Wild Tiger Health Project
Created by Dr John C M Lewis

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Guidelines: Veterinary activities

The role of veterinarian for a tiger rehabilitation facility includes a wide range of activities which can broadly be divided into two areas – Preventive Medicine and Clinical Interventions. Although clinical activities should be undertaken by a qualified vet, either a vet or a suitably trained biologist can manage the preventive medicine programme.

Preventive Medicine

  • Facility design: The veterinarian should be involved in the design of animal holding areas, clinical examination and laboratory facilities (see Guidelines – Facility Design), and animal & staff management protocols. See Guidelines – Tiger Management.
  • Health and safety measures for staff, including control of zoonotic infections, should be developed and provided in writing. See Guidelines – Safety.
  • General site sanitation: The control of infectious organisms and toxic materials is greatly helped by high standards of general hygiene and pest exclusion in all parts of a rehabilitation facility. High standards of personal hygiene must also be maintained by staff. It is important to remember that staff members of a rehabilitation facility can pose a risk of infection for tigers held on site. Such infections are mainly related to the mechanical transmission of pathogens from domestic animals, such as Feline Calicivirus, Feline Herpes Virus, Feline Parvo Virus and even Canine Distemper Virus. Therefore, domestic animals should not be allowed on the site, and staff should wear overalls and footwear that are not taken home, and disposable gloves wherever possible
  • Rigorous pest control measures in and around cat enclosures, houses and food storage areas help to reduce the potential for introducing infectious disease. Tick and flea infestations, some feline viral diseases, parasitic diseases including toxoplasmosis and bacterial diseases such as salmonellosis, pseudotuberculosis and leptospirosis etc, can be all be introduced by pests including rodents, birds, domestic cats and dogs, foxes and numerous invertebrates. It is unlikely that pests can ever be eliminated, but their numbers must be kept to a minimum. Avoid leaving food and animal waste around the site which may attract pest species. Effective perimeter fencing is necessary to exclude larger mammals, such as dogs. If small mammals are a problem, they may have to be trapped or poisoned. Only those rodenticides that are relatively safe even if a cat ingests rodents that have fed on the bait should be used. A record must be made of all rodenticides and pesticides used on site. Good hygiene around tiger enclosures will help to reduce insect pests. Where insecticides are  used against invertebrate pests such as flies and cockroaches, care must be taken to avoid tigers being exposed to them. The veterinarian should always be aware of which chemicals are used and preferably be consulted when they are selected. Regular disease screening of small wild carnivores found on or around the rehabilitation centre is desirable. Finally, whatever pest control measures are employed care must be taken to avoid impacting non-target wildlife. 
  • Quarantine measures & procedures: It is essential for rehabilitation facilities to have a robust quarantine process, and the veterinarian should design and oversee its operation. See Guidelines – Quarantine.
  • Hygienic provision of food and water for tigers: Animals and foods of animal origin can be a source of infections to personnel and tigers, and therefore measures should be taken to prevent the spread of infection. Feeding sites, feeders and watering devices should be cleaned and disinfected on a regular basis. The use of special overalls, footwear, and gloves during working procedures is strongly advised. See Guidelines – Safety & Guidelines – Feeding.
  • Remote health monitoring of conscious tigers: Each cat should be carefully observed every day by observation from a distance using binoculars, CCTV, camera trap video etc. Notice should be taken not only of its physical state and activity, but whether it is eating, drinking, defecating and urinating normally if possible. Slight changes in activity may be the only outward sign of systemic disease.
  • Parasite control: A parasite monitoring programme should be developed and maintained by the vet. It is not necessary or even desirable that tigers in a rehabilitation facility should be completely free of parasites. Low levels of endemic parasites may actually be beneficial in preventing a dangerous build up and it is therefore useful to know which parasites are normally found in local tigers. However, over time individual tiger enclosures in a rehabilitation facility can become heavily contaminated with parasite eggs and larvae – especially in tropical countries – leading to high parasite burdens in tigers that are resident for any length of time. Where a persistent parasite problem exists in a particular tiger area, consideration should be given to rotating the use of enclosures, leaving some empty for prolonged periods.
  • Faeces should be collected from all new arrivals as soon as possible and sent for bacterial culture as well as being analysed for endoparasites.
  • Fresh faeces should be collected regularly from all resident tigers in the facility and analysed for endoparasites. The frequency with which testing should be conducted will depend on local circumstances, but monthly is advised or if a change in the health or physical condition of the animals indicates a problem, e.g. unexplained weight loss and/or diarrhoea. Tigers with significant endoparasite burdens should be treated orally with anthelmintics (drugs which cause the expulsion or death of parasitic worms), different types of which should be used in rotation to minimise the development of resistance. The choice of anthelminthic drug will be determined by the type of parasite present. Depending on parasite load, tigers may need to be dewormed as often as every 3 months, or as little as once per year. Dose rates of a variety of these drugs can be found in the Drug formulary. Although anthelmintic treatment is usually  carried out based on the faecal test results, when sample collection or tests are not feasible, it should be carried out regularly as a prophylactic measure. 
  • Vaccination programme: Vaccinating free-ranging wild animals may seem illogical and is certainly contentious, but when temporarily held in captivity for rehabilitation, any wild-born tiger will be under considerable stress which renders it more susceptible to infectious diseases as a result of immune function depression. Therefore, vaccination against common infectious diseases is advised for tigers in rehabilitation facilities. Details of vaccination programmes and the principles underlying them are given elsewhere (Vaccination of Wild Tigers). Vaccination may prevent the development of specified infectious diseases or reduce their clinical severity, but it does not provide total protection. It is advisable to vaccinate against rabies, Feline herpes virus, Feline calicivirusFeline parvovirus and where the risk is considered high against Canine distemper virus.
  • Long distance tiger transport should always be overseen by a vet. See Guidelines – Transport.
  • Maintaining medical records of all tigers: See Guidelines – Record Keeping. 
  • Maintenance of biological samples bank: Where suitable facilities are available biological samples such as serum, whole blood, tissues taken at post-mortem, etc, should be effectively labelled and held in long term storage.  
  • Post-mortem examinations: Information gained by the post-mortem examination (or Necropsy) of tigers dying at a rehabilitation facility can help in refining preventive health programmes, assessing their effectiveness, and provide valuable disease surveillance data. See below under “Clinical Interventions
  • Disease Risk Assessment: Any translocation of a free-living wildlife species requires consideration of the risks of disease arising in any species, resulting from activities of the programme. Suitable methodology for conducting a disease risk analysis can be found in the Manual of Procedures for Wildlife Disease Risk Analysis, published by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the International Office for Animal Health (OIE) (Jakob-Hoff et al. 2014). https://portals.iucn.org/library/sites/library/files/documents/2014-007.pdf. It follows that before a tiger is released from rehabilitation it should be thoroughly screened for feline-specific diseases and other health problems. The presence of some infectious disease agents  may not present a problem if those same disease agents are common in the wild population. Screening of both the captive and wild populations are necessary to make this determination. For example, in the wild tigers of the Russian Far East Trichinella, T. gondii, Feline Calicivirus and Feline Parvovirus are common pathogens and so a tiger carrying one of these infectious agents would not necessarily be precluded from release. Screening to assess the presence of recessive genetic disorders, if feasible, should also be considered (Miquelle et al 2016).

