Two years ago, I left everything that was familiar to me to take a position as a veterinary technician for the Detroit Zoological Society. For the previous 14 years, I’d been working at a small animal veterinary practice. I enjoyed this time spent taking care of dogs and cats, which often consisted of collecting blood, placing intravenous catheters, cleaning teeth, administering medication, taking X-rays, monitoring anesthesia and assisting the veterinarian in surgery. But the day had come that I decided to leave the small animal veterinary world and begin my journey in zoo medicine.
I thought these two worlds would be extremely different, but I quickly learned how similar they really are. I still do all of the same work, just on a larger variety of animals – not to mention some much larger in size. At times, there are unique challenges. For example, while I’ve had plenty of experience collecting blood from 10-pound cats who are not at all happy to be at the vet, blood collection from a 260-pound lion is a completely different ball game.
A major part of my job at the Detroit Zoo’s Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex is collecting blood for routine testing, which is an important part of preventative healthcare in both domestic animals and zoo animals. We analyze blood to evaluate organ function – especially kidney function in aging cats – electrolyte status, hormone levels and more. If an animal becomes ill, blood tests can help to identify the health issue so we can develop treatment plans. Routine blood testing is just as important on healthy animals because it gives us a good baseline for comparison if the animal becomes ill in the future.
I was soon faced with the challenge of collecting blood from a feline without holding her or even sharing the same space with her. Luckily for me, the animal care staff trains the animals for voluntary blood collection, making it possible for us to complete the task. Training a medical behavior like this is a gradual systematic process that happens before blood is even collected. It requires the zookeepers to have a lot of skill and patience.
In November of 2015, I had the pleasure of meeting Erin, a 16-year-old female African lion. She had begun her training for blood collection five years prior, and participates in the training willingly. When she does what is asked of her, she’s given treats and verbal praise, such as, “Good girl, Erin”. She can decide not to participate whenever she likes, but most days she seems to enjoy the challenge of doing each behavior.
When training for blood collection begins, animal care staff first teaches an animal to place herself in the front area of her indoor holding area and to lie down when given a verbal cue to do so. Next, the zookeeper uses a long, hooked pole to gently pull her tail through a small gap located at the bottom of the stall door. They then hold her tail still so that I can place a tourniquet on her tail. Lastly, I visualize and palpate Erin’s tail vein and insert the needle to collect the blood sample.
Erin practices training weekly and we collect blood from her every six to 12 months. This helps Erin remain comfortable with medical procedures such as blood collection, administering injections and applying topical medications, if needed. We are able to accomplish these things with Erin’s willing cooperation and the use of anesthesia is not necessary, which is safer and more enjoyable for everyone.
Similar to domestic cats, large cats often get kidney disease as they age, which can cause high blood pressure. Every two months, a blood pressure monitoring device is used to measure Erin’s blood pressure values. In this case, the zookeepers practice the same training used for blood collection, but when the zookeeper gains access to Erin’s tail and holds it still, l place a blood pressure cuff on it instead of a tourniquet. Her blood pressure is measured by the same method that is used in humans; two values are taken into account: systolic pressure and diastolic pressure. With the information gathered over time, we are better able to identify if a health problem is developing so we can begin treatment sooner.
I cannot tell you enough how incredible it is to be part of this veterinary team who, along with the animal care staff, provide excellent care for the animals residing at the Detroit Zoo.
– Stacey Baker is a veterinary technician for the Detroit Zoological Society and works at the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex at the Detroit Zoo.