As veterinarians, we are trained to treat a variety of species throughout our four years of advanced schooling. The types of animals that we may treat on a day-to-day basis can include but is not limited to: dogs, cats, horses, cows, pigs, sheep, guinea pigs, rabbits, lizards, birds, and other exotic animals. As such, we know that each and every day in a clinical setting can bring surprises, emergencies, and unexpected curveballs. Typically, these situations involve events and animals that can be categorized into “routine” emergencies – a dog that was recently hit by a car, a dystocia calf, or an equine colic quickly come to mind. Although these situations can be undoubtedly tense and different on an each-case-scenario basis, a general guideline is typically instilled within the mind of a veterinarian or the practice itself on the steps to follow to achieve the best outcome for the patient and the client. A history regarding the patient is taken from the client, a physical exam is (usually) performed, treatments are administered as necessary, and diagnostic tests are run.
But what happens when a caring, uneducated animal lover spots an injured deer on the side of the road, or a downed bird in a field during the middle of a hike – and decides to rush that wild animal to your clinic’s front door step? In these situations, or “wildlife” emergencies, most veterinarians and/or clinics will not have a general guideline or policy in place to quickly follow. Typical questions will arise, such as: what am I allowed to do with this sick or injured wild animal? Or, what resources or agencies are in place to help guide me along in this treatment process?
Our goal with this short paper is to aid in instilling a proper clinic policy, following the AVMA’s recommended guidelines1 regarding the handling and treatment of sick or injured wildlife species that are brought to your clinic for care. More specifically, it will evaluate which agencies are available to contact with questions, the licensed individuals available to refer to or consult with regarding the care and handling of wildlife, laws that are in place that will dictate your actions, and the drugs or anesthesia drugs that are appropriate for use in wildlife species.
Step 1: Document
Just as in any emergency (or non-emergency) regarding a patient that is evaluated at your clinic, it is vital to obtain a proper history and information regarding the wild animal from the Good Samaritan. Basic information to gather includes: name and contact information of the Good Samaritan; date, time, and location in which the animal was found; why the Good Samaritan felt the animal needed help; anyone who has been exposed to the animal; and whether or not anything been done to the animal at the point it was transferred into your care2. All of this information could be vital if ever a legal issue were to arise with the Good Samaritan, the injured animal, or you.
Step 2: Specific Agencies Available to Contact
Undoubtedly, questions will arise within the process of evaluating a sick or injured wild animal. As such, it will be important to have on hand phone numbers of agencies or people you can call when you come into contact with possible diseases of public health concern (i.e., rabies) or a reportable disease (i.e., chronic wasting disease). These contacts should include: your state veterinarian, the state’s USDA veterinarian in charge, local department of public health, and local US Fish & Wildlife Agent, and so forth3.
For example, as part of a nationwide program, there are individuals called wildlife rehabilitators (WR) that are certified to handle certain types of wildlife species. According to the New Jersey Fish & Wildlife Department, wildlife rehabilitators are “persons who can demonstrate proper knowledge, skills and abilities to care for sick, injured, orphaned or displaced wildlife, from intake to the point of the animal’s release back into their habitat”4. Multiple rules and an application process are in place to allow a lay individual or a veterinarian to become a licensed WR. This process includes a one-year apprenticeship under another licensed WR, among other steps4. Veterinarians practicing within the state of New Jersey are urged to communicate directly with these WRs, and transfer the patient and care ideally within 24-48 hours4.
As a comparison, the state of Pennsylvania has established laws regarding how veterinarians should correspond with licensed WRs regarding injured wildlife – as opposed to recommendations in the state of New Jersey. The Pennsylvania Code 147.302 section (b) states “A licensed veterinarian may accept injured wildlife for emergency treatment without a permit, if the wildlife is not held for more than 48 hours before contacting the Commission or a wildlife rehabilitator. Wildlife shall be transferred to a properly permitted rehabilitator as soon as specialized veterinarian care is not required. This period may be extended by the district wildlife conservation officer if necessary for completion of the emergency treatment”5.
Individual states have implemented individual rules and regulations when it comes to the handling, care, and transfer of injured wildlife to licensed WRs. Therefore, it is extremely important to know your state laws and to contact a local WR to discuss proper proceedings, should such an event arise. A list of licensed New Jersey WRs, along with what species they are licensed to care for, can be found here: http://www.state.nj.us/dep/fgw/pdf/rehab_list.pdf.6 Additionally, the names, agencies and contact information regarding WRs within each specific state can be found by following the links from the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association website: http://www.nwrawildlife.org/content/finding-rehabilitator.7
Step 3: Immediately Evaluate the State of the Animal, and Act Accordingly
As with any animal that arrives at your clinic on an emergency basis, this is a critical step, better known throughout the profession as triage. If the animal is not in stable condition, or has suffered what likely will lead to fatal injuries, humane euthanasia via the use of anesthetics is permitted. The techniques and routes of approved humane euthanasia as per the AVMA Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals: 2013 Edition, according to species, may be found here: https://www.avma.org/KB/Policies/Documents/euthanasia.pdf.8 If you intend to handle a large amount of wildlife, possibly in coordination with a WR, a larger, more detailed handbook titled Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Nondomestic Animals is available for purchase; this was written and is distributed by the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians, and may be found here: http://www.aazv.org/?441.
