Common Diagnostic Practices & the Importance of Physical Examination in Asian Elephants

Common Diagnostic Practices & the Importance of Physical Examination in Asian Elephants

Asian elephants are susceptible to a large number of ailments throughout their lifespan, ranging from relatively minor problems to potentially life-threatening, rapid-onset issues which require immediate specialised treatment. When caring for domestic elephants, The Care Project Foundation emphasises close monitoring, prophylactic administration of dietary supplements, and proactive treatment methods to prevent illnesses and reduce the risk of any elephant requiring serious and/or invasive medical intervention.

In order to keep a domestic elephant healthy, many factors must be considered, including appearance, behaviour, age, diet, exercise habits, digestive health, medical and work history, psychological wellbeing, and social life. As you might imagine, keeping track of all these factors in addition to the general daily care of an elephant requires a team of caretakers. An elephant’s Mahout plays a fundamental role in this process, and must retain a wealth of knowledge about the elephant they care for, as well as maintain an intimate familiarity with its personality and behavioural habits, and carefully observe the animal to note any changes on a daily basis. Furthermore, though Mahouts are generally proficient in basic veterinary care and first aid procedures, they must know and understand their limitations in the areas of diagnosis and treatment, and request assistance from a qualified veterinarian in a timely manner if necessary.

Typically, unless an elephant requires emergency treatment, or the issue is able to be diagnosed immediately, a veterinarian will first confer with the elephant’s Mahout at length about the issue, and note any abnormalities observed during the Mahout’s routine physical examination of the elephant. One or more forms of physical examination would then be performed, followed by a clinical examination if such action is deemed necessary. At the most basic level, physical examination aims to ascertain whether an elephant is healthy or ill. Certain signs can be checked for to indicate good health or sickness, as outlined below.

Characteristics of a healthy elephant:

  1. Clear, bright eyes, free from discharge, pus, and any foreign bodies. ‘Tears’ should not stain the face.
  2. Mucous membrane in the oral cavity, tongue, nostrils (tip of the trunk), anus, and vulva (if applicable) are all be bright pink in colour.
  3. Movement of the ears and tail is constant and consistent.
  4. The skin is smooth, soft, and well-hydrated.
  5. Sweat is evident on the coronet line above the toenail.
  6. Food intake is normal in both quantity and frequency.
  7. Urination and defecation are normal in both colour and frequency (urine should be yellow, faeces should be green, though the colour of faeces varies depending on the food ingested).
  8. The elephant remains awake throughout the day, sleeping only at night (generally after midnight). This trait is not applicable for baby elephants.
  9. The elephant demonstrates interest in their environment.

Criteria for the observation of an ill elephant:

  1. Obvious lethargy, frequent closing of the eyes.
  2. Slow, gentle (not forceful or energetic) pendular tail movement.
  3. Slow, gentle movement of the ears.
  4. No – or slow – movement of the trunk.
  5. Lack of sweating, with a dry coronet line.
  6. No appetite, or anorexia.
  7. Weight loss, especially in young elephants.
  8. The elephant sleeps during the day, or can be observed sleeping while standing.
  9. Frequent yawning, sleeplessness during the night.

These traits, and others, may be observed using several standardised examination methods. A physical examination conducted at a distance, known as a ‘Far Inspection,’ is an observation of an elephant in its environment, free from human interference, and should be conducted daily as a matter of routine. As the elephant being observed remains free from distraction and interference, far inspection examinations are well suited to observing how the elephant responds to and interacts with environmental stimuli and socialises with other elephants when no humans are nearby. Body movements, including movement of the ears, trunk, and tail, as well as the elephant’s gait and mobility when walking can also be easily noted from a distance. Eating, watering, urination, and defecation can all be monitored for frequency during a far inspection, and sleep patterns may be checked for regularity. Observation at a distance is optimally conducted in the morning, soon after the elephant has awoken. The elephant’s immediate environment, including sleeping area, food and water, and any urine and faeces present, must also be inspected carefully. Far inspection is an especially useful method for aggressive elephants, to ensure the safety of both human observers and the elephant being observed.

A ‘Near Inspection’ is closely related to, and shares many similarities with, the far inspection. The primary difference between the two is the distance at which the observation is conducted. As the name suggests, observation during a near inspection occurs much closer to the elephant, and can therefore reveal in greater detail any abnormalities in biological processes, movement, or behaviour. During physical examinations conducted at close proximity to the animal, a number of diagnostic and investigatory techniques are available to the observer, utilising both the sensory organs and veterinary equipment. These may include palpation (using the hands or equipment to detect an abnormal mass, injury, or pain in the elephant’s body), auscultation (the use of a stethoscope to listen for internal sounds, such as heart and abdominal sounds), percussion (the use of tapping during auscultation to detect abnormal sounds or sound production), and smell (smelling by the observer to detect abnormal odours such as pus, wounds, infection, as well as smelling of urine and faeces for abnormalities).

A veterinarian conducting a physical inspection may also check the elephant’s pulse rate using arteries in the back of the ear (the heartrate for a healthy elephant should be approximately 25-35 beats per minute). Though difficult to detect due to the large body size and perpetual movements displayed by healthy elephants, respiratory rate may also be detected by observing abdominal expansion. Further information about the elephant’s general health can be gleaned from the body temperature (usually measured rectally), and by taking measurements of the body, from which body weight may be estimated using a simple formula.

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