World Lion Day Facts


World Lion Day was August 10th and LafeberVet celebrated on Twitter. Explore our collection of “Felidae-friendly” facts that have been expanded for this post.

Photo credit: Michael Day via Flickr Creative Commons


Lions are the largest predator in Africa. The lion belongs to order Carnivora and family Felidae:

Class: Mammalia

Order: Carnivora

Family: Felidae

Subfamily: Panterinae


Geographic range

African lions (Panthera leo) inhabit many sub-Saharan African habitats ranging from open woodland, dense bush, scrub and grass, however lions are not found in desert or rainforest. Once eliminated from South Africa, populations are now found only in Kruger and Kalahari Gemsbok National Parks and possibly some other protected areas. Asiatic lions (P. l. persica) were once found from Greece to central India, however only a single population is now found in the Gir forest of northwest India. Conservation efforts are under way to protect this population and reintroduce additional lions into surrounding wildlife sanctuaries.


Physical description

Male lions develop a mane at approximately 3 years of age that may vary in color from black to blonde. The development of this mane is directly related to blood testosterone levels, therefore castrated males lose their mane. Manes also tend to be fuller in free-ranging lions.

Adult male African lions are also larger. Males typically weigh 189 kg (150-250 kg) and stand 1.2 m. Asiatic lions are slightly smaller with shorter manes and thicker elbows and tail tufts. Asiatic lions also possess a longitudinal skin fold on their ventrum.



Male African lions reach their prime between 5 to 9 years, however few males survive past 10 to 12 years of age. Female African lions typically live longer than males, reaching 15 to 16 years in the wild and approximately 13 years in captivity.

Adult lions have no predators, but are vulnerable to humans, starvation, and attacks from other lions. Infanticide is an important cause of cub mortality and cub death rates increase when prey is scarce or when males take over a new pride.



Lion groups, better known as “prides”, are fission-fusion societies (Fig 1). Pride membership is stable, but members are rarely together all at once. Instead pride members are often scattered in small sub-groups. Pride size can range from 2 to 40 lions, with an average of 13 lions. Pride members typically consist of 1.7 adult males, 4.5 adult females, 3.8 sub-adults, and 2.8 juveniles.

Lions at waterhole

Figure 1. Lion pride at a watering hole in the Serengeti. Photo credit: Mandy via Flickr Creative Commons. Click image to enlarge.

Most females within a pride are related and remain in their mother’s territory for their entire lives. Female pridemates do not compete or fight with each other. Instead they display cooperative behavior including synchronous reproduction and even communal cub-raising.

In contrast, male lions are extremely aggressive, particularly when feeding. Adolescent male lions are generally forced from their natal pride by the male leader at approximately 2.5 years (2-4 years) of age. These males lead nomadic lives for 2 to 3 years, then form a coalition. These coalitions, usually consisting of brothers, often take over a new pride by force.

Conservation status

Lions are critically endangered. Lions formerly ranged from northern Africa through southwest Asia (where it disappeared from most countries within the last 150 years), west into Europe, where it apparently became extinct almost 2,000 years ago, and east into India. There are two extinct subspecies of African lion: Barbary lions (Panthera leo leo) and Cape lions (P. l. melanochaita).

African lion populations have greatly declined in West Africa and in many African countries they are restricted to protected areas with no connecting corridors between wildlife reserves. There are less than 200 mature Asiatic lions. This species is confined to the Gir Forest reserve of India.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List describes lion populations as vulnerable. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) lists the African lion on Appendix II and Asiatic lions on Appendix I.



Lions are obligate carnivores and therefore possess a relatively simple gastrointestinal tract, and lion dentition reflects this nutritional strategy. Like most carnivores, lions possess small incisors, long fang-like canines, small, pointed premolars, and large, scissor-like molars.

Reproductive values reported in the African lion include:

  • Estrus: 4 days
  • Gestation: 110 (100-114) days
  • Litter size: 2.5 (1-6) cubs

Housing the captive lion

Lions are easily maintained in traditional barred or heavily wired cages as well as in large outdoor exhibits employing moats to separate animals and public. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) space requirements call for enclosures to be constructed and maintained so as to provide sufficient space to allow each animal to make normal postural and social adjustments with adequate freedom of movement. Specific legal housing requirements vary from state to state however caging for the single animal should generally measure at least 6 m (20 ft) wide and 5 m (15 ft) deep.

Although adult lions do not climb well, their leaping ability should never be underestimated. Outdoor cages should have vertical walls measuring at least 5 m (16 ft) high. Moats should be at least 8 m (25 ft) wide and 5 m (15 ft) deep. All enclosures must have smaller shift facilities to permit safe cleaning, cage repair, or other separations. Shift cages, to allow safe cage cleaning, repair or separations, should measure at least 2.44 (8 ft) in width and depth.


Infectious disease

Non-domestic cats are susceptible to a range of viral diseases and surveys of free-ranging populations have shown serologic evidence of exposure to many common feline and canine viruses including feline calicivirus, feline rhinotracheitis, panleukopenia (feline parvovirus), canine distemper virus, and feline immunodeficiency virus (Duarte 2009, Ramanathan 2007, Driciru 2006, Harrison 2006). Infectious diseases are transmitted by exposure to wild and domestic carnivores including raccoons in North America and dogs in Africa.

Lion lentivirus or FIVple is endemic in certain lion populations in eastern and southern Africa (Adams 2010). Little is known about the pathogenic effects or the epidemiological impact of FIVple in free-ranging lions. In a survey of free-ranging lions in Kruger National Park, adult males had the highest prevalence (94%) and the lowest prevalence was found in juvenile males (29%) (Adams 2009).

Big cats like lions are routinely vaccinated with a killed combination feline vaccine against feline distemper, feline calicivirus, and feline rhinotracheitis as well as a killed rabies virus vaccines. Other vaccinations are based on risk assessment of a specific population. For instance, vaccination of big cats against canine distemper virus using a canarypox vector vaccine (Purevax, Merial) has also been described but this is not standard in all felids (Armstrong 2002). A recombinant feline leukemia vaccine (Fel-O-Vax, Fort Dodge) is also commonly administered (Risi 2012, Armstrong 2002).

Bovine tuberculosis, caused by Mycobacterium bovis, is a disease that was introduced relatively recently into the Kruger National Park (KNP) lion population. Lions contract bovine tuberculosis by eating infected buffalo and from horizontal transmission via other lions (aerosol and percutaneous) (Kosmala 2011). Inbreeding appears to increase lion susceptibility to bovine tuberculosis (Trinkel 2011). A large percentage (31%) of affected lions were co-infected with FIVpl and M. bovis (Maas 2012, Kosmala 2011).


Non-infectious disease

Degenerative joint disease, including degenerative spinal disease is common in captive large felids. Predisposing factors include housing on hard substrates, obesity, and/or onychectomy. Declaw techniques in big cats cause a shift in body weight that leads to abnormal pressure on joints and the spine.

To minimize the risk of skeletal problems, comfortable substrate such as dirt and grass, is very important for big cats, particularly in areas where the cat tends to jump down.

Important causes of neurologic signs in young lions on a poor diet include:

  • Infectious disease (see above)
  • Trauma
  • Hypovitaminosis A
  • Thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency

Vitamin deficiencies are seen most commonly in young lions fed homemade chicken diets with little to no supplementation. Affected juveniles are usually 6 to 18 months of age, but problems have also been reported in older lions. Affected cats display a variety of neurologic signs, including progressive ataxia, seizures, and cervical ventroflexion.


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