Clinical parameters

Please note these are meant as a guide only and normal animals can vary outside these ranges; interpretations should be made in conjunction with other significant findings, and a full physical exam should never be undertaken without the elephant's handler consent/support.


Ahead of approaching any elephant, please ensure with its handler that the animal is in a quiet, relaxed state. If approaching a male, observe the perineum for swelling and the temporal gland openings for swelling/discharge, as these can be signs that this male bull is in musth and can therefore be unpredictable and more aggressive than usual.

Musth is the sexually active period in male (bull) elephants, which is frequently characterised by aggressive behaviour towards all but female elephants. Such period can last a variable length of time from a few weeks to a couple of months. While it causes typical physical changes (with temporal gland discharge, urinary incontinence and perineal swelling), it can also be accurately predicted and monitored using sequential blood samples.
Figure 1

Figure 1 — Skin wound above the temporal gland of an elderly elephant; also notice the pronounced maxillary depression indicative of dental degeneration/loss.

Clinical exam

All body systems should be investigated. The following checklist will help you ensure you have methodically done so.

Temperaturerectal 36-37°C(96.8 to 98.6°F ) or via smart microchip reader inserted behind the left ear 35-36.5° C (95-97.7°F).

Taking temperature. The best way to take the temperature in most animals is rectally. Ensure the thermometer is well lubricated prior to inserting it. Ideally, stand behind a protective barrier (custom made stocks) next to the hind limb, gently hold the tail towards you (avoiding the whipping effect it can otherwise trigger), and slide the thermometer in the rectum. Direct the tip to one side, so as to gently press it against the rectal wall in order to avoid faecal balls, as these could give a false reading. Allow 2-3 minutes for the thermometer to record the temperature, to get the most accurate reading.
Figure 2

Figure 2 — A set of simple – yet strong – stocks can keep you safe while you examine and treat the animal (seen here as the wooden grid).

Respiratory rate — 4-12 rpm. The tip of the trunk should also be clean, clear and moist.

Heart rate — 25-30 bpm (standing) and 70-98 bpm (in lateral recumbency).

Figure 3

Figure 3 — The pulse rate can carefully be palpated behind the ear – a handy site for vascular bundles where slow intravenous injections can be performed.

Mucous membranesEyes should be clear and bright (with a small amount of clear conjunctival sac discharge being normal. General mucous membranes should be pink and moist (visible intraorally by tease-feeding the animal and at the base/tip of the trunk).

Figure 4

Figure 4 — Pink, moist tongue on a baby elephant looking for food

Gastro-intestinal system — Examine the faeces, which should be formed and with fibres not exceeding a few inches in length.

Skin — Also examine the integumentary system, which should be moist and free of wounds.

Don't forget to include a close inspection of the feet for any obvious nail/skin cracks, which can predispose to infections and lameness.
Figure 5

Figure 5 — Carefully assess elephant's feet for cracks and sores of the skin, including the nails.

Body Condition Score

A number of BCS systems have bee described and tested in elephants, with weigh scales still being the best tool (when available). In general, areas assess that indicate the degree of BCS are: the backbone, pelvic bone, ribs and, to a lesser extent, the temporal fossa. Most active/working animals will have a BCS around 3.

BCS lower than 3 or higher than 4 are equally as concerning for the general health of the animal.

Figure 6

Figure 6 — BCS index for Asian elephants – this should be adjusted accordingly when assessing African elephants. Figure from Morfeld et al. (2016) PLOS ONE DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0155146

For the original image and more info on BCS please refer to:
Assessment of Body Condition in African (Loxodonta africana) and Asian (Elephas maximus) Elephants in North American Zoos and Management Practices Associated with High Body Condition Scores

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