Text Size Font Smaller Font Larger

Medical Management of Tigers

Adapted from M. Bush, L. Phillips, and R. Montali, 1987. Clinical management of captive tigers. In: Tigers of the World: The Biology, Biopolitics, Management, and Conservation of an Endangered Species. Noyes Publ., Park Ridge, NJ. With a section by N. Reindl, Minnesota Zoo, and significant contributions and additions by D. Armstrong, Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo.


Although tigers are displayed in most zoos, and they have a long history in captivity, surprisingly little medical data have been published. Most published reports concern medical problems that are preventable, given the present state of the science of zoological medicine, namely dietary related deficiencies and diseases or viral infections.

Previous documents on medical support of endangered species have been formulated under the usual heading of "Disease." This inadvertently places the veterinarian in a reactive rather than an interactive role as a member of the conservation team. Our approach is to consider an overall medical program for the tiger that will not only minimize disease but improve overall viability. The emerging role of medical programs is to shift strategies from the care of individuals to the care of species, subspecies, and populations.

The medical and surgical care of captive tigers has become easier with advancements in other areas, especially in anesthesia and anesthetic techniques. Major nutritional problems are almost nonexistent due to the increased understanding of dietary needs including proper ratios of vitamins and minerals. The majority of contagious infectious diseases can be prevented by appropriate vaccines. Parasites (external and internal) can be effectively controlled or eliminated with newer drugs.

The present challenge to zoo staff, particularly the veterinarian, is to establish and maintain a strong and aggressive preventive medical program. Once this is instituted and functioning, the major medical problems encountered will be the geriatric problems of an aging collection.

Medical management of captive tigers requires the integration of preventive medical programs, clinical medicine, nutrition, husbandry practices, and pathological surveillance. The preventive programs have matured to meet the needs of the species. We continue to promote medical programs that are aggressive rather than reactive. The following protocols outline the necessary components of such a program for the medical management of captive tigers.

The scope of preventive medical procedures is extensive, from the time the animal enters the collection (i.e., birth or transfer) to its disposition to another zoo, or to a complete post-mortem examination when it dies. Specific preventive factors relate to diet, exhibit design, behavioral needs, cleaning procedures, pest control and the more medically oriented procedures such as vaccinations, parasite control and quarantine.

In dealing with tigers, it has been stated repeatedly they are just big domestic cats that share many anatomical, physiological, behavioral, and medical commonalities. Fortunately, this allows veterinarians to extrapolate from experiences and expertise dealing with the domestic counterpart. It is best not to be overzealous in utilizing this comparison since tigers are unique animals; new problems and new techniques should be approached through careful planning and good clinical judgment. One should always be ready for the unexpected.

Shipping and Quarantine

The long-term management of the health of tigers begins before the animal arrives with appropriate planning of the management program and with arrangements to transfer and receive the animal that protect its health.

Shipping Procedures

Shipment procedures for tigers require good organization to minimize stress to the animal. Before shipment the health status of the tiger is evaluated. If possible, the animal should have access to its shipping crate for two weeks prior to shipment to become familiar with it. The tiger should definitely be fed in it. In the United States, the design of the crate must meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) requirements and be strong enough to safely hold the tiger (see Crate Specifications below). For international shipments, International Air Transport Association (IATA) requirements must be met, and these provide reasonable guidelines for most tiger transfers. If an extended trip is anticipated (more than 12 hr), provisions should be made for someone to offer water and food to the animal while in transit. In reality, however, tigers are unlikely to feed in transport and can easily go for a few days without food. Water is more crucial, and arrangements must be made to provide an adequate water supply for tigers in transit over 12 hours.

When a tiger is moved, one of its keepers should accompany it to care for it in transit if the transport involves more than one transfer en route, if travel time from airport drop-off to airport pick-up is more than 12 hours, and if it is a very young cub. A keeper familiar with the tiger may help it adjust to its new environment. Husbandry, dietary and medical records should be transmitted to the receiving institution prior to shipment, and complete copies of these records should accompany the tiger during shipment. It is important that any tiger tranquilized for shipment be completely awake and standing before it travels. Tigers are lost even under the best intentions, as shown in this excerpt from the Los Angeles Times, Wednesday, March 25, 1992.



SAN DIEGO--A rare Malaysian tiger, one of only about 200 in existence, died while being flown from Kuala Lumpur to Los Angeles after being placed by Malaysian authorities in a crate that was partly wrapped in plastic and barely larger than the animal itself, said authorities. The 100-pound female tiger was one of two 10-month-old sister cubs that were destined for the San Diego Zoo.

The animal was ailing--if not already dead--when a Malaysian Airlines 747 stopped for two hours in Honolulu and ground cargo handlers said they smelled something foul. But before a veterinarian for the U.S. Department of Agriculture could arrive at the airport to check on the animal's condition, the airliner already had taken off for Los Angeles.