Clinical Interventions:

  • Physical examinations of tigers under anaesthesia: There are no “set rules” for how many times a tiger should be examined under an anaesthetic – much depends on clinical need – but all anaesthetics carry risks so they shouldn’t be conducted without a good reason. Anaesthesia under the more controlled circumstances of a rehabilitation facility will generally be safer than in the field in which environmental conditions are difficult to control or predict. Starvation for 24hrs before an anaesthetic is possible in rehabilitation facilities but not for free-ranging tigers. A tiger should always be thoroughly examined under anaesthesia on entry to the facility and before release – other examinations depend on treatment needs. If an initial examination at capture reveals no obvious problems the first thorough examination can wait until the end of its’ quarantine period. The second anaesthetic will be necessary for pre-release health assessment, removal from an enclosure, fitting a radio-collar and crating for transport to the release site. Where there are concerns about the suitability and welfare implications of collaring, a dummy collar can be fitted at the first health check. This will ensure that a tiger is accustomed to wearing a collar by the time of release and allow staff to assess any impact the collar may be having prior to release. Detailed information about anaesthetising tigers can be found in the Field Anaesthesia resource.
  • A full clinical examination should be performed each time a tiger is anaesthetised, and the results recorded. See Clinical Examination. During the two essential examinations under anaesthesia a full set of diagnostic & archive samples should be taken if at all possible. When working with the animals during general anaesthesia the use of disposable overalls and gloves is essential. 
  • Treatment of diseased and injured tigers: The full range of treatments necessary to rehabilitate orphaned, sick or injured tigers is outside the scope of this section of the website, but simple approaches to common problems are given elsewhere – see Treatment of Common conditions and Simple Injuries. A formulary of veterinary drugs and dose rates for tigers is also given elsewhere – see Drug Formulary.
  • Post-mortem examinations: All tigers that die in a rehabilitation centre should have a comprehensive post-mortem examination carried out as soon as possible by a vet. A full set of tissue samples should always be collected, even if not all samples are initially submitted to a pathologist. One set of samples should be sent to a veterinary pathologist, preferably one specialising in the pathology of wildlife. The other set should be stored at the rehabilitation facility or associated veterinary centre for future study. The latter is extremely useful for disease surveillance. For details of post-mortem examination technique and sampling see Necropsy Protocol

Available downloadable resources

Guidelines for Tiger Rehabilitation - Veterinary Activities