When the Public Calls the Veterinary Clinic for Help with Wildlife
Shirley J. Casey and Allan M. Casey
Originally published in the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association Journal, Spring, 2002.
When the public finds a wild animal that they think needs help – whether it is abandoned, injured, or somehow in distress – many contact a veterinary clinic. However, most veterinary practices concentrate on domestic animals, such as pets or livestock, and often do not have the same level of knowledge in responding to wildlife questions as they would on species they more commonly treat. This article offers some tips on preparing for calls about wild animals or when they are admitted to the clinic.
Considerations for Wildlife
Recognize that working with wildlife is different from working with domestic animals.
Possession of native wildlife requires state and, often, federal permits, regardless of the person’s good intentions or other credentials. Wildlife requires specialized knowledge and care, such as special diets, caging, and handling.
Wildlife responds differently to humans, which are considered predators, than domestic animals that may be comforted by human contact. Many wild animals hide their symptoms from predators (e.g., humans) and may appear healthy, and then die of health problems or stress. Wildlife can die from the stress of capture, handling, and captivity, as well as their injuries or health problems.
Wild animals that recover fully will be released back to the wild. At times, it may be necessary to euthanize wild animals since few situations allow non-releaseable native wildlife to be maintained in captivity.
Identify wildlife rehabilitators who are trained and knowledgeable in working with wildlife, have the appropriate facilities, diets, and permits, and are available to accept wildlife.
You may already have names of some local rehabilitators. If not, or if you need more, contact the state wildlife (or natural resource) agency and ask for their published list of wildlife rehabilitators.
Learn what they rehabilitate (species, ages, types of conditions), if and how they want calls referred, and any special care they would like the veterinary clinic to provide.
Keep contact information up-to-date and easily accessible. Effective communication and relationships with the rehabilitators is also important. Since wildlife rehabilitators are volunteers and operate non-profit operations, pro-bono veterinary support is appreciated.
Become familiar with types of calls about wildlife and some possible responses.
Wildlife calls often fall into four categories:
• Natural history questions
• Resolving human-wildlife conflicts
• Advice on whether an animal needs help
• Help for wildlife already in captivity.
Natural history questions may be answered by knowledgeable clinic staff or referred to a rehabilitator. Human-wildlife conflict questions may be referred to a rehabilitator or someone that provides humane solutions to wildlife conflicts (some commercial companies or agencies that offer alternatives or services do not always provide humane, non-lethal help. Ask the rehabilitators for names of qualified help.), or use the book Wild Neighbors (Hadidian, et al.) for helpful tips.
Callers may be concerned about an animal that they feel needs help, but it may not need human help at all. Young wild animals that are alone are not necessarily cause for immediate alarm or rescue. Wild mothers often leave their offspring alone to go for food or water, or maintain distance so as to not attract predator attention to a young animal or nest.
Unnecessary rescues are a common problem with baby birds, rabbits, fawns, and seals. A wildlife rehabilitator can help you or the caller determine if the animal needs help or should be left alone. Some additional tips are available at www.Ewildagain.org. to help you decide on appropriate action.
In addition to using natural history information, it may be helpful to ask for the caller’s general observations (be sure to get the information from an adult, not a child). Ask about the animal’s physical condition (wounds, lethargy, difficulty breathing, etc.), origin (had been relocated by a pet or vehicle, etc.) and situation (in the mouth of a cat, fed by a human, or “cared for” by a variety of people, etc.).
Do NOT ask the caller to conduct a physical examination of the animal since that could place the rescuer at risk of injury, diseases, or parasites – and potentially harm the animal as well.
The exhibit at the end of this article offers some additional ways to assess whether the animal needs rescue. These items can be discussed with rehabilitators in advance to determine special local considerations (laws; diseases; rabies vector species; special protocols for specific species, such as predators; trends; etc.).
Obtain and document the name and phone number of people calling about wildlife at the start of the conversation.
This information is not only useful, but may be critical in case difficulties occur. Ask the person to describe the situation and reason that help seems needed. Decide if the veterinary staff can provide the information or if the calls should be referred based on the information above.