When the plane landed at Los Angeles on Feb. 19, concluding the 24-hour trip, the cub was dead, either from dehydration or because it apparently had overheated in its small wooden cage, said Dr. Ron DeHaven, animal care supervisor for the USDA in Sacramento.

"The cage was barely larger than the animal itself," DeHaven said. "It literally could not stand up in the crate. There was no ventilation. It was a solid wooden crate except for one end, the tail end, where there was heavy gauge wire. "But the crate was wrapped in plastic halfway up, so that half was cut off to ventilation," he said. The animal was 43 inches long from the crown of its head to the base of its tail, and the cage was just 46 inches long, a USDA inspection showed. The cage was 23 inches in height and 22 inches wide.



A shipping crate should be well ventilated, drain well, and absorbent bedding be provided to prevent the tiger from lying in urine. The crate must be strong enough and large enough for the tiger, but the size should allow easy movement and access through doorways. Particular attention should be paid to the size of doors on all airplanes on which the tiger may be transported.

Crate Specifications

(N. Reindl) All shipping containers for tigers other than cubs of under 15 kg should be constructed of steel or 1/8" thick aluminum. If wood is used, all interior surfaces must be metal-lined and free from sharp projections and edges. Basic design allows free flow of air through both ends of the container, but the design must be such that the tiger can not reach out to injure attendants. Use of a double door design on each end allows for a barred end gate, which provides containment for the animals. A second thin panel of expanded metal provides safety for the handlers working around the crate, yet can be lifted as needed to service the animal if delays occur or treatment is necessary. The doors on each end of the crate should be guillotine style to facilitate animal

Crate Size Inside Dimensions (in cm) Outside Dimensions
Length Width Height Length Width Height
Large: adult male 183 56 76 198 74 97
Medium: adult female 152 51 66 168 69 86
Small: sub-adults 122 46 61 137 64 81
X-small: cubs 91 41 56 107 58 76


Fig. 1. Schematic view of a typical shipping crate (U.S. Dep. Agric., 1980).

A large crate loaded with an adult tiger can weigh over 400 kg. It is essential that adequate handles are provided along the full length of each side of the container and that the bottom is raised with skids to allow the use of mechanized lifting equipment (fork lift). The International Animal Transport Association (IATA) standards follow.



(from Live Animal Regulations, International Air Transport Association, 1991)

Principles of Design

The following principles of design shall be met in addition to the General Container Requirements outlined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (see below).

The front end shall be formed of steel welded mesh or strong iron bars. The bars must be spaced in a manner which will prevent the animal from pushing its forelegs through the spaces between the bars. A sliding door shall be constructed at the rear, of the same material as the container, adequately secured to prevent accidental opening.

The floor shall be constructed in grille form over a liquid-proof tray in a manner to permit the animal's excreta to fall into the tray. When a grill floor is not feasible, the floor of the container must be liquid-proof and be covered with sufficient material to absorb the animal's excreta.

To ensure adequate ventilation, air inlets must be provided at heights which will provide through ventilation at all levels, particularly when the animal is in a prone position. Ventilation holes, of approximately 2.5 cm (1 in) diameter, shall be positioned on the sides and top as indicated in the diagram. These holes may be screened on the exterior with fine nylon or similar mesh if such covering will not unduly restrict the amount of air entering the container. While loosely woven burlap may also be used when it is necessary to quiet the animal, great care must be taken to ensure that air circulation is not restricted. Burlap covering must be readily removable to allow increased air flow, as necessary.

To prevent disturbance to the animal and to provide protection for the handling personnel, wooden slotted shutters with adequate ventilation slots or holes should be placed over the front opening, approximately 7.5 cm (3 in) away from steel weld mesh or iron bars. Loosely woven burlap or fine nylon or similar mesh, stretched over the front opening, with a batten on the bottom, can be used in lieu of the wooden shutters.

The dimensions of the container shall allow the animal to turn completely around freely, or shall prevent it from turning at all. The height shall provide adequate space for the animal to stand upright with head extended, the length shall permit it to lay in the full prone position. Actual container dimensions vary according to species and size of animal.

Food and water containers with adequate safe access for replenishment must be made available by the shipper, taking into account the duration of the flight.

Where more than one animal is to be carried in a container, multiples of the above provisions shall apply. Divisions can take the form of partitions such as metal grills. Compatible animals need not be separated by a partition when it is probable they will not harm each other during shipment.


Quarantine Procedures

Prior to the introduction of any new tiger to an existing population, the newcomer should be quarantined for at least 30 days. Ideally the tiger will be held in a separate facility and cared for by keepers that do not care for other felids. Unfortunately, this may not always be possible. In these instances, the tiger should be separated from other cats as much as possible, and keepers should work with it after they have finished all work with the existing collection. Personnel working with or near a quarantined cat should wear coveralls and rubber boots designated for the quarantine area. A foot bath in and out of quarantine helps prevent potential contamination. The quarantine area should have drainage separate from other cat facilities. Separate cleaning tools that are not removed from the quarantine area are a necessity.

