Veterinary Care: Exotic Animal Hematology

The Detroit Zoological Society has hosted students from Macomb Community College’s veterinary technician program for the past seven years to teach them about exotic animal hematology. These second-year students spend an evening in the lab at the Detroit Zoo’s Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex, learning about the variance in blood cells in many exotic animal species and understanding why zoo medicine is a very specialized field.

Hematology is a medical term referring to all things related to blood – a major part of diagnosing illness and disease comes from the information we learn by examining a patient’s blood. The special thing about working in the veterinary hospital at the Detroit Zoo is that we are responsible for the healthcare of all 230 species of animals that reside here. Working with such a large variety of species can be fun but it can also be daunting when you realize just how much information we actually need to know.

Part of the laboratory testing performed on the samples that we collect involves smearing a small drop of blood onto a microscope slide, applying a special stain and examining the blood smear under a microscope. We then perform a count of 100 different white blood cells and analyze all of the cells for abnormalities. We also look for things like hemoparasites, which are parasites that can be found in the blood.

Mammal blood is different from bird, reptile, amphibian and fish blood in that mammal red blood cells do not contain a nucleus while the other classes of animals’ red blood cells do. Aside from that major difference, the types of white blood cells in mammals differ from non-mammals along with variations in cells from species to species. For example, penguin blood cells look different than vulture blood cells. In a human laboratory, this same testing is performed by an automated CBC (complete blood count) machine, which automatically counts the cells and reports the values. In a zoo setting, we do not have the same capabilities. Because of the nucleated red blood cells found in many of our patients, these cells cannot be counted by a lab machine and must be counted by hand. Being able to recognize normal and abnormal cells in so many species of animals comes with a lot of practice and many years of experience.

I have continued to practice and hone my hematology skills since becoming a veterinary technician for the Detroit Zoological Society more than 10 years ago. I look forward to continuing our relationship with Macomb Community College’s veterinary technician program and being able to share my specialized hematology knowledge with more local veterinary technician students in the future.

– Erica Campbell is a veterinary technician for the Detroit Zoological Society, operating out of the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex at the Detroit Zoo.

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