If there has been any injury or direct contact with a rabies vector species, special actions may be needed based on state law.
Larger mammals or birds, or rabies vector species should be captured or handled by qualified rehabilitators, wildlife agency staff, or other personnel authorized by the responsible agency. It is critical to emphasize safety for humans and NOT suggest action that would put the rescuer at risk!
If the caller already has the wild animal in possession, it is critical that the animal be taken to a rehabilitator as soon as possible.
In the meanwhile, the person should minimize handling in order to reduce risk to the people and to the animal. The animal should be kept in a secure container (with air holes) in a quiet, relatively dark, and warm place (not in the sun). Some rehabilitators suggest placing the bird or small mammal in a securely closed box or pet carrier that is half-on and half-off a heating pad covered with a towel (heat setting turned on low) . The animal should NOT be fed any food or liquid.
Convincing callers to surrender wild animals that they have in possession ranges from easy to difficult.
Some people want help for the animal and openly acknowledge that they do not have the knowledge, skill, facilities, permits, time, and other requirements to provide effective care.
Other people resist or refuse to surrender the animal, adamant that they can raise it because they care, have experience with domestic animals, or some other reason.
When told that the animal needs more expert care, some callers will resist. Tips on convincing them to surrender their wildlife hostages are provided in the box below.
Having the caller contact the rehabilitator directly may result in the rehabilitator being able to convince the rescuer to surrender the animal. The rescuer should not be given formula or care directions by the clinic since problems for the person and their family, the wild animal, and the clinic could result.
Wild animals are sometimes delivered directly to the veterinary clinic.
As mentioned earlier, everyone needs to understand that working with wildlife is very different from working with domestic animals - and this includes any new or temporary staff at the clinic.
Safety precautions should be initiated to protect humans, pets, and the wild animal. The clinic needs to ensure that the wild animal is in a secure container and placed in a quiet, dark, and warm location (see above) – and away from predators such as humans or domestic animals.
Exercise caution in handling wildlife! Handling and observation should be minimized to what is needed for treatment. Limiting handling reduces the risk to humans of injury, disease, and parasites as well as escape in the facility.
Document contact information from the rescuer and/or person delivering the animal to the clinic.
The person’s name, phone number, and address may be critical if zoonotic diseases are identified. The location may also be needed in order to identify the general area for the animal’s release (required by law in some states). Document all treatment given to the animal, including diagnostics, medications, liquids, food, names of those administering treatment, and so forth - and give a copy of this information to the rehabilitator when the animal is transferred.
Stress to the wild animal should be minimized, regardless of whether they are birds, mammals, or herptiles.
Wild animals are stressed by capture, handling and confinement; sensory input from sight, smell, sound and touch; close proximity to humans or domestic animals (such as dogs and cats, no matter how “friendly” they might be).
Stress can reduce the wild animal’s immune response and, in some cases (such as small animals or prey species), result in the animal’s death. Covering the cage or kennel carrier with a towel or sheet is often helpful, as well as keeping that cage isolated in a quiet room, like an office or storage room.
In some cases, immediate emergency care is needed, such as stopping severe bleeding or removing an obstruction from around the neck. In many cases, the animal will be in shock (cool or cold, lethargic, dull, limp, etc.).
The staff would generally follow the standard protocol for treating shock (quiet, dark place, and supplemental heat; isotonic fluids; etc.). Since some species have negative reactions to certain conventional medications, their use should be checked before.
The wild animal should be placed in a secure, well-ventilated container that corrresponds to the animal’s size.
Small animals such as fledglings, songbirds, juvenile rabbits, and chipmunks should be placed in small containers. Larger animals, such as crows, geese, and raptors, should be placed in larger containers that are secure and safe, and do not bend, break, or injure the animal or its feathers.
Using a proportionately sized container can reduce risk of animals moving around too much in a large container and becoming injured or being so stuffed into too small a container as to damage feathers or aggravate injuries.
Do not feed wildlife in temporary care unless so directed by a rehabilitator who works with that species.
