Narda G. Robinson, DO, DVM, MS, FAAMA
Animals in zoos are living longer, meaning that their needs for physiologic support as well as effective, safe pain management are growing as well. Ensuring that elderly animals experience a positive quality of life can pose challenges, however. Modern animal welfare science asserts that each individual should have some capacity to act independently, to make choices, to solve problems, and to receive rewards.1 Unfortunately, age-related declines may limit animals’ abilities to achieve positive welfare status as a result of pain, mobility impairment, generalized discomfort (visceral or physical), and/or cognitive deterioration.
Toward this end, zoos across the globe are incorporating integrative strategies such as acupuncture, photomedicine (e.g., laser therapy), herbs, and/or massage.2,3 A multimodal approach that combines one or more of these treatments typically provides the most robust results, delivering benefits through myriad mechanisms.
For example, instead of addressing musculoskeletal pain with potentially harmful medications whose pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics can vary widely across species,4 one could address musculoskeletal pain more effectively and comprehensively through non-pharmacologic means.
That is, acupuncture, photomedicine, and massage each relax muscles, reduce anxiety, and improve circulation through their effects on muscles, fascia, nerves, and vessels. One way in which they work is through non-invasive neuromodulation. This settles neuropathic nerves and counters spinal cord windup, which cumulatively correct maladaptive neuroplastic changes resulting from chronic pain states. Connective tissue stretch and mechanoreceptor input from acupuncture and massage promote endogenous analgesia and may invoke long-lasting structural improvements as well.
Another problem of aging zoo inhabitants involves declines in overall body mass. This may arise from pain-related inappetence, alterations in digestive motility and secretions, and/or cognitive and sensory impairment. Acupuncture and certain botanical agents such as ginger assist in the recovery of appropriately orchestrated motility signaling in the digestive tract, which may in itself improve appetite. Photomedicine, acupuncture, and some forms of cannabis improve cognitive function. Certain essential oils employed as aromatherapy may also stimulate mental processes along with appetite.
These are merely a few examples of the many ways in which integrative medicine, based on rational methodologies and science-based mechanisms, promote and maintain positive welfare and health for geriatric zoo animals. Taking a highly individualized, slow, and non-aversive approach to each patient is essential, as geriatric animals may require ongoing and regular treatment. Done well, integrative medical care can and should be comfortable, relaxing, and sought by the patient.
1. Krebs BL, Marrin D, Phelps A, Krol L, Watters JV. Managing aged animals in zoos to promote positive welfare: a review and future directions. Animals (Basel). 2018;8(7):116.
2. San Diego Zoo Global. Zoonooz. Medical acupuncture for vets helps treat ailments. Accessed on June 13, 2019 at https://zoonooz.sandiegozoo.org/zoonooz/to-the-point.
3. CBS News. Israeli Zoo uses acupuncture to treat tiger. Accessed on June 19, 2018 at www.youtube.com/watch?v=mxwte64cvXM.
4. Balko JA, Chinnadurai SK. Advancements in evidence-based analgesia in exotic animals. Vet Clin North Am Exot Anim Pract. 2017;20(3):899–915.