Preventive Medicine

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Routine examination

Routine examinations are key to a comprehensive and proactive preventive medicine programme for adult and geriatric giant pandas. Such evaluations are made prior to animal transport, during quarantine and on a periodic basis. Each assessment is carried out under anaesthesia (using the principles and methods described above); the benefits gained far outweigh the minor risk of anaesthesia. Each holding institution should strive to develop a thorough, consistent database of information. The types of desirable data and a systematic assessment protocol have been presented in Chapter 4. In addition to standard health factors, the routine examination always considers opportunities to collect data on morphometry, ultrasound observations and reproduction (e.g. semen collection or vaginal smears). Each animal is also checked for its permanent identifier (tattoo or transponder chip code). Other pieces of information may also be important depending on the particular medical needs of a given giant panda. Collectively, securing the same type data consistently over time is invaluable in tracking the health of an individual as it ages or in comparing it to conspecifics in the same institution or across facilities. Important medical and disease trends of individuals or groups also are identified in this way.

The ideal time of year to perform a routine examination in the giant panda is late winter, immediately preceding the breeding season (i.e. January or February in the northern hemisphere). At this time, adult females with young are near weaning or can easily be separated from a cub for evaluation. Assessment of both males and females allows checking overall health, as well as breeding soundness (see Chapters 4 and 7) in anticipation of impending reproductive activity. This timing also works for juveniles who have often had no previous comprehensive examination but are at a convenient age and stage of development.

Quarantine procedures

Giant pandas that arrive from another facility should be isolated physically from other animals (especially conspecifics) for at least 30 days. This minimises the inadvertent transmission of infectious disease(s) from the new individual to other specimens in the collection. The quarantine interval also provides a 'controlled' time for the panda to adjust to the new environment and variations in diet, all under close observation. Ideally, the newly arrived individual should undergo a thorough quarantine examination following the systematic approach (described above for routine examinations). The scope of this evaluation can be reduced if a pre-transfer examination was performed by the previous holding facility.


The relative risks of acquiring a given disease need to be considered when formulating a vaccination programme for giant pandas in captivity. A serological survey of eight wild giant pandas from a reserve in China revealed antibody titres to several canine viral diseases, but clinical disease information is limited (Mainka et al., 1994). Antibody titres were found in two of eight pandas against canine distemper virus, three of eight against canine coronavirus, six of eight against canine parvovirus and four of eight against canine adenovirus. Local domestic dogs were suspected as one source of viral exposure.

Morbidity and mortality due to canine distemper has been documented in captive giant pandas, so vaccination against this disease is important (Qiu & Mainka, 1993), although challenging. Many wild carnivore species have developed vaccine-induced canine distemper from using modified live vaccines (Deem et al, 2000). Killed distemper vaccines, although safe, provide only short-lived humoral immunity. The development of a monovalent, canary pox-vectored, canine distemper vaccine (PUREVAX™ Ferret Distemper Vaccine; Merial Limited, Inc., Athens, GA) has been shown to be safe while stimulating a significant humoral immune response (R. Montali, pers. comm.). This vaccine is currently used in giant pandas at 6- to 12-month intervals at several USA and Chinese holding institutions.

Parvovirus has been suspected, but not proven, as a cause of gastrointestinal disease in the giant panda (Qiu & Mainka, 1993). A coronavirus has been isolated from a giant panda with diarrhoea in China (Chen & Pan, 1991). The giant pandas at Ocean Park-Hong Kong are vaccinated yearly against parvovirus using a killed vaccine.

Rabies is known to occur in bears and, although the risk of rabies exposure may be low in some facilities, giant pandas have been vaccinated every one to three years against this disease using a killed vaccine.

In all cases, it is advisable to monitor antibody titres to ensure adequate immune responses to vaccinations, as well as to track exposure to those diseases for which vaccines are unavailable or not used. Such titres can be analysed from blood samples taken during routine annual examinations or while in quarantine.


Intestinal parasitism is not uncommon in giant pandas. In one study, which reviewed mortality in this species, parasites were found in 39% of the cases, with the majority of parasitic infections being in wild individuals (Qiu & Mainka, 1993). Balisascaris (Ascaridia) schroederii is the main intestinal parasite reported (Mainka, 1999). Because ascarid eggs are highly resistant to environmental degradation, it is difficult for an animal to avoid exposure once a physical area is contaminated. Due to the large size and fibrous nature of the giant panda faecal bolus, a microscopic assessment can easily miss parasitic ova, especially if only a small portion of a sample is examined. Whole, adult ascarids can be found in giant panda faeces and vomitus, especially in juveniles.

The authors recommend routine faecal screening for parasites and anti-helmintic treatment in the giant panda. Upon arrival at the San Diego Zoo and the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park, giant pandas from China had ascarid ova observed in faeces. Monthly faecal ova parasite examinations and regular anti-helmintic treatment were initiated. Beginning four months after the first treatment and through to the present time, no further parasites have been detected. Anti-helmintics used include:

• fenbendazole (Panacur®; Hoechst-Roussel Agri-Vet Co., Somerville, NJ) at 50 mg kg-1 orally daily for five days;

• ivermectin (Ivomec®; Merial) at 0.2-0.5 mg kg-1 orally for 1 day;

• milbemycin (Interceptor®; Ciba-Geigy Animal Health, Greensboro, NC) at 1 mg kg-1 orally once;

• pyrantel pamoate (Strongid®; Pfizer, Inc., New York, NY) at a standard carnivore dose.

Due to the presence of Dirofilaria immitis in Hong Kong, the giant pandas at Ocean Park-Hong Kong are treated with ivermectin monthly (0.01 mg kg-1).

Demodectic mange has been detected in some captive pandas in China (see Chapters 4 and 16). Other mites of an unknown species have also been seen in skin scrapings from captive giant pandas in China with dermatological manifestations.

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