We’ve written posts before from our visiting veterinarian, Dr. Trish. We thought we’d share some of her thoughts about what it’s like to treat patients – in this case elephants – who can’t verbally communicate. What she has to say is both surprising and practical. (We want to note that none of the elephants here at sanctuary are sick – but we do constantly evaluate them for potential health issues, since most of them are older.)
“I have always said how much easier my job would be if I could talk to my patients. As I transitioned to working mostly with elephants, one of the most surprising things to me is how most of my physical exam of an elephant is done at a distance without even touching the elephant.
“The size of an elephant makes it difficult to do common things that would be part of a normal physical exam for a smaller animal such as abdominal examinations (palpation) or listening to the heart or lungs (you can’t hear anything unless they are a calf), so I have to use my observation skills much more than with smaller animals,” she says.
Dr. Trish relates that she begins her assessments by watching elephants from a distance for several minutes. “A healthy elephant will always be moving something on their body almost constantly: its ears, tail, trunk, or they will shift weight on their legs. Often, an elephant not feeling well is not moving its ears or tail and their trunk is low on the ground. (You can also see this when they are napping standing up.) Elephants will often show you if an area on their body is bothering them by touching it with their trunk frequently or hitting the area with their tail.”
She says it’s important to keep an eye on how an elephant walks, to make sure all joints are bending properly. Plus, appetite and thirst play a role. This is one of many reasons why we supplement the sanctuary elephants’ grazing with hay; it allows us to see how well they are eating, chewing, and approaching food. “You can also observe the color of their gums while they are chewing, and sometimes they can develop an abnormal smell to their breath. This all being said, like any wild animal they often hide how sick they are for their own survival, making my job very difficult sometimes,” says Trish. “Signs of pain in an elephant can be posturing with their legs, biting their trunk, yawning, holding their mouth open for extended periods of time, and stretching out or leaning back.” Of course, some of these can be signs of comfort or affection, so you have to pay attention to the nuances and situations surrounding these actions.
As with many elephants, poop can actually be a good way to find out what, if anything, might be going wrong – both internally and externally. Trish relates, “I once examined an elephant In Thailand and we got our diagnosis when we asked to see her poop. It showed large pieces of undigested, unchewed food that indicated she had probably lost all or most of her teeth.” Knowing what’s normal for an elephant can help you spot abnormalities much more easily. As you can see, once you get used to treating animals that can’t communicate using human language, with limited diagnostic abilities due to their size, you begin to understand the complexities of how to effectively evaluate them; but, as always, it can take a keen eye and often a sense of trust between the two individuals.
Photo of Rana, a gem when it comes to evaluations