Wildlife Nursing--A Career Perspective
World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2007
Michelle Rouffignac, RVN, AVN
Nursing Supervisor, Perth Zoological Gardens--Veterinary Department
South Perth, Western Australia

Compared to companion animal nursing, there are a limited number of nurses employed in zoos or wildlife sanctuaries specifically for the role of performing veterinary nursing care and husbandry duties on sick or injured native and exotic wildlife species. Nursing sick and injured wildlife involves efficient nursing techniques with minimal contact to reduce stress for the animal. A working knowledge of over 500 species of animal is required in some of the larger zoo collections. This presentation provides an insight into Wildlife Nursing in a Zoo or Wildlife Sanctuary.

Wildlife may present in an advanced state of ill health. Their natural biology instills on them "survival of the fittest", therefore they may show few signs of decline until the point where their health is seriously compromised.

In addition to maintaining current knowledge of veterinary technology and experience in working with a full range of equipment, the zoo veterinary nurse must demonstrate a working knowledge of the physiological differences in a diverse range of species. Nursing care centres on provision of an environment conducive to recovery, repair and rehabilitation from illness or injury.

A veterinary hospital in a zoo has a multifunctional role. The nurse will be involved in the administrative day-to-day running of the hospital, care of sick and injured collection animals, husbandry of quarantine animals in an appropriate level of isolation, assisting the veterinarian in elective and emergency procedures, laboratory work, meeting nutritional requirements and handrearing orphaned animals. The veterinary nurse must be prepared to work with many challenging situations including medical emergency, orphaned neonates, the escape of a dangerous animal or any other of the many possibilities.

Hospitalised Care

A veterinary nurse must be able to adapt to work with all species, including dangerous animals that require hospital care. Due to the nature of captive wildlife, this is often a difficult and frustrating process particularly if the patient requires intensive care. Daily management includes developing effective housing, safe capture and restraint, medicating and observation the many species that may require hospitalisation.

Supportive nursing of hospitalised patients can be quite different to the approach taken with companion animals. The foundations of core veterinary nursing skills, including a nursing care plan, are used, however the hands on approach to cats and dogs in hospital is not appropriate to wildlife. The constant contact with people may contribute to health decline for the wildlife patient. The nurse is faced with the challenge of 'nursing' with the aim to minimise contact whilst providing the care the animal needs. This can be managed in a number of ways. Where appropriate, the nurse will consider methods to give medications that reduce handling the animal. Techniques include hiding tablets in food, injecting oral medication into fruit, insects or fish, providing oral medication in formula feeds. Cleaning the environment and provision of food is scheduled at the same time the animal is handled to minimise contact time. Spot cleaning may be preferred in many cases to reduce eliminating the animal's scent. Close observation is essential for animals in the hospital and the nurse must develop ways that this can be achieved with minimal disturbance to the animal. It is essential to observe the animal's behavior frequently during the course of the day to determine its stress levels and habits.


The major zoos are classified as Quarantine Approved Premises and must comply with quarantine protocols as determined by the local regulating body. A quarantine facility must provide isolation of the animal(s) and containment of body fluids. Animals transferred between zoos or sanctuaries, for the purpose of breeding and display, must enter a quarantine environment for a minimum period. Quarantine duration depends on many factors and can range from 30-90 days, or until treatment for any illnesses or disease is considered successful. Local wildlife that is delivered to the zoo by members of the public should also enter into a quarantine period for protection of the zoo's collection.

Isolating a social animal from others for an extended period of time may be excessively stressful. , In such cases, consideration is given to quarantining social animals with companions of the same species. If a single animal is arriving, a decision may be made to offer a companion from the zoo's collection, with both animals quarantined together. With some large species, it is not economically or spatially feasible to separate off an individual. In this case, all individuals within the enclosure are placed in quarantine.

Nurses working within quarantine protocols should preferably be distanced from working with zoo collection animals and will adhere to protocols for that species. The nurse must have a working knowledge of disease transmission and standards of hygiene and barrier nursing to ensure the integrity of quarantine is maintained.

An animal's stress levels during the quarantine period can not be underestimated. In many cases the animal has been moved from one familiar setting to a new place with new smells and new people. It may be placed in isolation, or with new con-specifics. It may be undergoing a diet transition and the items of food it is used to are no longer provided.

The nurse must closely observe the animals in quarantine for signs of stress and act accordingly.

