Common Medical Problems Of The Adult Giant Panda

There is a paucity of well-documented information about the common medical problems of giant pandas; often what is known is presented in Chinese journals. From 1998 to 2000, the CBSG Biomedical Survey helped to improve substantially the body of reference knowledge on this species, as well as to survey for medical problems (see Chapter 4). The only other comprehensive reference on medical problems in the giant panda was produced by Qiu & Mainka (1993). Regardless, it is important to emphasise that, if a natural diet is available and adequate veterinary care is given, the giant panda appears to be relatively free of major medical problems in captivity.

Gastrointestinal disorders

Gastrointestinal disease is the most common cause of mortality in both captive and free-living giant pandas (Qiu & Mainka, 1993). In the latter population, pancreatitis secondary to ascaridiasis was the most frequently described gastrointestinal lesion found at necropsy. For giant pandas in captivity, gastric, intestinal and colonic disorders predominate as determined at necropsy (see Chapter 16). Endoscopy has been used recently to identify a gastric ulcer in a living individual (see Chapter 18). Alimentary lymphoma has been observed in some captive giant pandas in China (Qiu & Mainka, 1993) as well as animals held at Zoologico de Chapultepec (Mexico City, Mexico; F. Gual-Sil, pers. comm.). Although hepatic neoplasia has been reported (Qiu & Mainka, 1993), the prevalence is not as high as in other species of Ursidae.


Colic is commonly observed in adult pandas held at various facilities. These episodes usually are spaced at approximately one week to several week intervals. Affected animals characteristically lie on the abdomen with the legs splayed laterally and are anorexic and lethargic. Vocalisations (especially 'honking') are typically associated with colic. Bouts usually last one to two days (but sometimes up to five days) and are followed by the passage of large amounts of mucous stool. Mucoid stools, evaluated cytologically using Wright-Giemsa and Gram stains, generally contain inflammatory cells and (less commonly) red blood cells and sloughed enterocytes. Large, spore-forming Gram-positive rods are seen, but inconsistently.

Extensive bacteriological evaluations through the aerobic and anaerobic culture of normal and mucoid panda stools have failed to reveal a clear association between bacteria and colic. Bacterial pathogens associated with this condition include Campylobacter lari, Plesiomonas shigelloides, Clostridium perfringens enterotoxigenic strains and Aeromonas hydrophila. Aeromonas probably results from storing bamboo browse in water-filled containers. Hanging and misting bamboo browse before feeding (rather than storing it submersed in water troughs) greatly reduces Aeromonas hydrophila prevalence in the gastrointestinal tract of these animals. Episodes of colic can also be managed conservatively by withholding food for 24 hours and providing drinking water ad libitum. Relief and recovery to normal activity, appetite and stool production tend to be rapid. In general, we believe that the incidence of colic and mucoid stools can be prevented (or at the least greatly reduced) through proper dietary management (see Chapter 6).


Ascites is an incidental finding in many normally healthy giant pandas. The exact cause of ascitic fluid accumulation in this species is unknown. Aspirates of this fluid reveal a clear to slightly yellowish, non-turgid fluid characterised as a modified transudate. Ascitic fluid, as monitored by ultrasound imaging, is intermittent and changing in volume. The presence of ascites can complicate diagnosis of other, more serious, conditions such as Stunted Development Syndrome (see Chapter 4) or renal and liver disease.

Breeding trauma

Bites and scratches around the head, neck, trunk and extremities occur in both the male and female giant panda following a breeding interaction. Most wounds are superficial (punctures or minor lacerations) that do not require primary closure. However, there are exceptions, including serious, life-threatening wounds. In most cases, documentation of the presence and location of these lesions, conservative treatment with topical wound care (in tractable individuals through protected contact) and oral antibiotics are sufficient management options.

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