An Introduction to Health Problems Common in Domestic Asian Elephants

For centuries, Asian elephants have been revered for their strength, intelligence, and longevity. While they are undoubtedly resilient and robust creatures, capable of surviving in extremely harsh conditions, elephants are mammals with a complex anatomy, and as such, they are susceptible to a variety of diseases and other health problems. We at the Care Project Foundation believe that quality education is a vital and necessary tool to promote the conservation of the Asian elephant, and in this article, we will outline, for educational purposes, some of the most common health issues faced by Asian elephants, with a focus on domestic elephants in Thailand.

Health problems in Asian elephants can be broadly categorised as infectious diseases and non-infectious diseases. Infectious diseases found in Thai elephants are most commonly tropical in nature, and appear uniformly throughout Thailand. These diseases can be bacterial, viral, fungal, or parasitic, and symptoms must be monitored for closely and consistently, as the onset of such ailments can be rapid, and many have a high mortality rate. Non-infectious diseases can be equally serious in nature, and include digestive problems, dermal or integumentary issues, and optical, musculoskeletal, circulatory, reproductive, and other diseases. Accidental poisonings, traffic collisions involving elephants, and many forms of injury can also be classified under the banner of non-infectious diseases. The frequency of non-infectious diseases depends on a large number of factors, and thus varies widely throughout Thailand.

Susceptibility to disease in Asian elephants begins in infancy, and young elephants are particularly vulnerable to certain ailments. For instance, Elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV) is a viral infectious disease found in elephant populations worldwide. In wild African elephant populations, the virus is usually benign, sometimes causing a skin condition, or resulting in other mild symptoms. However, when certain strains (or subtypes) are transmitted to Asian elephants, which are particularly susceptible to the virus, they can cause a highly fatal haemorrhagic disease. This infectious disease often does not respond well to treatment, and has an extremely high mortality rate when transmitted to elephant calves, with death often occurring within five days of the onset of infection in severely affected animals. Certain parasitic infections can also be more dangerous when the exposed elephant is young. Though intestinal parasites are a cause of chronic illness in adult elephants, they are a major cause of death in elephant calves.

The dangers to infant elephants are by no means limited to infectious diseases, and humans are at times responsible for causing the onset of non-infectious diseases in calves, often due to a lack of education or training in proper elephant husbandry or veterinary care. One major issue may occur when a calf is weaned prematurely, particularly when improper milk replacers are used in place of the mother’s milk. Well-intentioned humans have been recorded feeding milk from other animals, such as cattle or buffaloes, to orphaned elephant calves, which is unsuitable for their digestive system, and can cause health issues. Prematurely weaned infants or orphans – particularly those exposed to improper milk replacers – are prone to developing Metabolic bone disease (commonly known as “Rickets”), resulting in weakened bones and an increased tendency for long bones to fracture later in life. This problem is especially prevalent in elephants born in elephant show environments, as they are often weaned dangerously early to undergo performance training, and the strenuous and unnatural movements and positions they must endure while performing often puts a high amount of strain on their weakened skeletal system. In cases where calves cannot be nursed until an appropriate age, a suitable artificial milk substitute should be used in order to ensure proper anatomical development. Good hygienic practices should be used at all times to avoid exposure to pathogens, and in many cases the infant should be prescribed antibiotics and vitamins to reduce the risk of mortality.

Diet remains a key factor in the reduction of disease risk for Asian elephants throughout their lifespan. Non-infectious diseases of the digestive system include colic, choking, bloating, and constipation, all of which may have causative origins in the diet or type of food ingested. Colic, for instance, can cause severe abdominal pain and may be caused by overeating foods such as corn stalks, bananas, or watermelon. Constipation, on the other hand, can occur when a high amount of fibre and hard foods have been consumed. The Asian elephant digestive system exists in a delicate balance, and given the enormous amount of food a domestic elephant can consume on a daily basis, it is imperative that Mahouts ensure access to a varied and carefully balanced diet to ensure good health and avoid disease.

Other environmental risk factors exist which can negatively impact an elephant’s health. A variety of bacterial infections can arise from exposure to bacteria in places such as food, soil, and water. These bacteria can result in infectious diseases such as haemorrhagic septicaemia, mycobacteriosis, and bacterial diarrhoea, all of which can cause extremely unpleasant symptoms, and even result in death if left untreated. Elephants can also contract tetanus, and suffer the effects of anthrax if exposed to environmental spores or direct contact. The transmission of haemorrhagic septicaemia is most often a result of translocation from infected cattle, and to minimise the risk of exposure to this and othe bacterial and viral diseases, it is often advisable to keep elephants separate from other livestock, such as cattle and buffalo.

Diseases can also be spread to elephants from other animals. Rabies, for instance, is a form of viral infection which, in the elephant population, is related to the more common canine disease. Hence, prevention of infection focuses on the dogs which carry rabies, and dogs suspected of carrying the disease should be kept far from elephants. Perhaps surprisingly, elephants can also become infected with tuberculosis (Mycobacterium tuberculosis) from exposure to humans infected with the disease. In Thailand, there has been at least one confirmed case of a zoo elephant which developed a case of tuberculosis and died after exposure to an infected human carrier.

The diseases described in this article are just a handful of the many health problems which can afflict domestic Asian elephants. As such, when offering care to elephants, such as those enrolled in our Matriarch program, The Care Project Foundation must always remain vigilant, and ensure each elephant receives adequate veterinary attention, frequent routine physical heath examinations, and diligent observation for behavioural and other changes by dedicated Mahouts. We prefer a preventative, proactive approach to elephant health care, and routinely supply Mahouts and elephant owners in remote locations with basic elephant first aid provisions, such as antiseptic aerosol spray, as well as easily administered medicines, such as deworming tablets.

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