If the animal has amendable injuries, the use of pharmaceuticals in wildlife species is not prohibited. However, there are a couple of very important caveats from a legal sense to keep in mind. The first being each state likely has a list of pharmaceuticals that are prohibited to use in wildlife species. In New Jersey, for example, these drugs include: cephalosporins, chloramphenicols, clenbuterols, diethylstilbestrol, dipyrone, flouroquinolones, gentian violet, glycopeptides, and nitrofurans9.
Along these same lines, another interesting issue arises when veterinarians use food animal drugs with established withdrawal periods to treat wildlife extra-labley. The thought behind the administration of pharmaceuticals (both prohibited and extra-label use) in injured wildlife is that drug residues can potentially remain in the muscles of animals for an undetermined length of time. If an animal is released back into its natural habitat, what is to stop the consumption of that animal by a human being, or even another animal, within that crucial time period? As James F. Wilson, DVM, JD states in his text Law and Ethics of the Veterinary Profession, “Theoretically, if veterinarians use these products to treat fish, game birds, deer, or other game animals and these animals are released into the wild before the drugs’ withholding period has lapsed, they could be held liable for injuries suffered by humans who eat the meat containing these drug residues”10. He continues, saying “…the Food and Drug Administration has recommended that veterinarians delay the release of these animals into the wild until after the withdrawal period has been completed”10.
Step 4: Appropriate Disposal or Release of the Animal (if Needed)
If the wildlife animal is euthanized, individual states have certain laws pertaining to the proper disposal of that animal. For example, according to state of New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife, “…if the animal is anesthetized and then euthanized (even if euthanasia is with carbon dioxide gas), the anesthesia drugs may remain in the tissues after death and could be harmful if the dead animal is then consumed by another animal”9. They also note that “Most injectable euthanasia drugs also remain in the tissues and can be lethal to an animal that eats the euthanized carcass”9. For these reasons, “…animals that are euthanized while anesthetized and all animals that are euthanized with injectable euthanasia drugs should not be used as food for other animals; carcasses of these animals should be disposed of properly to prevent later consumption by scavengers”9. The state of California further describes the proper disposal of animals or wildlife according to their state’s rules and regulations: “Proper disposal of the carcass (incineration, burying, etc.) is critical to prevent exposure of other wildlife and humans to disease and/or harmful drug residues. Three common effective methods of carcass disposal are: incineration, burying, and rendering. Incineration is the preferred method to use when the carcass is diseased; however, it can also be the most expensive. An acceptable alternative is to bury the carcass. The carcass should be buried at least 4 feet deep and covered with lime to discourage scavengers from uncovering and consuming it”11.
If the animal is rehabilitated, however, and does not succumb to its injuries, proper release of the animal back into its natural habitat is vital, both from a survival and legal standpoint. It is important to understand that a released wildlife animal can cause a potentially negative impact on agriculture, other local wildlife populations, and human health and safety if certain rules and regulations are not followed. According to the New Jersey Policy on the Relocation of Wildlife, “Ideally, all terrestrial animals should be released as close to the initial site of capture as possible. Normal home ranges and dispersal distances for a species should be considered to prevent unnatural spread of disease and unnatural gene flow. In the event of a known endemic disease or emerging wildlife disease of concern, additional restrictions may be imposed by NJDFW depending on the nature of the disease and the species involved”12. More information, including species specific circumstances, can be found here: http://www.state.nj.us/dep/fgw/pdf/relocation_policy.pdf. 12
While the chances of such an event are small and infrequent, the ability for a veterinarian to gather information and formulate a policy on how to handle wildlife emergencies will go a long way in creating and maintaining a legal, safe, and efficient work environment. Documenting the event, and any information available, is essential in keeping a good record. Gathering the contact information and phone numbers of local and national agencies and individuals who can aid in facilitating a proper process under the jurisdiction of your local laws (i.e., New Jersey), such as wildlife rehabilitators, is imperative to have on hand. Knowing and understanding local laws and ordinances, such as prohibited pharmaceuticals in the use of wildlife or drug residue times, while making quick critical decisions in the assessment of the animal’s status is important in terms of a public health standpoint. Finally, the proper disposal of or releasing of the wild animal into its natural habitat needs to be done carefully and properly, in accordance with local laws and ordinances to also help secure public health issues that could potentially arise with improper actions.
1 AVMA. “Wildlife Decision Tree.” AVMA. Web. 05 Feb 2014.
2 AVMA. “Documentation for Wildlife Cases.” AVMA. Web. 05 Feb 2014.
3 AVMA. “Oversight of Wildlife Issues.” AVMA. Web. 05 Feb 2014.
4 New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife. Wildlife Rehabilitator Definitions and Requirements. May, 2012.
5 The Pennsylvania Code. Subchapter P. Wildlife Rehabilitation. Web. 11 Feb 2014.
6 New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife. Currently Licensed NJ Wildlife Rehabilitators. 31 Jan 2014.
7 National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association. Finding a Rehabilitator. National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association. Web. 11 Feb 2014.
8 Members of the Panel on Euthanasia. “ AVMA Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals: 2013 Edition.”
9 New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife. Information for Wildlife Rehabilitators Regarding the Use of Pharmaceuticals.
10 Wilson James F., DVM, JD. Law and Ethics of the Veterinary Profession. Pennsylvania: Priority Press, Ltd, 1989.
11 California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Protocols for Safe Handling and Disposal of Carcasses. California Deparment of Fish and Wildlife. Web. 11 Feb 2014.
12 New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife. Policy on the Relocation of Wildlife.