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Elephant with mouth open
One part of a daily health check is to look into the mouth and see whether it has a healthy pink colour like this. Daily health checks are an easy and efficient way to find problems at an early stage, so that veterinary advice can be sought to solve the problem before it gets worse.

Dr. Susan Mikota and Dr. Suraj Subedi taking a blood sample
Blood samples taken by veterinarians can be used to detect a range of health problems, from malnutrition to tuberculosis.

Foot care
Trimming an elephant's nails with a rasp.

Male in musth
Musth, revealed by dark stains on the temples, is a normal part of the male reproductive cycle. Contrary to popular belief, good musth management includes sufficient feed, water and space to move around. In the case of this male at the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand, this has been arranged by keeping it on a 40-metre chain.
Health and musth

Health care is a crucial part of maintaining an elephant's well-being and ability to work. Daily health checks and regular testing for the most important diseases such as tuberculosis are an efficient way to solve many problems at an early stage. With male elephants, there also is the question of musth: it is a natural and healthy phenomenon, but does require some extra precautions.

Daily monitoring by the mahout

Regular health checks by are an essential part of good elephant management. An easy-to-use checklist for daily health monitoring is provided on the website of our partner organization Elephant Care International, a non-profit run by veterinarians specializing in elephants. If any of the problems on the list are found, the owner of the elephant should ask for the advice of a local veterinarian with expertise in elephants.

Testing for tuberculosis and other illnesses

In many parts of South Asia, tuberculosis (often called TB for short) is common among both people and captive elephants. Tuberculosis can be transmitted between people and elephants to bith directions. If untreated, it can be lethal to both. It it therefore important that both mahouts and their elephants are tested, so they can get the medication if needed. For more information on tuberculosis in elephants, see the TB info page of Elephant Care International.

While a veterinarian is taking a blood sample from the elephant to test for tuberculosis, it is also a good idea to ask him to run the necessary tests for the other infectious diseases and parasites that occur in that area.

Foot care

An elephant has tons of weight on its feet. Painful conditions in feet are therefore even more problematic for elephants than for many other animals. Prevention of foot problems, and their care at an early stage if they do occur, are therefore an important part of health management.

Avoiding walking and standing on hard surfaces is one of the keys to foot health. An elephant's feet are not well suited to asphalt roads, concrete floors and the like. Regular walking on hard roads can wear off the protective pads on the soles of feet. This causes a painful condition, as it changes the weight distribution on the foot bones, causing abnormal pressure on the tissues within the foot. Standing on hard floors, especially with poor hygiene, sometimes causes an infection called foot rot.

An elephant's nails grow slowly but continuously. In the wild, the nails get sufficient wear to remain in the right length, but in captivity there is a risk of nail overgrowth. Keeping the nails in the right length by regular trimming helps prevent cracked nails and the resulting infections.

Detecting chronic pain

If an elephant has been kept standing in chains, especially with more than one leg chained, or if it has frequently carried people in a howdah or other type of a saddle, it can have long-term problems in the joints or back that often cause chronic pain.

Diagnosing chronic pain is challenging in even for experienced veterinarians. many species of animals, because outward signals of continuous are far more subtle than in sudden pain. In severe chronic pain, animals often become gradually more and more passive, sometimes also appearing more stiff.

If an elephant is suspected to suffer from chronic pain, it is necessary to ask a veterinarian to prescribe medication in order to alleviate the pain.

Further information for veterinarians

Veterinarians seeking for further information on elephant healthcare are welcomed to use the database and other information provided in the professional section on the website of the non-profit Elephant Care International.

Musth management

Musth is a period when the secretion of testosterone in a male elephant raises 50- or 60-fold. It is a normal part of male elephant biology. During musth, some captive males become aggressive towards people. This aggression is the result of painful experiences of people, not an inherent part of musth itself. The elevated testosterone does not in itself cause aggression. Instead, if the elephant has prior abusive experiences of people that cause it to feel aggressive, testosterone makes it more difficult for the elephant to inhibit its actions towards people.

It is common in many south Asian countries to keep a male elephant in very short chains and give it very little feed during musth, in order to shorten the duration of musth. In some countries, the male is even repeatedly beaten during musth. The reason such practices have prevailed is that they sometimes do affect the musth, because intense suffering reduces testosterone However, there are other ways to manage elephants safely during musth, without causing suffering.

Diet during musth should include as much grass, branches and other fibrous plant material as the elephant wants to eat, but the provision of rice and other carbohydrate-rich foods should be kept low. In captivity, musth often lasts for longer than in the wild, and the common imbalance in feed (too much grain and too little natural vegetation) seems to be one of the reasons.

If the elephant has previous painful experiences of people, it is especially important to keep bystanders out of its reach during musth, but this does not require short chains. One successfully tested option is to use a long chain in an area with plenty of vegetation, drinking water and trees to provide shade from the sun.

It is sometimes asked whether castration, either chemical or surgical, would be the solution to musth. However, castration of elephants is not advised, because the health risks are not known. One of the potential health risks of castrating elephants could be chronic, possibly painful problems in leg and joint bones. When a male animal is castrated while it still is growing, its limb bones will continue growing for a longer time than normally. In small animals, this is not a problem, but it is not known how it would affect the bones of a very large animal. Male elephants start becoming to musth before the age of 20 years, but continue growing until the age of 40 years. Additionally, if the castration were to be performed as a surgical one, there would be the additonal risks f anesthesia: elephants are one of the most difficult species to anesthetize safely. A better solution to musth is to ensure that the calves are trained and handled with elephant-friendly techniques such as positive reinforcement, in order to prevent the painful experiences of people that are the main caue of musth aggression.

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Photo copyright © Elephant Experts and the photographers:
Minna Tallberg, Helena Telkänranta, Marc Pierard, Karpagam Chelliah,
Nirvay Sah, Sudhir Yadav and Ramesh Belagere