction on Body Condition, Health, and Reproductive Performance in Female Mink (Neovison vison).
    • Burkholder WJ. 2000. Use of body condition scores in clinical assessment of the provision of optimal nutrition. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 217:650–654.
    • Busato A, Faissler D, Küpfer U, and Blum JW. 2002. Body condition scores in dairy cows: associations with metabolic and endocrine changes in healthy dairy cows. Journal of Veterinary Medicine Series A 49:455–460.
  • Chan-McLeod ACA, White RG, and Holleman DF. 1994. Effects of protein and energy intake, body condition, and season on nutrient partitioning and milk production in caribou and reindeer. Canadian Journal of Zoology 72:938–947.

If you know of additional published resources for this page, we encourage you to submit them for potential inclusion:

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Preliminary investigations into circulating vitamin E concentrations in captive okapi (Okapia johnstoni)

Normal circulating vitamin E levels have not been established for okapi (Okapi johnstoni) on a captive diet. Blood samples were obtained in 1996 by the Okapi SSP for free-ranging okapi in Zaire (Lukas, 1996). In 2009, vitamin E levels were acquired for animals housed at the Epulu Station in the Democratic Republic of the Congo fed an all leaf diet...

Managing diabetes through diet in black-footed tree rats (Mesembriomys gouldii) and greater stick-nest rats (Leporillus conditor)

Clinical and pathological signs consistent with diabetes mellitus (DM) were observed in a collection of Black Footed Tree Rats (BFTR; Mesembriomys gouldii) and Greater Stick-Nest Rats (GSNR; Leporillus conditor) housed at Taronga zoo. Review of the medical records of eighteen BFTR between 1991 and 2014, and thirty eight GSNR between 1995 and 2014, revealed a high frequency of animals with...

Investigation of a new diet formula for captive short-beaked echidnas (Tachyglossus aculeatus)

Short beaked echidnas (Tachyglossus aculeatus) are myrmecophages, ant and termite specialists, and replicating their diet in captivity is problematic. Captive diets often incorporate raw meat, eggs and cat food mixed together with water and vitamin and mineral supplements. These diets have presented a number of health problems, such as cystitis, gut impaction, obesity and diarrhea. This study aimed to assess...

Hand-rearing and growth of a grey seal (Halichoerus grypus)

Typical grey seal lactation lasts 15-21 days, followed by abrupt weaning by the dam and a several weeks long period of relatively significant weight loss while the pup learns to feed and fend for itself. It was with this natural history in mind that we formulated a grey seal hand-rearing protocol pending the birth of a female pup in early...

The growth responses of two polar bear (Ursus maritimus) cubs to regimented dietary energy

The growth of polar bear (Ursus maritimus) cubs depends to a large extent on litter size and the provision of maternal care, specifically, milk production and the sharing of prey (Derocher and Stirling, 1996, Robbins et al., 2012). Cubs in most subpopulations stay with their mothers for up to 2 ½ years and rely solely on maternal milk during the...

Evaluation of a commercial vitamin and mineral supplement in milk replacers on serum nutrients in pre-ruminants

Since opening in May 1972, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park has hand-raised hundreds of ruminant neonates. In order to improve success rates and generate appropriate protocols with any hand-reared neonate species, it is important to document each animal’s daily status and changes implemented to husbandry practices with each experience. Milk formula composition and consumption, solid-food intake, body weights, and...

Effect of dietary soluble fiber on gut microbiota in the sugar glider (Petaurus breviceps): a pilot study

The sugar glider (Petaurus breviceps) is an exudativore in nature, eating plant gums, saps, resins, manna, and nectars as well as insect-based honeydew and lerp, with proportions of various ingredients highly dependent on seasonality and locale (Smith, 1982; Howard, 1989). Despite a well-developed cecum that could, in theory, harbor microbial populations with fermentative capabilities (Hume, 1999), a majority of captive...

Birth weights and growth rates of giraffe and okapi at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

There is a lack of information available regarding the average birth weights and growth rates of many exotic animal species. This information can prove useful when evaluating the health of new born animals in a zoological setting. Within 24 to 48 hours of birth, giraffe (Giraffa camelopardis) and okapi (Okapia johnstoni) at Disney’s Animal Kingdom are weighed and health is...

Analysis of nutrients, moisture loss, and vitamin stability in primate browse harvested at the San Diego Zoo

The objective of this study was to obtain nutrient profiles along with insight on rates of moisture and vitamin loss in browse harvested at San Diego Zoo Global (SDZG). Ten species of browse commonly offered to colobines were manually separated into leaf and bark components for analysis at a commercial laboratory. Findings indicate that a variety of browse species and...

Nutrient composition of the milk of the giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla)

Little information exists about milk composition in obligate insectivores or in members of the mammalian superorder Xenarthra. A total of 37 milk samples collected from 3 lactating giant anteaters (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) were assayed for proximate nutrient content at the Nutrition Laboratory of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute using standard methods developed at the Nutrition Laboratory. Water comprised 88.7 ± 2.1%...

A targeted metabolomics assay to measure purines in the diet of managed and free-ranging common bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncates)

Ammonium urate nephrolithiasis occurs in common bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) managed under human care but not in free-ranging dolphins (Smith et al., 2013). In mammals, purine-rich diets, such as the piscivorous diet of dolphins, can predispose to urate urolith formation (Osborne et al., 1995). The total purine content of food is measured commercially by summing the concentrations of four purine...

