Wild Tiger Health Project
Created by Dr John C M Lewis

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Examination of the musculo-skeletal system

Examine the musculo-skeletal system (bones, joints, muscles & claws) thoroughly, observing and recording any abnormalities:

Spine: If a spinal fracture is suspected (as would be the case if a tiger is unable to use its hind-legs following a collision with a vehicle), feel along the  spine for any abnormal profile which might indicate a fracture site. In some cases of severe spinal fracture there may also be a prolapse of the rectum through a relaxed anal sphincter.

Legs: Examine all four legs from top to bottom, checking each of the bones and the joints for fractures, dislocations and injuries of any sort. Check for external swellings, lacerations, bite wounds, claw wounds, gunshot wounds, puncture wounds and scars. All joints should be tested for extension/ flexion and range of movement. Compare the findings from both sides as differences can highlight abnormalities. For example, if the examiner considers the range of movement in the left elbow to be restricted, check against that of the right elbow.

Feel the muscles on each leg and compare with the contra-lateral leg. (i.e. compare the left foreleg with the right fore-leg, and the left hind-leg with the right hind-leg). Note any obvious injuries, swellings or other abnormalities. The amount of muscle on the right fore-leg should be similar to that on the left fore-leg. Asymmetry can indicate an abnormality. For example, if there is a significantly reduced amount of muscle on any one leg it can be a result of the affected leg not being used normally. Long-standing injuries to a leg can be one possible cause. 

Examine the foot-pads for injuries and scars. Evert (exteriorise) each claw by pressing down on the skin at the base of the claw from above. The claws of the tiger should be examined to ensure they are not growing into the foot-pads (generally only a problem in aged animals). Excessively scuffed or frayed claws may suggest that the tiger has suffered a recent collision with a vehicle.

The axillary (in the armpit), popliteal (behind the knee) and inguinal (in the groin) lymph nodes should not be overlooked. 

Tail: Don’t forget the tail! Check for injuries, fractures, length, deformities etc. Evidence of the tail scraping or dragging along the ground may indicate and injury proximally. Excessively short or deformed tails may be potential indicators of inbreeding (Roelke et al,1993).


Radiography is an advanced imaging technique using X-rays or similar ionizing radiation to view the internal form of an object. Portable, digital x-ray equipment is well suited to examine injuries of the lower limbs in large tigers, although it can be used to investigate all areas of smaller individuals. Radiographic positions used should be the same as those for domestic dogs and cats, and it is good practice to radiograph the same joint/ area on the contralateral leg for comparison. There are significant health and safety issues to be addressed by operators of xray equipment, and interpretation of the images is a specialist task. Battery operated units suitable for use in the field are available although expensive.