Monday, June 9, 2014

How To Guide: Performing an Elephant Health Check

by Lisa Barrett

After your first snack of grass and sugarcane, you felt a little bit queasy.  A few hours later, after another quick bite of bananas, you started feeling downright lousy.  You've made it to the doctor's office to get a checkup, but discovered a slight problem: your doctor doesn't speak elephant!  What can you do?

Like Somjai here, the elephants we work with receive regular health check-ups.
Photo by: Lisa Barrett

Since elephants cannot tell us when they are feeling ill, we rely on regular health checks to measure whether an elephant is healthy or sick, overweight or malnourished. Elephant veterinarians usually perform these checks on a monthly basis at the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation’s target training wall while employing positive reinforcement techniques (read more about target-training here). In addition, mahouts, elephant caretakers, will report any abnormalities or illnesses in his elephant to the vet. So, what are the steps of a basic elephant vet check?

What’s Up, Doc?
Before approaching an elephant, the vet will want to assess the body state of the patient and be sure that the elephant’s mahout is present. An upset elephant will likely have her ears pushed forward and her tail sticking straight out or up. These postural cues indicate that an elephant is not safe to approach. A good way to greet your patient is by handing them a nice handful of sunflower seeds, a delicious treat for elephants!

If Am's tail was erect and ears were pushed forward, it may not be safe to approach her.
Photo by: Lisa Barrett

“Eyes and Ears and Mouth and Nose…”
Next, the vet will check to make sure that the elephant’s eyes are bright and clear and that they are not secreting a lot of excess liquid. Dull eyes would indicate sickness or pain. It is normal for elephants to appear as though they are crying, because these tears help them flush out debris from the eyes (and these tears likely are not the same as when humans weep and emotionally feel sad). Liquid pouring from the eyes, however, could signify an ulcer or eye infection needing treatment. Similarly, an inspection of the ears for any smelly secretions is critical to a health check up. A cooperative elephant will also allow the vet to look inside of their mouth to check for any mouth sores or growths, and to count out four healthy teeth. If an elephant’s mahout has reported breathing problems in their elephant, the vet may also investigate the trunk to make sure airways are clear of any sticks or other obstructions.

We can tell a lot about Lakheng's health by checking her eyes.
Photo by: Lisa Barrett

Breathe In, Breathe Out
Checking the respiration rate of an elephant can be a hefty feat, as the giants do not like to stand still. At any rate, we can look at the elephant’s abdominal area to attempt a breath count. Believe it or not, they only breathe four to twelve times per minute!

How do we measure the pulse of an elephant? We place one or two fingers on the largest artery behind the ear. Interestingly, an elephant’s heart rate may triple in an attempt to get blood to all of their extremities if it is lying down. And just like your heart rate might be faster when you are at the doctor’s office, so might an elephant’s when she is with the vet!

We can measure an elephant's pulse on the back of her ear.
Photo by: Lisa Barrett

Skin & Toes
To be sure there are no rashes or fungal growth on the body of an elephant, a vet should examine the skin carefully. Believe it or not, some bug bites can pierce elephant skin, and the thick skin can close over the top and create an unhealthy ulcer if not cleaned properly. The skin should feel soft, hairy, and wrinkly.
Perhaps the most important part of the elephant body, feet and toenails require regular inspection for cracks, punctures, and pain. The mahout and veterinarian will also pay careful attention to whether the elephant is favoring a leg by observing her gait.

Asian elephants have five toenails on their front feet.
Photo by: Lisa Barrett

Step on the Scale
Most elephant vet checks will include weighing the animal, but if a facility does not have an elephant-sized scale, one can use a formula as a weight estimate. For adult elephants, this formula involves measuring the chest girth of the elephant, multiplying by 18, and subtracting 3,336.  A healthy female elephant weighs around two to three tons!

Vets will also keep a record of the elephant’s shoulder height, another measurement which we can estimate. By multiplying the circumference of an elephant foot by two, we get a fairly accurate guess at the elephant’s shoulder height! In other words, if you found an elephant footprint in the wild, you could measure its circumference to determine the body size of the wild elephant in that area.

Lastly, a vet can use body condition scores to evaluate whether an elephant is underweight, overweight, or just right. By using a standard yet subjective scoring system, he or she will rate different body areas (temporal, scapular, pelvic, etc.) between zero (for very little fat) to one (for very filled out). Summing these scores provides a total score that falls between zero and five—between malnourished and overweight.

A malnourished elephant (top) compared to a very full elephant (bottom).
Photo from: Fernando et al. 2009

Final Touches
All of these steps equip an elephant veterinarian with enough information to assess the general health of an elephant. It is important to have these regular check-ups so we have a record of each elephant’s health history. From being careful about approaching her patient to carefully assessing the health of each body part and the body as a whole, being an elephant veterinarian is “no small feat!”


  1. Thanks a lot for your great post animal.your article is very is informative post for elephant.i hope you will give more interest post.

  2. Useful for me as a elephant vet.Thank you