Health assessment at capture

Before Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) veterinarians can conduct a medical exam of a Florida panther, the capture team and their specially trained dogs must chase one up a tree. Prior to darting a treed panther, biologists observe the panther from a distance, looking for obvious signs of disease and, in females, for signs of pregnancy. If they determine the animal cannot be safely sedated, the capture is aborted in order to ensure the safety of the animal. Each captured panther will receive a full exam by a veterinarian and be continually monitored while under anesthesia. Vital signs, such as temperature, heart and respiration rates, and depth of anesthesia are closely monitored throughout the capture.

Depending on their vaccine history, panthers more than six months old are vaccinated against several diseases including feline leukemia virus, rabies, feline viral rhinotracheitis, feline calicivirus and feline panleukopenia. These diseases could pose a significant risk to an individual panther or to the panther population.  If veterinarians determine an adult panther is being negatively impacted by parasites (i.e. poor body condition), it is also dewormed.

The veterinarian establishes an intravenous (IV) catheter that allows the administration of fluids in order to maintain hydration. This also allows for immediate treatment in the case of an emergency. Every panther receives eye lubrication to prevent damage to its eyes while it is under anesthesia. If needed, the veterinarian treats any wounds and injuries noted during the exam. Although this is a very rare occurrence, any panther with major injuries such as fractures or broken bones will be transported for appropriate veterinary care and rehabilitation.

Veterinarian and biologists collecting samples and examining an immobilized panther

Blood is collected from each panther and routine bloodwork (complete blood count and biochemistry) is performed, as well as infectious disease and toxin testing. A hair sample is collected and several small skin biopsies are taken from the ear for genetic analyses. Additional samples, such as cultures, fecal samples and skin scrapings, are taken if the veterinarian notes some potential issue with the panther such as a rash or abnormal growth.

Each panther during the exam receives a microchip for permanent identification. The microchip is placed under the skin, just as it is in pet dogs and cats, and allows for follow-up identification if the animal is handled in the future.

Biomedical information is critical not only to assessing the health of the individual animal but also for assessing risk factors for the population. This information allows implementation of appropriate health and management planning.  A good example is the vaccination program the FWC initiated for feline leukemia virus following identification of an outbreak of this disease.

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