Dr. Trish: Communicating With My Patients

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


  1. REPLY
    Pam says

    Dr. Trish sounds amazing, as are so many who work with the Sanctuary elephants … Thank you for sharing these insights!

    • REPLY
      Sara says

      She is very knowledgeable, with years of experience with elephants. We are lucky to be able to work with her.

  2. REPLY
    Carey says

    I hoe they are all very well. Thanks for the info. Unexpected about not being able to hear the heart and the lungs…

  3. REPLY
    Deb says

    Thank you Dr. Trish for all you do! 🐘🐘🐘🐘🐘🐘🐘💖

  4. REPLY
    katharine says

    Dr. Trish says one cannot hear the heart nor lungs in elephants (unless they are young). I assume this is because there is so much flesh on the animal- obscuring the body sounds. Is this right?

    • REPLY
      Sara says

      Their skin is so thick that it’s not possible to hear them in an adult elephant.

  5. REPLY
    Janine Proctor says

    This information is very interested, I always wondered how a vet would diagnose a sick elephant. Dr Trish is doing an amazing job thank goodness you have her at the sanctuary. 👍🐘

  6. REPLY
    Bill says

    The commitment to paying attention to the behavior details for each elephant is amazing. I am more than happy to help support her in caring for our girls.

  7. REPLY
    Wim says

    What a complex interesting story. 👌

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