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Expert Q&A on Dolphin Care

Answers to some of our most frequently asked questions about marine mammal veterinary science.

The field of marine mammal veterinary science is constantly evolving. To help our community better understand our team's efforts to care for our dolphins, we asked Dr. Scott Gearhart, clinical veterinarian for the National Marine Mammal Foundation, and Dr. Leigh Clayton, vice president of animal welfare at the National Aquarium, some of our most frequently asked questions:

What specific challenges do dolphins bring when it comes to providing them with medical care?

From a veterinary perspective, the most obvious challenge is that dolphins are large, powerful and exclusively aquatic. This limits our ability to easily provide the most common therapeutic method we use in almost all other species—intravenous (IV) fluids, which is the fastest way to deliver medicine and replace fluids in an animal's body. Lacking IV fluids as a treatment option makes it challenging to correct and manage hydration when animals are ill and don't want to eat. Additionally, other common treatment options are much more challenging, such as abdominal surgery. Dolphins consciously breathe—they need to actually "think" about it in a way humans and other mammals do not—making general anesthesia more challenging than in other mammals.

How is a dolphin's anatomy unique?

The most unique part of a dolphin's anatomy would be their respiratory tract and stomach. The naris (blowhole/nose) is on top of the head. The stomach has three chambers, connected through very small tubes. Our field has yet to find a way to visualize or take samples from the third stomach chamber or small intestines—both mainstays of diagnosing disease in humans and in pets like dogs and cats.

Can you explain what a routine diagnostic exam of a dolphin involves?

A routine diagnostic workup for an animal that isn't feeling well often includes a physical examination, blood collection, fecal and stomach fluid collection and an exhaled "chuff" (blowhole) analysis. For the most part, these are obtained with voluntary cooperation of the animal, since husbandry behaviors are one of the foundational skills. Ultrasound examinations of the abdomen and thorax are also routinely completed.

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