Welfare of primates: the need for a suitable diet

The natural diet of primates differs from species to species. A balanced diet should include fresh, natural foods.

Suitable diet for primates

Food needs to be offered in a way and a frequency suited to the species, providing all necessary nutrients and be of adequate quantity, quality and variety.

The individual animal’s condition, size, physiological, reproductive and health status should also be considered when formulating the diet.

The natural behaviour of the primates, particularly foraging and social feeding behaviour, should be considered when offering food and drink.

Dietary record for primates

A record of all diets should be maintained as part of a care plan. This will assist when investigating health problems, if the animals are re-homed, or when they are managed temporarily by alternative keepers. In addition, the keeper should be familiar with the normal body weight parameters for the species kept, should monitor and record individual body weights on a regular basis, and modify diets in line with this.

It is strongly recommended that specialist advice is sought, and further research is carried out, on all aspects of the diet, nutritional needs and any supplements required, not only on a species level, but also on an individual level. Not all animals react to items in the same way, or require the same exact diet, and it is important to take this into account.

Care should be taken to monitor individual food intake, to make sure that selection of favoured items (for example banana) does not lead to a chronically imbalanced diet.

Advice on keeping care plans and health plans for your primate:

Dietary content for primates

The natural diet of primates differs from species to species.  For example, all marmoset species gouge branches to feed on plant gums, as well as eating fruit, flowers, insects and other small animals such as spiders, lizards and snails. Macaques are omnivorous, and eat both plants and meat.

Species differ considerably in their diet and whilst often categorised as eating one main food type, for example frugivorous (fruit-eating), folivorous (leaf-eating) and insectivorous (insect-eating), most primates have varied diets. The diet of primates in captivity should be designed to reflect the natural diet of the species.

Fresh, natural foods for primates

A balanced diet should include fresh natural foods. However, keepers should make sure that animals receive enough proteins, vitamins and minerals, some of which may be deficient in captive primate diets. In particular, deficiencies of vitamin D3, calcium and vitamin A in all primates and vitamin C and vitamin D3 in New World primates, especially marmosets and tamarins, are common.

When supplements are necessary in your primates diet, you should get these from specialist suppliers. A balanced diet will usually be formulated from complete primate pelleted food, fresh fruit, vegetables, insects and leafy branches and adapted for a particular species.

Roughage for primates

Getting enough roughage (provided by fibre-rich foods, such as leaves and pelleted food) is essential to avoid diarrhoea which can be caused by eating too much food.

Milk and other dairy products should be fed with caution, as they can cause digestive disorders such as diarrhoea and bloating.

Sugary sweets should be entirely avoided, and sweet fruits restricted, in order to avoid diabetes.

Dental health should be maintained by including leafy branches and pelleted or other hard foods, which give the primate the opportunity to gnaw and chew.

Care should be taken to make sure that any plants and their products, such as seeds or fruit, and naturally-occurring or introduced plants in enclosures are not toxic to the species kept.

Natural daylight for primates

Generally, all primates should have access to natural daylight for proper conversion of pro-vitamin D2 to vitamin D3.  Nocturnal primates may not get enough sunlight and therefore their diet may need to include vitamin D3 supplements.

Due to low levels of sunlight in Northern Ireland, compared to natural habitats, some primate species will be unable to metabolise enough vitamin D3, even if they have access to outdoor areas. This is particularly important for marmosets and tamarins that may die without vitamin D3 supplements. Keepers should refer to experienced specialist keepers and veterinary advice on the feeding of vitamin D3.

Fresh, clean drinking water should be available at all times, and should be protected from soiling and contamination by wild birds and rodents.

Primates spend a great deal of time foraging, up to 70 per cent of the day. They should be fed three times or more per day to cut down on waste, decrease boredom, and decrease the incidence of bloating. This also enables careful monitoring of individual welfare and group welfare.

Managing dominance hierarchies amongst primates

Dominance hierarchies are common in primate social groups. Dominant (controlling) animals may over-eat and become obese, but submissive animals can be deprived of an adequate diet.

Keepers should be aware of the potential for dominance-related problems, and take steps to eliminate them, by providing multiple feeding stations. Dominant animals may also monopolise sun-basking areas. Submissive animals may therefore become deficient in vitamin D3. This re-emphasises the need to provide a dietary supplement of vitamin D3.

Food preparation, storage and presentation for primates

  • food should be kept and prepared under hygienic conditions
  • food, both in storage and in the primate enclosure, should be protected against dampness, deterioration, mould, and from contamination by insects, birds and vermin
  • perishable food should be kept under refrigeration
  • receptacles for food and drink should not to be used for any other purposes
  • all food and drinking vessels should a suitable design and there should be enough in the right places to make sure every primate can reach them easily within the enclosure
  • food, water and other drinking vessels should be cleaned at least daily
  • self-feeders should be used with care, to make sure that each animal’s food intake is monitored
  • where used, self-feeders should be inspected twice daily to make sure that they are working effectively, and do not contain caked or unfit food
  • water lines, where used, should also be checked twice a day
  • uneaten food should be removed at least daily to avoid spoiling, or attracting vermin

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