Elective and Emergency Procedures

All collection animals will require a medical examination during their life. Certain species or individuals may require regular scheduled examinations if they are susceptible to a disease process or as they age.

Elective procedures are planned and may be a part of a preventative health program or related to an ongoing medical condition or injury. Preventative health programs include dental examinations, base-line radiography, blood profiles, record weight, identification (e.g., microchip), vaccinations, reproductive techniques and body score. An animal with an ongoing illness or injury may have an elective procedure to change a wound dressing, undergo physiotherapy, repeat radiography and blood collection.

Non-elective procedures include cases that are presented with minimal notice. They may include trauma associated injury, acute illness requiring immediate action and collapse.

The nurses role in elective and non-elective procedures, whether they are in the hospital facility or out in the zoo grounds and in some cases away from the zoo, is one of organizing all items required, knowledge of the procedure to provide support, assisting during induction, maintenance of aneasthesia and recovery, handling samples and assisting the veterinarian during the procedure.

Field procedures occur when the veterinary team run a procedure outside of the veterinary hospital in a night quarters or out in a paddock. The nurse's organisation skills are crucial for such procedures to run smoothly. Everything from portable anaesthetic and x-ray machines to boxes of disposable items, drugs and sampling equipment must be taken and made easily available. The nursing team sets up the 'temporary surgery' and must have this functional for all involved. Procedures like this are often planned in advance, but this is not always the case.

Monitoring and maintaining anaesthesia is an important role for the zoo veterinary nurse. Dangerous animal such as large carnivores, bears, ungulates and some of the larger primates and macropods are anaesthetized using remote delivery darting. Some of the smaller, less dangerous species such as wallabies, small cats and primates can be caught in a net and hand injected. Birds and some reptiles are masked down with gas anaesthetic. Other reptiles require conscious intubation or injectable anaesthetic for induction.

The nurse must be familiar with the various drugs and equipment and must be able to prepare for such procedures efficiently. A working knowledge of the effects of chemical and gas agents, and the physiological process these drugs produce is required. The nurse must be confident at monitoring a variety of species during anaesthesia.

Laboratory Work

Some zoo hospitals perform a number of in-house applied diagnostic tests. A degree of knowledge and skill to effectively set up and run these tests, ensuring quality control and accuracy in results, is needed. The nurse may be responsible for simple day-to-day tests, such as faecal parasite screening and PCV/total protein measurements, to more advanced manual tests such as white cell counts and differentials on exotic species. Other tests performed in-house by the veterinary nurse may include heartworm detection, faecal blood occult, urinalysis, Chlamydia test and a range of snap tests.


Part of the daily duties of the nurse involves provision of appropriate diets for a range of species that may be in the hospital at any one time. It is essential to have an understanding of the animal's nutritional needs and to stock fresh produce and other food items. The nurse must recognize when it is appropriate to provide 'special treats' to encourage an anorexic animal to eat, and when to provide a balanced diet to promote good health. The nurse will be required to prepare and provide the food and observe that the animal is eating.


Handrearing is an emergency measure, to be put into practice only when all else fails. However, in some cases, hand-rearing an orphaned animal is required. Group social structures, dystocia, injury, illness, congenital or hereditary problems or maternal neglect of a neonate may result in the need to handrear. Neonates may be immuno-compromised and it is the role of the veterinary staff and the nurse to support the animal through illnesses such as pneumonia, enteritis & bacterial septicemia, and provide the appropriate nutrition that is required for growth and development. Handrearing may require taking the animal home to manage night feeds or alternatively staying at the zoo or visiting during the night to provide feeds.

The veterinary nurse must be prepared to hand rear any animal at any time. This can be difficult based on a variety of species and the specialist care required when selecting appropriate formula or diet. Having a working knowledge of the animals that breed in the zoo and those that may be difficult to handrear provides a head start should the situation occur. The environment for handrearing may be as elaborate as a zoo nursery i.e., a separate environment with the ability to care for a variety of species, or it may be as basic as a hot box set up in a treatment room.


The role of the zoo veterinary nurse is diverse and challenging. There are few positions available in this special area of nursing, and competition for vacancies is high. An eye for detail and the ability to adapt to a range of species and situations are just two important skills the nurse must possess. A formal qualification in Veterinary Nursing is essential to ensure that underpinning knowledge complements practical skills.

Speaker Information
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Michelle Rouffignac, RVN, AVN
Perth Zoological Gardens
Western Australia, Australia

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