Quarantine protocol for tigers (see Table Checklist) should include a parasite screening, complete physical examination, collection of a blood sample including serum sample banking, and preventive medical procedures such as immunizations and dental calculus removal. An animal should be observed carefully during the quarantine period, and factors such as the animal's behavior and appetite, and subtle symptoms of potential disease should be recorded daily.

The quarantine period allows observation and testing to monitor the animal for infectious diseases and/or parasites. The 30-day period is adequate to cover the incubation period of most infectious diseases. Animals newly captured from the wild may require a longer quarantine, particularly when treatment of parasites or disease problems is required.

The evaluation of a new tiger begins with a review of its past medical history, which should be part of the health certificate. It is unacceptable to send an animal to a new collection without sending its medical history. These data will alert the clinician to previous and potential problems and document past vaccinations, anesthetic doses, medical procedures, identification methods, fecal examinations and blood values. Body weights should be obtained on all tigers entering and leaving quarantine. It is recommended that each cat be individually identified with a subcutaneous microchip (transponder) and a tattoo of the studbook number. The placement of transponders and the location of tattoos have been directed by the American Zoo and Aquariums Association (AZA) Tiger Species Survival Plan (SSP) but may undergo review (especially the transponder placement).

Change in Diet

When in quarantine, the tiger's diet is gradually changed to the new diet if different from the original. Any dietary alterations should be gradual to minimize gastrointestinal upset. It is not unusual to have a newly arrived tiger stop eating because of the environmental change. The Minnesota Zoo reported an adult female that refused to come into holding from her exhibit and did not eat for 19 days; an adult male from the Moscow Zoo never did switch over to zoo diet for its entire life. In some cases it is advantageous to have some of the animal's previous diet accompany it if the food is not available locally. To stimulate appetite, whole carcasses of rabbits or chickens may be offered.



USDA introduced new regulations on 15 January 1980 relating to the importation of pet birds into the United States. These requirements also pertain to tigers.


  1. Animals imported into the United States must be accompanied by a veterinary health certificate;
  2. a request for quarantine space must be made by the importer and accompanied by a reservation fee prior to importation;
  3. a 30-day quarantine period at owner's expense will be completed at specified quarantine facilities;
  4. these rules provide for re-entry of pet birds properly identified, of United States origin which have been out of the country, when accompanied by a veterinary health certificate issued prior to departure from the United States, and the bird is identified by a leg band with the number affixed to the health certificate.


No warm-blooded animals, including birds, can be presented to a carrier more than four hours before the aircraft's scheduled departure time. If prior arrangements are made, a six-hour maximum is acceptable.


There are specific rules, within the USA, for the animal holding areas in cargo terminals. According to the Animal Welfare Act, a temperature range of 7.2 C (45 F) to 23.9 C (75 F) is normally acceptable. Note a temperature range of between 23.9 C (75 F) to 29.5 C (85 F) is acceptable for a four hour time period only. Animals being moved between the animal holding areas in cargo terminals and planes on the ramp may be subjected to temperatures exceeding 29.5 C (85 F) or 7.2 C (45 F) for no more than 45 minutes.


Animal shipments to, from or via the United States must have written instructions concerning the food and water requirements of the animal affixed to the outside of the container.


All containers for dogs and cats must be of such a size to allow the animals to turn around.


For the carriage of warm-blooded animals, there must be ventilation openings on two opposite walls, which openings are at least 16% of the area of each wall, or ventilation openings on all four walls, which openings are at least 8% of the area of each wall; and at least one-third of the minimum ventilation area must be in the lower half of the container and one-third in the upper half. In addition, for dogs and cats, if there are ventilation openings on three walls they must be at least 8% of the area of two opposite walls and 50% of the area of the third wall: the total combined ventilation opening area must be at least 14% of the total combined area of all four walls. The outside of the wall with ventilation openings must have a rim or other separation device 1.9 cm (3/4 in) deep to prevent obstruction of ventilation openings.


Animal shipments to, from, or via the United States must be marked or labeled on the top and on one or more sides of the container with the words "Wild Animal" in letters not less than 2.5 cm (1 in) in height and arrows or markings indicating the upright position.


A maximum of one live dog or cat, six months or more of age, or a maximum of one live puppy, eight weeks to six months of age and weighing over 9 kg (20 lb), shall be transported in a primary enclosure. Two live puppies and kittens, eight weeks to six months of age, but not weighing over 9 kg (20 lb) each and of comparable size, may be carried in the same primary enclosure. Weaned live puppies or kittens less than eight weeks of age and of comparable size, or puppies or kittens which are less than eight weeks of age, and litter-mates accompanied by their dam, may be shipped in the same primary enclosure to research laboratories.


The U.S. Animal Welfare Act, Section 3.86(a), requires that one-third of the container ventilation holes must be in the lower half of the container.


Chapter Continued | Table of Contents