Monitoring ovarian function and detecting pregnancy in felids: a review.
Reliable detection and monitoring of estrus and pregnancy is essential to the effective ex situ conservation of endangered felids. Here, we review the current methods used to detect estrus and pregnancy in felids and describe the advantages and limitations of each. A total of 194 felid-focused publications were reviewed. The methods used included behavioral assessments (61 publications across 24 species), hormone monitoring (124 studies across 28 species), fecal protein monitoring (two studies in cheetah), ultrasonography (31 publications across seven species), vaginal cytology (22 publications across nine species), and laparoscopy (70 publications across 19 species). Behavior-based assessments of reproductive state are often inconsistent and unreliable in felids; thus hormone measurement is the most frequently used method for monitoring estrous cycles (66% of studies). In non-domestic felids, non-invasive fecal- or urine-based hormone metabolite analyses are preferred to blood assessments (66% of endocrine-based publications). While the measurement of fecal estrogen and progestin metabolites are useful for the retrospective assessment of ovarian activity, their use for real-time detection of estrus is limited. Vaginal cytology, laparoscopy and ultrasonography provide an acute and immediate determination of reproductive state but usually require anesthesia or sedation, which can prevent ovulation and cause abortions; thus, their use for pregnancy diagnosis is limited. Fecal progesterone or prostaglandin F2α metabolites can be used to detect pregnancy in most felids (the exception being fecal progestins for Lynx spp.), but only during mid-to-late gestation. Urinary relaxin measurement is a promising method for earlier pregnancy diagnosis (30-40% duration of gestation) but is presently limited by poor assay sensitivity due to the lack of a feline-specific relaxin antibody. Elevated levels of fecal immunoglobulin J chain have been investigated as a tool to detect pregnancy in cheetah (>80% accuracy), but research is lacking on other species. We conclude that there is no single 'best method' for monitoring ovarian activity and detecting pregnancy in felids, and current best practice would involve a combination of existing methods. Non-invasive methods for detecting estrus and pregnancy in felids (e.g., accelerometry and infrared thermography) should also be considered to augment existing methods.