A comparative nutrient analysis of fish species consumed by managed and free-ranging common bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncates) with respect to ammonium urate nephrolithiasis

Ammonium urate nephroliths develop in common bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) managed under human care, but do not occur in free-ranging dolphins (Smith et al., 2013). In mammals, urate urolith development has been attributed partly to the effect of diet on urine saturation and pH. Free-ranging and collection dolphins consume diets that differ in fish species variety, location, and fresh versus...

Feeding strategies in wild carnivores: progress report of a model approach

Feeding strategies among wild carnivores are still partly unexplained. Carnivore mass is a determining factor in the choice for a specific range in prey size (Carbone et al., 1999). According to Carbone et al. (2007), two dietary groups can be distinguished: small carnivores hunting on small prey (< 20 kg) and large carnivores hunting on large prey (> 20 kg)....

Utilization of pork and pork by-products for nutritional management of captive exotic felids

Currently beef and horse comprise the majority of raw meat diet formulations marketed by US companies manufacturing and supplying carnivore diets to zoological institutions. Pork-based diets have traditionally not been fed to managed exotic carnivores, primarily because of microbial and pathogenic concerns, and nutrient digestibility of pork has not been evaluated in captive exotic felids. Additionally, the pork industry currently...

Cheetah nutrition: recent advances and revised SSP recommendations

The SSP Cheetah Animal Care Manual was recently revised and updated, and is due for release by the end of 2015. As part of this process the Nutrition chapter was re-written in order to incorporate recent research findings and provide a more comprehensive overview of our current understanding. A review of the in situ diet of the free-ranging cheetahs demonstrated...

Non-healing subcutaneous hemorrhage in a colony of vampire bats (Desmodus rotundus) due to suspected vitamin C deficiency

The Milwaukee County Zoo has housed vampire bats (Desmodus rotundus) since 1973. The bats are fed defibrinated cow’s blood with a liquid pediatric multivitamin supplement. In November 2013, one bat developed a non-healing left wing hematoma. An August 2014 post-mortem examination revealed multifocal extensive necrohemorrhagic and suppurative ulcerative dermatitis with no underlying cause determined. From July to December 2014, five...

Vitamin E supplementation in African elephants

Vitamin E, an essential vitamin, has antioxidant properties that are important for maintaining optimal health. In the 1990’s, comparisons of zoo-housed and wild elephant species revealed concentrations of blood a-tocopherol (vitamin E) in zoo-housed elephants of approximately half that seen in their wild conspecifics (0.4 vs. 0.8 ug/ml; Dierenfeld and Traber, 1992). Addition of dietary vitamin E supplement for the...

Use of a novel iron chelator (HBED) in black rhinoceros

Black rhinoceroses (Diceros bicornis) are critically endangered and are compromised by iron overload under human care (Paglia and Tsu, 2012; Molenaar et al., 2008). With the goal of safely reducing iron absorption in the gastrointestinal tract of affected and susceptible individuals, we investigated oral administration of the iron chelator, N,N-bis(2-hydroxybenzyl)ethylenediamine-N,N–diacetic acid (HBED) to 2.1 black rhinoceros. We expected HBED administration...

Evaluation of diets offered to elephants in Brazilian zoos

In order to improve the quality of life for captive elephants maintained in Brazilian zoos, the Brazilian Society of Zoos and Aquariums (SZB) organized a workshop concerning management of elephants in zoos in November 2014. Evaluation of nutritional husbandry was identified as a priority. Thus, diets were assessed from information obtained for 4 African (Loxodonta africana) and 12 Asian (Elephas...

An analysis of vitamin C supplementation in the drinking water for giant elephant shrews (Rhynchocyon petersi) at the Philadelphia Zoo

The Philadelphia Zoo acquired 2.2 Giant Elephant Shrews, Rhynchocyon petersi, in July 1999 for the purpose of exhibition and reproduction. At that time, limited anecdotal dietary and activity budget data were available for this species. The animals appeared to be clinically healthy and in ‘ideal’ nutritional condition upon arrival. Intensive observational studies of time budgets and food and water intake...

Nutritionally complete food-free diets for primates: potential benefits and concerns

Many zoos and institutions offer nutritionally complete foods (NCF) in the diets of captive primates (Oftedal and Allen, 1996). These foods, which often take the form of extruded biscuits, canned diets or gels, provide a source of important nutrients like protein, fat, fiber, vitamins and minerals, thereby helping to meet minimum estimated nutrient requirements (Oftedal and Allen, 1996; NRC, 2003)....

Associations between diet, gut microbial communities, and health in red-shanked doucs (Pygathrix nemaeus): a model for the subfamily colobinae

Red-shanked doucs (Pygathrix nemaeus) and other colobines possess specialized gastrointestinal systems similar to ruminants. They utilize both fore- and hindgut fermentation to meet their energetic demands. Maintenance of captive populations has been largely unsuccessful. Improving captive conditions is hindered by critical gaps in our understanding of their natural diet and enteric microbial adaptations that facilitate the digestive process. We used...

Nutrition therapy for human gastrointestinal disorders and application to captive non-human primates

Abnormal gastrointestinal function is considered to be a common problem among captive non-human primates. Certain nutrients and diet patterns are implicated in abnormal gastrointestinal function and disease. The human nutrition field uses medical nutrition therapies to prevent and/or manage a variety of gastrointestinal disorders. Some of these may be appropriate for application to non-human primates. Current evidence-based nutrition interventions for...