Preshipment Medicine: Philosophy, Principles, and Practice
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2005

Victoria L. Clyde, DVM

Milwaukee County Zoo, Milwaukee, WI, USA


Health testing of animals prior to transfer between collections has been performed for many years. Yet despite this history as an important and accepted practice of zoological medicine, preshipment testing remains an area of misunderstanding and occasional dissension between the staffs of shipping and receiving institutions. With the continued necessity and increasing number of animal transfers between facilities, it behooves our profession to better develop and clarify a philosophy of preshipment medicine as one which encompasses far more than just the bare minimum of testing required to legally move animals from one geographic region to another.

The goals of preshipment medicine are fourfold: (1) to ensure that the animal proposed for transfer is a suitable and healthy candidate for shipment, (2) to protect the health of the individual animal during the shipment process, (3) to monitor the health of the shipping collection, and (4) to protect the health of the animal collection at the receiving institution. Identification of medical concerns prior to shipment allows for treatment of an animal before it undergoes the rigors and stress of transfer. No animal should be shipped unless the transfer is determined to be beneficial to the animal, to the shipping and receiving collections, and to the conservation of the species.

Preshipment testing is an essential component of an institutional preventive health program. Few institutions have the resources to perform annual health examinations on every animal in the collection. In some species, difficulties and risks associated with immobilizations deter routine health assessments. In other animals, physiologic states such as age, pregnancy, lactation, rut, or stage of antler development may hinder or delay immobilization for routine health assessment. Complete health evaluation of animals immobilized for preshipment testing affords the veterinarian of the shipping institution a valuable opportunity to proactively assess the health of their collection. Data collected during preshipment testing, in combination with information gathered during routine health checks and necropsy findings, should serve as the basis for effective assessment of collection health. With the constant transfer of animals between collections, disease identification needs to occur prior to shipment, to prevent the spread of disease between collections and to allow for treatment of other in-contact animals.

Overall, the preshipment health assessment should be aimed at answering two central questions:

(1) Is this animal suitable and healthy enough to undergo shipment to a new facility? (2) Will inclusion of this animal into a new collection pose any unacceptable health risks, either to the animal or to the receiving collection? Veterinary evaluation of an animal proposed for transfer should include an overall assessment of whether the animal is suitable for shipment. Basic information such as animal identification, gender, life stage, and reproductive status should be confirmed to avoid shipment of either the wrong animal or an animal unsuitable for the needs of the receiving institution. A total health evaluation should be performed, looking not only at the health of the individual animal but also at the health of in-contact animals and any significant disease risks associated with the exhibit or enclosure itself. Visual examination of an animal is inadequate as a sole measure to assess health. The veterinary preshipment evaluation should include review of an animal’s medical records, a complete physical examination, and appropriate ancillary testing. The selection of tests to be performed should be guided by a number of needs, including those legally required for shipment, verifying the current health status of an animal and its historic exposure to infectious diseases. If the results of any specific test would bar the animal from inclusion into the collection of the receiving institution, it should be performed prior to transport whenever possible.

A basic principle of preshipment medicine includes clear, open, and proactive communication between the shipping and receiving institutions, and an understanding of the role each institution plays in the shipment process. The shipping institution should fully disclose any significant health findings (current or historic) of the animal intended for shipment and of any in-contact animals as well as any pertinent collection health history. The shipping institution is also responsible for determining whether an animal is healthy enough to be shipped and what tests and permits are required to ship an animal.1 The role of the receiving institution is to analyze the potential benefits and risks of the proposed transfer and to determine whether to accept the animal for shipment and quarantine. To facilitate the decision-making process, an animal’s complete medical records should be made available to the receiving institution for review prior to preshipment testing. Direct communication between the veterinarians of the shipping and receiving institutions provides for timely discussion of significant health information, so that a consensus can be reached on preshipment test requirements, and on shipment-related medical, physical, psychologic or dietary needs of the animal.

In practice, several questions arise around the necessity, timing and cost of preshipment testing. One question frequently posed is why an animal should be tested prior to shipment if quarantine testing will be performed at the receiving institution. Shipment is a stressful event, and an animal should not be shipped unless it is determined to be healthy enough to cope with this stress. Importation of animals into an established collection is one of the most likely ways to introduce disease. No animal should be shipped unless both the shipping and receiving institutions are reasonably certain that the movement of an animal between collections will be beneficial to the animal and to the health of both collections. When testing is delayed until an animal arrives at quarantine, these concerns are not addressed proactively, resulting in unnecessary shipments, the return of the animal, or its reshipment to another facility.

Another concern, often raised by non-veterinary zoo staff, revolves around why an animal should be immobilized for testing more than once during a shipment process. If an animal received a preshipment health assessment, why does it need to be reimmobilized and retested during quarantine? The stress of shipment itself may induce or uncover disease; repeat testing of an animal in quarantine allows reassessment of its health post-shipment, and affords the receiving institution the opportunity to assess any health changes, collect serum and tissue for banking, and to perform additional testing which was not needed prior to shipment. For most species, current anesthetic techniques allow for safe immobilization of animals, which should be viewed as an opportunity to assess and promote animal and collection health, not as a health risk. Of course, there are animals, species and situations in which is it advantageous to reduce or eliminate the need for immobilizations. For these situations, effective communication is needed to develop a plan that protects both the needs of the animal and of the collections. Samples and information collected during a single immobilization event should be shared between the institutions.

Often, concerns and questions are raised regarding financial issues. Who pays for testing? The general answer is that both the shipping and receiving institutions should share the costs. All zoos benefit from improved health of captive animals, and all zoos risk the costs of disease when an ill animal is shipped. Shipping institutions should accommodate all reasonable requests for preshipment testing, and receiving institutions should limit test requests to those necessary to determine health and collection risk. AZA-accredited institutions should budget for preshipment testing of animals shipped out by their institutions, and for quarantine testing of animals arriving into their collection. In certain instances, such as purchase of animals from private collections or from small institutions without ready access to veterinary care, the receiving institution should consider reimbursing preshipment testing costs. The amount of money spent on preshipment testing is often only a small percent of the total amount of time, effort and money spent in organizing an animal shipment, and should be easily offset by reducing time, effort and money spent in dealing with illness at the receiving institution. When illness or unsuitability is discovered in quarantine, the receiving institution expends staff time and money to resolve the problem, often while quarantine space is tied up and other shipments are delayed.

Preshipment medicine should stimulate collaboration and collegiality between zoo veterinarians as we advocate together for the health of animals being shipped, and for continued preventive veterinary care of all captive collections. Balancing the health needs of the animal and the institutions should never result in an adversarial relationship. We must educate other zoo staff, including directors and financial officers, regarding the importance, value and necessity of preshipment medicine. As experienced health professionals, we must resist the outmoded concepts that preshipment testing is a waste of money and time, and that our zoos do not have sufficient funding to pay for appropriate and necessary testing. Incorporating the philosophy of preshipment medicine into preventive health programs will continue to improve the health and welfare of all captive animal collections.

Literature Cited

Joslin, J.O., and D. Collins. 1999. Designing an ideal animal shipment. In: Fowler, M.E. and R.E. Miller (eds.). Zoo and Wild Animal Medicine Current Therapy 4. W.B. Saunders Co., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 17–26.


Speaker Information
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Victoria L. Clyde, DVM
Milwaukee County Zoo
Milwaukee, WI, USA

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