Regularly assessing the health of captive dolphins is very important to
their well being. In order to minimize stress to the animal, health assessment procedures are practiced frequently. These
medical behaviors usually take more time and patience to train. Having the trust of the animal is key to successful medical
In this video, instead of actually taking a blood sample, the animal is
asked to "present flukes", raised carefully out of the water, and a "practice" blood draw is performed. The vessel from
which blood is drawn from the dolphin lies across the ventral (under) side of the flukes. It is easily seen as a dark line
running across and just below the fluke surface. In practicing a blood draw, the flukes are cleaned with antiseptic and finger
pressure is applied to the vein to simulate a needle stick. Although upside-down in the water with its blowhole under the
surface, the animal reacts appropriately when it needs a breath and the trainer gently turns the animal dorsal side up for
Another frequently applied health assessment technique when working with
captive dolphins is to have the animal "chuff" (cough) onto a specially prepared absorbent card. This respiratory system sample
is then evaluated for microorganisms and other substances which could affect the animal's health. Since the dolphin inhales
air directly into its lungs (it has no sinuses or "nasal hairs" to protect the lungs from the receipt of foreign materials)
this chuff sample represents an accurate collection of most materials inhaled by the animal.
Examination of the mouth, tongue and teeth is done by the trainer
using both hands while applying a light touch to the rostrum and lower jaw. While maintaining contact with both areas,
the trainer then examines the teeth, gums, tongue, mouth and throat areas. When appropriate and varied rewards are used, stress
to the animal being trained is kept to a minimum.
Dolphins are susceptible to many of the same diseases, infections, and
conditions as man. Viral, bacterial and fungal infections may strike the dolphin. Ulcers and tumors, as well as diseases
of the respiratory, digestive, excretory, immune, reproductive, endocrine, circulatory, nervous, musculo-skeletal, and
integumentary (skin) systems are common. Parasites such as worms and flukes (Braunina sp., which lives in the
digestive system, and Nasitrema sp. which lives in the nasal sinuses) may also infect the dolphin. The most
common sites of infection in the dolphin are the stomach and respiratory system. Fungal infections of the respiratory system
present especially difficult problems for cure. In Florida and other tropical areas, the combination of high humidity and
warmth provide the conditions best for fungal growth and cause captive dolphins major problems. Fortunately, such respiratory
infections are not easily transmissible from one dolphin to another. They are air-borne and an infected dolphin must be expelling
infectious particles at the same time an uninfected animal is nearby and inhaling.
Another way to assess the health of a nursing female dolphin is to collect milk from the mammary glands
using a breast pump. Mammary gland milk may be analyzed for the presence and levels of specific hormones. It may also be used
to study the quality of milk being supplied to the newborn calf or the quantity of milk remaining in the breast following
Whenever it is necessary to provide medication by way of the mouth, a lubricated tube may be placed into the
dolphin's throat and the medication is transferred by way of a hand-operated syringe. Medications such as antibiotics and
vitamins may be given in this manner.
Medications and vitamins may also be inserted or injected into the dolphin's food and ingested by the dolphin
as it eats its daily allotment of fish. Here vitamin capsules are being inserted into fish through the gill plate (or
operulum) opening. Hydration may also be provided by injecting its food with small volumes of fresh water. As the fish
is swallowed and digested, the vitamin or water is also digested and absorbed into the dolphin's blood stream.
A variety of devices, such as these large syringes with attached flexible tubes, are used to provide medication
and other supplements by mouth to the dolphin.
In the following video the trainer teaches a young dolphin to accept a feeding tube through a patient approach
of gently inserting it, removing it, rewarding the dolphin for accepting the procedure, then repeating the procedure, eventually injecting
the supplement into the dolphin's stomach.
In captivity, regular health assessments provide the veterinarian the opportunity to
monitor the growth and development of the animal as well as diagnose and treat most diseases and conditions.
A captive dolphin may be weighed by performing a "lift" using a sling and hanging
scale. Or it may be weighed by teaching it to slide out onto a stainless steel electronic scale such as this one. The
edges of the electronic scale are rounded to prevent injury to the animal. The scale is secured to the pool apron so
that it will not move as the animal slides out onto it. It gently slopes down to the water's edge to allow the dolphin
to easily mount it when it is necessary to record its weight. The scale is brought out each morning and taken in each evening
after the daily health assessment activities have concluded.
Understanddolphins.com contains information condensed from a number of reputable technical sources,
peer reviewed journal articles, and respected dolphin research facilities, as well as from my personal experiences and
observations as a dolphin VIP Tour Guide and Educator.
I have made every attempt to support the information presented in this site with video and still
photographic images. On a regular basis I plan to produce more of these images and will continue to update the site with these
as well as with any new and scientifically verified information which becomes available.