The cheetah in the wild is "racing towards extinction" mostly due to habitat destruction. Its survival will probably depend on accelerated captive breeding. At this time, however, reproductive failure and liver disease threaten the future of the captive cheetah population. Histopathological evaluation of more than 100 cheetah livers identified venocclusive disease as the main hepatic lesion responsible for liver disease in this species. Analysis of the commercial feline diet by high-performance liquid chromatography and gas-liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry revealed large amounts of two phytoestrogens identified as daidzein and genistein. These compounds were found to be derived from a soybean product that was a component of the cheetah diet, and their concentrations both ranged from 18 to 35 micrograms/g diet. The adult cheetah consequently consumes approximately 50 mg/day of these weak estrogens. When extracts of the diet were tested for estrogenicity using a bioassay, a dose-related increase in uterine weight was observed. In 4 cheetahs studied, withdrawal of this feline diet by substitution with a chicken diet resulted in an improvement in conventional liver function tests and a normalization in the appearance of hepatic mitochondria. We conclude that the relatively high concentrations of phytoestrogens from soybean protein present in the commercial diet fed to captive cheetahs in North American zoos may be one of the major factors in the decline of fertility and in the etiology of liver disease in this species. The survival of the captive cheetah population could depend upon a simple change of diet by excluding exogenous estrogen.