With ongoing advances in zoo medicine, wild animals under human care are now living longer.4 This requires a proactive vision of geriatric animal management.1,2
Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS) manages one of the largest zoological collections in the world. Ensuring highest level of animal care and welfare also means providing world class veterinary care.3 This can be a challenge with a collection close to 20.000 animals from 1.000 different species, requiring very structured healthcare and health monitoring programs.
At WRS the geriatric and chronically ill animals have always been a priority for the veterinary team. To improve the overall management of aging animals and to better prevent the occurrence of health issues, a comprehensive and multidisciplinary geriatric healthcare program was recently developed by curators, keepers, nutritionists and veterinarians.
As a first step all animals that reached 75% of their expected life-span are identified as geriatric. Currently 188 animals at WRS fall into this category distributed as follow: 47% mammals, 45% birds, and 8% reptiles.
All these animals received a preliminary heath assessment by the veterinary team, which allowed a categorisation into three health-levels: 1. green - geriatric without visible health concerns; 2. yellow - geriatric with minor health concerns; and 3. red - severely compromised, requiring close observations and constant medical care.
The green category is fully managed by the zoology team. The nutritionist has devised geriatric feeding regimes for each taxon, which are implemented at the green stage. This supplement is aimed at reducing the symptoms of natural degeneration, occurring throughout aging. Targeted issues include ocular and dental health, gut motility and digestion, joints, skin and pelage quality, and cardiac health. Every animal receiving this regime has been assessed every four weeks for four months by both veterinarians and keepers to assess its effect on motility, fur condition and body score. The yellow category falls under regular veterinary supervision and an assigned veterinarian has put together a detailed healthcare plan including medical check-ups whose frequency depends on both species and pathological processes. Animals that fall into the red category have reached palliative care. To decide whether or not the animals should be euthanized, it is important to have a scientific and rational welfare evaluation. For this the WRS team developed a Quality of Life Assessment (QLA) that consists of five areas of scoring such as pain, daily maintenance, food intake, movement, and social interaction.
If a geriatric animal in category yellow starts to look severely compromised in its health and wellbeing, a QLA and comprehensive health evaluation should be implemented by veterinarians and zoology staff. Depending on the final score, the animal might be recommended for euthanasia. However, usually animals that switch into the red category are firstly recommended for close monitoring through a weekly or even daily QLA, which then allows the team to identify declines in health or welfare over time.
This program has already helped tremendously to better assess, manage and prevent chronic condition such as arthropathy or organ failure. It has also created a better communication platform between zoology and veterinary teams and serves as a tool for scientific and unemotional decision making on welfare-euthanasia for severely compromised geriatric or chronically ill animals which could be translated and used in any zoo in the world.
1. Goldberg KJ. Veterinary hospice and palliative care: a comprehensive review of the literature. Vet Rec. 2016;178(15):369–374.
2. Jessup DA, Scott CA. Hospice in a zoologic medicine setting. J Zoo Wildl Med. 2011;42(2):197–204.
3. Mellor DJ, Hunt S, Gusset M. Caring for Wildlife: The World Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare Strategy. Gland: WAZA Executive Office; 2015.
4. Tidière M, Gaillard JM, Berger V, Müller DW, Lackey LB, Gimenez O, Clauss M, Lemaître JF. Comparative analyses of longevity and senescence reveal variable survival benefits of living in zoos across mammals. Sci Rep. 2016;6:36361.