It is very common for people, including personnel at veterinary clinics, to want to immediately feed a wild animal. However, feeding the incorrect diets or amounts of food, or using improper techniques can result in serious problems, including the death of the animal.
For example, well meaning veterinary clinic personnel have fed cow’s milk to juvenile cottontails, resulting in severe diarrhea and death. Young birds are inappropriately fed white bread and milk which cannot be digested and results in a variety of problems. Or the young birds are fed earthworms, which may result in gapeworm infestation and sometimes death.
Juvenile squirrels have been tube-fed, causing aspiration or a ruptured esophagus – and death. In some cases, even a review of veterinary publications has not prevented problems, since the textbooks may have been out-of-date or inaccurate.
Please do not feed the wild animals in captivity unless instructed by a wildlife rehabilitator who is knowledgeable and skilled with that species.
Emergency treatments to save the wild animal’s life, such as stopping bleeding, providing isotonic fluids, or removing a bullet, are acceptable in most states.
However, some treatments, such as vaccinations, may not be authorized. It is helpful to know in advance which treatments are legal or would be considered appropriate for wildlife so that critical time is not lost when an emergency case arrives.
The responsible state agency (wildlife, veterinary licensing, etc.) may provide such information. Rehabilitators may also provide information about the effectiveness of some treatments with wildlife.
For example, some treatments may be technically possible but not appropriate for wildlife, such as the need to trim a songbird’s beak every few months - which would not be possible if the bird was released back to the wild.
Emergency treatments that would result in non-releaseable wildlife are not very common, but must be mentioned since federal and many state wildlife regulations may come into consideration. In many cases, wildlife brought to a veterinarian by the public may not require medical care but may need to be transferred to a wildlife rehabilitator.
Specific state wildlife agency rules and regulations should be checked since they may determine what treatments may be offered by non-rehabilitators, including veterinarians, and the amount of time the wild animal may stay with a veterinarian (may be less than 24 hours).
Procedures that would result in non-releaseable wildlife may require written authorization in advance by the governing agency(s). For example, amputation of a wing of a bird would prevent it from flying and be unlikely to be approved; rather the bird would be euthanized.
It is useful to check with the rehabilitator, and possibly the wildlife agency.
Wildlife euthanasia may have special considerations.
Some wild animals arrive at the veterinary clinic with injuries or conditions that they would not be able to recover from sufficiently to be able to be released. Only in rare cares is it legal or practical to keep non-releaseable wildlife permanently in captivity.
It is helpful to talk with rehabilitators about what conditions may be treated and criteria for euthanasia in order to be able to make the decision. For example, an animal that is blind or has a severed spine would be unable to survive in the wild. A raptor with a simple wing fracture could be releaseable whereas an adult deer with a shattered leg would not.
In addition, state and federal laws may influence the decision and timing of euthanasia. It is necessary to contact the US Fish and Wildlife Service before euthanasia of a member of a species protected under the Endangered Species Act, such as trumpeter swans.
It is necessary to be familiar with and follow established agency protocols for wildlife carcass disposition (such as necropsy, incineration, or transfer to government facilities). Again, local rehabilitators and wildlife agency personnel can provide information on euthanasia considerations and requirements.
Changes in clinic staff, including shift changes, can affect wildlife cases and risks to the clinic.
Providing the type of information from this article, training on these topics, and regular communication with local rehabilitators can reduce the chance of problems developing.
Availability of Wildlife Rehabilitators
While the number of wildlife rehabilitators is growing, many communities have a limited number of knowledgeable, skilled, and permitted rehabilitators. Since many rehabilitators work with a limited number of species and animals, veterinary clinics may need to contact several rehabilitators to identify resources.
While many wildlife rehabilitators connect with conventional allopathic veterinarians for their primary wildlife services, a increasing number are interested in learning about and using holistic veterinary services with wildlife.
