Dealing with Elephant Tummy Troubles

Elephant intelligence

Anna with her Mahout

One of the ‘joys’ of being an elephant vet is that you spend a lot of time examining elephant poo. Our vet at the STEF Veterinary Centre, Dr Aon, has recently dealt with two cases of colic (severe elephant tummy ache).

Elephants are prone to digestive problems, which perhaps isn’t surprising given the quantity and variety of vegetation that they shovel into their mouths every day (elephants eat about 10% of their body weight each day – that’s 200 – 400kg of vegetation for an adult – consuming foods ranging from grasses, bamboo, creepers, palm leaves and cultivated crops), and also knowing that it takes up to 24 hours for that food to pass through their gastrointestinal tract. So, one of the most important jobs for a mahout is to make a regular inspection of his elephant’s poo to look for signs of any problems (see our Journal post). Interestingly, Asian elephants have longer small intestines and bigger stomachs than their African cousins, but both have a similar sized large intestine of around 11-13 metres (for detailed information on an elephant’s digestive tract see the Journal of Zoo and Aquarium Research – JZAR).

Dr Aon’s first case was a 19-year-old elephant called Anna who had not eaten for two days, and had been defecating only once a day, producing abnormally small dung. A healthy elephant will defecate around 16 times a day. Dr Aon was told that Anna had last been wormed about six months’ ago, but a recent blood sample analysis had shown a higher-than-normal range of eosinophils, indicating a possible parasitic infection. Fortunately, and most obligingly, Anna defecated during here examination, revealing stools heaving with roundworm parasites.

Dr. Aon treated Anna intravascularly with fluids (once they managed to get the drip attached! See photo below) and medication for anti-inflammation, anti-ulcer and parenteral stimulation of the gut motility. A sample of the parasites collected for further examination were later determined to be the roundworm Murshidia falcifera. Generally such parasites are not life-threatening to a healthy adult elephant. However, even fairly innocuous parasites can diminish the health of an elephant if combined with other threats such as a poor environment or malnutrition. Fortunately, Anna’s condition improved significantly the following day with an increased appetite and better defecation form and size. During a follow up phone call a week later, the owner was glad to inform our team that Anna was back to her normal, happy self and that he will be eternally grateful to us.

The second case was in a 70-year-old elephant called Soodjai, whose owner had been giving him carminative each day to relieve his stomach pains, but Soodjai was still having problems and had a swollen and uncomfortable abdomen. Dr Aon treated him with anti-inflammation and antibiotic medication to adjust the digestive tract and nourish his body. Soodjai’s abdomen is now much better, and his appetite and strength are increasing.

[Case notes: Visible Colic symptoms are depression, restlessness, loss of appetite, rolling, looking at the abdomen, biting the tip of the trunk, standing with legs spread, stretching neck, and having a distended abdomen.
Other signs include: faster than normal heart rate, rapid breathing, an alteration in mucous membrane colour, dehydration, a change in gut sound and in urine and faeces.
The common possible causes of Colic can be:
a) non-infectious: Intraluminal or extraluminal obstruction, inflammation/ulceration, dislocation of a specific part of GI tract,
b) infectious: Bacteria (salmonella, clostridium), Virus or Internal parasites (which cause inflammation, abnormal movement and obstruction).]

[Click on photos below to enlarge]