Treatment & rehabilitation of animals in the wild

The significance of capture and treatment of an injured or sick animal in the wild is primarily one of that individual’s welfare. The welfare implications of intervention should always be assessed at each stage. Unless an endangered species, it should be recognised that the rehabilitation of wildlife casualties will have little, if any, significant conservation value.

Under the RCVS Guide to Professional Conduct, a veterinary surgeon must:

  • Treat all patients, of whatever species, humanely, with respect and with welfare as the primary consideration
  • Provide 24-hour emergency cover, which means at least immediate first aid and pain relief

The process of dealing with a wildlife casualty can be divided into 6 stages:

  1. Initial location, capture and translocation
  2. Examination and assessment for rehabilitation
  3. First aid and stabilisation
  4. Treatment
  5. Recuperation and rehabilitation
  6. Release

Making the decision between treatment or euthanasia

Euthanasia is an important welfare tool and eliminates the possibility of further suffering. It must be considered at each stage if it is believed that the stress or suffering of being in temporary captivity and continuing attempts at treatment outweigh the benefits to individual animal welfare.

Medical treatment and surgical intervention should only be for the benefit and welfare of the animal and thus non-therapeutic interventions such as neutering are not recommended.

For the veterinary surgeon to make the right decision, it is useful to consider the following 10 questions during the initial assessment of the animal:

  1. Is it possible to treat the animal?
    Are the veterinary equipment and skills available to deal with the injury/disease in this species? Most importantly, is the disease or injury treatable, such that recovery will not lead to permanent disability?
  2. What species is it and what is its behaviour in the wild?
    For a wild animal to be released back to the wild it has to have a chance of survival equivalent to that of other free-living members of its species. This means different things for different species: for example, birds of prey need to be 100% fit with their full capability of flight, sight and grasping for hunting, while small passerines just need to be able to fly from bush to bush to eat and escape from predators. It is also very important to know if that species is migratory, if it lives in family groups, if it is very territorial etc.
  3. How long will the animal have to be in captivity? How often will it have to be handled for treatment?
    It is very important to appreciate that the animal is wild; it is not used to being handled or surrounded by humans or other strange or threatening animals including pets. This situation is incredibly stressful for it, and potentially life threatening depending on the species (e.g. woodcocks and nightjars, which do not feed in captivity).
  4. How old is the animal, and what sex is it?
    Orphaned animals are often not true orphans. They are probably not injured or sick, and should not have been taken from the wild. It is essential that the animal does not become imprinted on humans. Some species are more prone to this than others: for example fox cubs, owl chicks, deer fawns etc. For this reason, organisations and individuals that take wild animals into care should question critically their motives for doing so. A very aged animal is likely to be at the end of its natural lifespan and may be presented as a casualty because it cannot compete successfully for resources. A young adult may be being ousted by conspecifics and needs to find new territory. It is also very important, though not always immediately obvious, to know the sex of the animal. For example, you cannot release a female bird that has a displaced fracture of the pelvis, as this could lead to egg binding.
  5. Is the time of the year relevant?
    This is especially important in species which migrate or hibernate, and may mean prolonged captivity before release. If it is the breeding season, is the animal likely to have a bonded mate or dependent offspring?
  6. Are both treatment and rehabilitation facilities available?
    Is there appropriate accommodation for the animal, with the necessary facilities to handle, house and look after it properly? At least a small area or room away from domestic animals is necessary to house wildlife, as they should not be mixed with domestic or prey species. Large animals such as deer will need appropriate accommodation. Is there sufficient knowledge about the biology and natural history of the animal to cater for it? Once recovered, where will the animal go for rehabilitation prior to release? Some species (e.g. badger cubs), need highly specialised care and socialisation before release and this is not widely available. Contact with local wildlife groups/charities/rehabilitation units with local knowledge and resources is often vital. Release to the wild must not be considered before assessment is made of factors such as habitat, competition, social structure, food sources etc, which will impact on survival. Failure to address these issues could result in an offence in the UK under the Abandonment of Animals Act 1960.
  7. Who pays?
    Under the BVA /RSPCA Memorandum of Understanding: Veterinary surgeons should treat free of charge small wild mammals and all wild birds brought to their surgeries during normal practice hours.The RSPCA will meet the cost of initial emergency treatment or euthanasia including, if necessary, the reasonable cost of a visit to the scene of the accident by a veterinary surgeon or an out of hours surcharge, of sick or injured larger wild mammals (e.g. deer), small wild mammals or wild birds brought to a practice out of normal practice hours.
  8. What are the risks to personnel?
    Is the animal likely to have a zoonotic disease and are there measures in place to minimise this risk e.g. bats and rabies (are staff vaccinated?), badgers and TB, hedgehogs and dermatophytosis. Are staff trained in how to handle the animal without getting injured?
  9. Are there any disease risks associated with release?
    Could the casualty introduce non-endemic pathogens into the wild population? Is there a risk of infection of the casualty with a pathogen present in the wild population to which it has not been exposed?
  10. Are there any legislative requirements?
    In the UK, although many species are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (WCA) 1981, a casualty animal of a protected species may be kept only for the purpose of tending it and until it is no longer disabled. Schedule 4 birds must be ringed and registered, unless kept by a veterinary surgeon for veterinary treatment in which case it can be kept for up to 6 weeks without registration, and the records must be kept of each individual bird. Retention in captivity of a permanently disabled protected animal requires certification from a veterinary surgeon and a licence. Under the Destructive Imported Animals 1932 it is an offence to keep non-native species without a licence, and to release them back into the wild, and this includes grey squirrels, mink and coypu. Similarly, under the WCA, Schedule 9 it is illegal to release species such as sika and muntjac deer and ruddy duck. Notifiable diseases should be reported to the local Animal Health office.

The importance of keeping clinical records

Wherever possible, wildlife casualties should be used as a source of information on wildlife diseases, environmental issues and the biology of the wildlife species. Detailed clinical records should be kept and collaboration and sharing of information with relevant species or conservation groups or government bodies is to be encouraged.