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Taking Care of Anteaters to Zebras

Jaguar Exam - Photo by Tonja Candelaria

With more than 500 animals representing 140 species at the Sacramento Zoo, veterinarians have their hands full. They use their expertise to examine eyes, cure upset stomachs and make sure the large variety of animals at the Zoo stay healthy. I asked the Sacramento Zoo’s veterinarians to share more:

What is involved in an animal examination?

Nearly all of the animals at the Sacramento Zoo receive a routine examination once a year. Many of the animals have to be anesthetized before they can be examined so the risk of anesthesia enters into the decision on when and how to examine the animal. Some of the examinations occur at the animal’s exhibit and some are performed at the veterinary hospital on Zoo grounds.

During an exam, each animal is given a head to toe check-up, including blood tests and routine vaccinations. Based upon the individual animal’s medical history, any specific problems from the past are carefully rechecked.

What are the main differences between examining a domestic animal and an exotic zoo animal?

Unlike domestic animals, zoo animals are wild. As a result, they are not accustomed to being handled and often have to be anesthetized for their safety and ours before being examined. Keeper staff at the Zoo are able to train many of the animals to tolerate limited examinations without anesthesia by using protected contact. For example, many animals are trained to “station” on a scale so we can easily monitor their body weight.

Another difference is most veterinary equipment is not designed for an animal as large as a giraffe, so we might not be able to hear its heart well with a normal stethoscope.  For a small bird, we might be able to complete a full exam in our hands, but are limited in the types of tests we can run because most machines used for blood analysis require more blood than we can safely collect from a very small animal.

Also, there are the differences between species.  When dealing with dogs and cats, there are many resources addressing their normal anatomy and physiology that can be used to interpret x-rays and bloodwork.  In zoos, you may have one or two individuals of a given species in a collection so some of that “baseline” information doesn’t exist.

What does it take to become a zoo veterinarian?

In partnership with UC Davis Wildlife Health Center, the Sacramento Zoo is training the veterinarians of the future. Once accepted to a veterinary school (admission is highly competitive), students complete four years of training to become a general practitioner veterinarian. Becoming a zoo veterinarian generally requires additional training which may include one or more internships and a three-year residency program. After completing this, the veterinarian then takes a two-day examination to become a Zoological Medicine Specialist. There are less than 200 of these specialists in the United States.

Surgery for Green Tree Python - Photo by April Mae Johnson
Surgery for Green Tree Python – Photo by April Mae Johnson
Ultrasound on Wolf's Guenon - photo by April Mae Johnson
Ultrasound on Wolf’s Guenon – photo by April Mae Johnson

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