Fundamentals of Foot Care in Asian Elephants

Fundamentals of Foot Care in Asian Elephants

Foot care is a vital component of any healthcare routine for domestic Asian elephants. Some conditions common in captivity, such as inactivity due to limited environmental stimulation, as well as exposure to hard surfaces like packed dirt and concrete, can have a detrimental impact on elephant foot health. Furthermore, even seemingly minor issues, such as bruised foot pads or cracked nails, can lead to far more serious infections and diseases. For this reason, elephant foot care must be taken seriously, and feet must be inspected thoroughly and frequently for any signs of damage. Aside from feeding and cleaning, more time is devoted by elephant caretakers to foot care than any other task.

Both Asian and African elephants have five toes on each foot, which are buried inside the flesh of the foot, and not every toe has a toenail. Asian elephants typically have five toenails on their front feet, and four nails on their hind feet. African elephants, on the other hand, usually have four nails on each front foot, and three nails on each rear foot. In addition, elephants have a sesamoid bone, or ‘false’ toe, facing towards the rear, which helps to support the animals’ massive body weight. Elephants’ toes point downwards, essentially on tiptoe, and they are further supported by a thick mass of fatty connective tissue on the sole of their feet. This spongy mass acts like a shock absorber, and enables elephants to move silently, even muffling underfoot sounds such as twigs breaking.

Routine inspection of the feet of domestic elephants should be performed once daily, at a minimum. Foot care inspections can be performed while the elephant is laying on its side, or with a foot raised or elevated. Elephant movement and behaviour should also be monitored closely at all times for lameness or reluctance to move, either of which may indicate foot pain or injury. During a foot care inspection, elephants should be checked for injuries and common foot disorders, including penetrating wounds, symptoms of inflammation or infection, abscesses, cracks in the toenails, soles, or heels, and overgrowth of either the sole or the nails.

In addition to a physical inspection of the feet, the elephant’s environment and habits should also be frequently inspected and analysed to avoid predisposing factors which may lead to foot problems. These factors may include lack of exercise, nail/sole overgrowth, improper environmental surface on which to stand or walk, excessive moisture or wet conditions, insufficient or infrequent foot grooming, unsanitary conditions, genetic anatomical structural issues in the feet, malnutrition, and skeletal disorders such as arthritis.

In order to prevent foot problems, a routine foot care program should be implemented, with daily inspections, frequent manicures, and other proactive foot treatments. Mahouts and elephant caretakers should be properly trained in elephant husbandry and foot care, and the correct equipment should be supplied. Furthermore, if any treatment involving pain is necessary, an adequate dose of local anaesthetic should be properly administered, both for the safety of the caretaker and to prevent the elephant from becoming averse to future foot care and treatments. Elephants should be allowed sufficient exercise, involving roaming freely in an area with sufficient space. Wild elephants typically roam for many kilometres daily in order to forage, and this constant walking helps to condition their feet and wear down their nails and cuticles to a healthy length. Even when provided with the proper conditions for exercise, elephants in captivity may not walk enough to sufficiently wear down their nails and foot pads, and these should be trimmed if they become overgrown. Even if no overgrowth is present, frequent pedicures should be conducted as part of a foot care program to ensure overall foot health.

Access to natural substrates, such as natural soils, grass, and a variety of vegetation can also help to wear down the nails and pads and help prevent foot issues. Inactivity, especially in combination with hard or unnatural surfaces, can cause foot pads to become bruised, uneven, or thin, and may result in cracked or split nails. These conditions leave elephants susceptible to infections such as osteomyelitis, which can cause the foot bones to slowly disintegrate, resulting in extreme pain and even death. All foot treatments should be performed in a hygienic environment with sterile equipment, and the elephants’ environment should be constantly cleaned, and faeces and urine removed, to ensure an acceptable standard of hygiene.

Common problems on the skin of the foot in domestic Asian elephants include lacerations, contusions, or abrasions. Hyperkeratosis, or a thickening of the skin similar to a callous in humans, at the junction of the skin and sole may be caused by prolonged irritation. Toenail issues include overgrowth, splits, and cracks, which may harbour necrotic tissue and hidden infections. Elephant toenails should be trimmed approximately once per month to treat chronic toenail cracks and inflammation caused by pododermatitis, as well as to excise necrotic tissue to prevent osteomyelitis. During the nail trimming procedure, cuticles should also be inspected for signs of overgrowth and contusions. Cracks can also develop in the foot pads, and untreated cracks may become entrance sites for bacteria which can cause infection and inflammation. If necessary, wounds can be debrided using an appropriate tool, such as a hoof knife, after which the wound should be flushed with an antiseptic solution. If a wound or lesion is present on the sole of the foot, bandages or shoes can be used following treatment or cleaning to protect the area and prevent infection.

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