Collaboration Between Veterinary Clinics and Wildlife Rehabilitators
There are many benefits for veterinary clinics collaborating with local rehabilitators. One of the benefits to the clinic is having a place to refer calls and send or transfer injured, ill, and/or orphaned wildlife. This can help enhance the public and clients’ view of the clinic as sensitive to and professional with all species of animals. Plus, transferring wildlife to a rehabilitator can reduce the clinic’s time, costs, and risk of keeping wildlife.
Having the wild animal in a rehabilitation facility that is designed to be more quiet and less stressful for wildlife may also accelerate the animal’s recovery. The rehabilitator can provide information to help prevent or resolve human-wildlife conflicts.
At the same time, rehabilitators appreciate positive relationships with veterinary clinics. They value having supportive clinics serve as a referral source and accelerate getting help for wildlife in trouble.
They appreciate veterinary staffs that recognize that there is a difference between wildlife and domestic animals and treat wildlife accordingly. The rehabilitators are grateful for veterinary services to wildlife provided at low or no cost, such treatments, consultation, supplies, and training.
The public is increasingly concerned about wildlife and wants to find qualified help. Advance preparation can help the veterinary clinic be ready for calls about the ‘orphaned’ rabbit, raccoon in the chimney, delivery of the fledging bird brought in by the cat, the dead opossum with a pouch full of babies, or the hawk with a gunshot wound. Close working relationships with effective, skilled, and permitted local rehabilitators can provide help for veterinary clinics and wildlife.
Adler, B. Outwitting Critters. 1992. New York, NY: Harper Collins.
Gibson, Marjorie. 1998. “Putting Baby Back”. Suisun, CA: Journal of Wildlife Rehabilitation, Summer, pp. 33-40.
Hadidian, J., Hodge, G. and Grandy, J. 1997. Wild Neighbors. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing.
Landau, Diana and Stump, S. 1994.Living with Wildlife. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books.
Moore, Adele and Joosten, Sally. 1997. NWRA Principles of Wildlife Rehabilitation. St. Cloud, MN: National Association of Wildlife Rehabilitation.
Nowak, R. M. 1999. Walker’s Mammals of the World, 6th edition, Volume II. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Pokras, Mark and Sedgwick, Charles. 1990. “Wildlife Emergencies: How to Cope with Them Before They Happen”. Wildlife Rehabilitation. St. Cloud, MN: NWRA.
Sibley, David. Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior. 2001. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Sibley, David. Sibley Guide to Birds. 2000. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Sparks, Bridget and Casey, Shirley. 1998. “Reuniting Young Wild Mammals with Their Mothers”. Suisun, CA: Journal of Wildlife Rehabilitation, Fall/Winter, pp. 3-8.
Wildkind at the Humane Society for Larimer County. 1998. Brochures on Humane Solutions for Wildlife (Pigeons, Bats, Cottontails, Squirrels, Skunks, and Raccoons). Available by calling 970-226-3647.
Wilson, D.E. and S. Ruff. 1999. The Smithsonian Book of North American Mammals. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institute Press.
Some Considerations Used by Wildlife Rehabilitators in Assessing the Need for a Rescue of a Wild Animal
Physical conditions (generally suggesting a rescue)
1. There are obvious wounds, bruising, abrasions, or swelling.
2. The animal is bleeding.
3. The animal has a bloody nose or blood coming from the mouth.
4. The animal is or looks cold (shivering, mammals curled in a ball, birds fluffed up).
5. The animal is limp or not moving. Animal is lethargic.
6. The animal is not moving “right” (head at odd angle, circling, trembling, dragging back legs, a bird pushing itself with its wings, etc.).
7. There is any sign of a fracture (limping, dragging or dangling limbs, limbs at odd angles, bird supporting self on one wing, bird not able to fly, etc.).
8. The feathers or fur “do not look right” (missing, matted, bloody, oiled, droppings on feathers or fur, etc.).
9. There is unusual discharge from the animal’s mouth, nose, ears, eyes, etc.
10. The animal has difficulty breathing (gasping, wheezing, or sneezing).
11. The animal has obvious parasites (maggots, fly eggs, fleas, ticks, or others).
12. The animal looks extremely thin.
13. The animal seems dehydrated or is known to have been without fluids (The rescuer should not be asked to do the skin pinch test on any wild animal to check dehydration due to injury and disease issues):
• Birds – Does the skin over the keel (breast bone) “wrinkle” when moved aside? Are the eyes sunken? The skin may normally look flakey, so flakey skin alone is not an automatic symptom.
• Mammals – Do the eyes look sunken? Has a young mammal been without its mother for several days?
• Reptiles – Are the eyes sunken? Can the turtle submerge itself? Does it float? Are there cracks in the shell?
Young animals (generally in need of rescue)
1. The parent(s) and other siblings of a baby animal are known to be dead.
2. The juvenile animal has been alone for a long time in a “normal” situation with no evidence of parents. (note: the person should watch from a distance; wildlife rehabilitators may provide tips to determine if the parent is returning).
3. The juvenile animal looks “weak”. The baby can not lift or hold its head up.
4. The juvenile animal keeps its eyes closed even though it is old enough to have them open.
5. The juvenile animal looks deformed (e.g., missing limb, crossed beak).
6. The juvenile bird keeps its head tucked under its wing most of the time.
Origin and Situation (generally in need of rescue)
1.The animal was in the mouth of a cat, dog, or animal other than its parents.
2.The animal’s origin is unknown; it was “relocated” (or brought to people) by any source (cat, dog, car, flood, etc.).
3.The animal is found in a dangerous situation (e.g., in the hood of a car, in a pool).
4.The young animal has been “cared for” by people for a significant amount of time (varies by species and age animal).
5.The young animal has been handled and “gone through” a variety of people before the rehabilitator is contacted.
6.The wild animal has injured a person or domestic animal.
Reasons to Take Wildlife to a Wildlife Rehabilitator
• Wild animals are not like domestic animals. They need specialized care, including special capture and handling, diets, caging. Without such specialized care, wild animals often die.
• Rehabilitators have special training and knowledge to work with wildlife. They can help to prevent or resolve some wildlife problems without the animal needing to be brought into captivity. They know if, how, and when an animal needs rescue (see section above). Rehabilitators know the special dietary needs and feeding techniques for wild animals.
• Wild animals have the potential to transmit diseases and parasites to humans and other animals, such as pets. They can also inflict injury with teeth, beaks, claws, talons, legs, and wings. Rehabilitators are familiar with ways to minimize and manage risks.
• Wild animals require special supplies and facilities. Rehabilitators have special capture, handling, and feeding supplies. They also have special caging for wild animals of different ages and health conditions. They have the ability to keep wildlife separate from humans and domestic animals to meet quarantine requirements and reduce stress.
• Local, regional, and federal laws often prohibit possession of wildlife, even if you are well intentioned and plan to release the animal. Rehabilitators have the special permits and licenses that allow them to care for and then release wildlife.
• There are many injuries, health problems and diseases that wildlife may have that are difficult to notice. A wildlife rehabilitator is trained to identify subtle symptoms and is thus able to get veterinary treatment before the condition deteriorates.
• Wild animals need to be raised with their own species. This helps the animal relate to its own kind when it is recovered. Rehabilitators will be able to keep the animal with it’s own species or arrange for it to be with others. If young wild animals do not learn to socialize with their own species or learn the appropriate survival skills, they may be unable to survive when released back to the wild. Wild animals raised by humans may become habituated to and/or dependent humans, have difficulties surviving in the wild, approach and harm people, and become nuisance wildlife.
• Most of the public and veterinarians have experience with companion animals or livestock, not wildlife, whereas rehabilitators do have this experience.
• If you are interested in rehabilitating wildlife, contact a trained, knowledgeable, and permitted rehabilitator. Trying to rehabilitate a wild animal without appropriate knowledge, skills, supplies, caging, and permits can place you, your family and friends, companion animals, and the wild animal at risk. Don’t practice on the wild animal in need. Rather, take the wild animal to a rehabilitator, get a copy of the wildlife rehabilitation recruiting brochure and booklet at www.Ewildagain.org, and follow the suggestions about how to get started.