Cat-tastic Healthcare: Training the Zoo’s Small Cats for Blood Draws and Injections

Feline healthy! At the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden, medical training is a critical part of our animal family’s health and wellness. These training sessions not only monitor the health of our animal family, but also strengthen the relationships between caretaker and animal, while providing an enriching opportunity. Regardless of the size of the animal, caretakers strive to encourage voluntary medical participation by creating a rewarding, positive environment. The Zoo’s carnivore team has a history of success with training the Zoo’s big cat species to participate in a variety of medical behaviors. Most recently, the care team has been working directly with the Zoo’s small cat species to train similar behaviors, such as voluntary medical injections and blood draws.

To accomplish these training objectives with the Zoo’s small cats, caretakers have implemented the successful techniques that have led many big cats to flourish when participating in their own healthcare at the Zoo. While similar in theory, caretakers must adjust their training techniques minimally so that they will suit the cats’ small size.

One of the first medical behaviors trained is medical injections. It’s crucial that the cats are comfortable with receiving injections so that caretakers can administer vaccines, assist in sedation of the animals for wellness exams, and administer other medications, such as allergy shots and hormone injections. Of the Zoo’s 10 individual small cats, nine have been trained to receive voluntary injections this year and the remaining one continue to progress. 

Once injection training is completed, training the cats to participate in blood draws is usually the next step in the process. Retrieving blood samples help caretakers and veterinary staff to identify potential health issues, especially when the animal is masking its symptoms. While each cat undergoes a regular wellness exam, increasing the frequency of blood draws ensures that caretakers are able to monitor for minor health changes that could alert them to an onset of an illness, such as kidney disease, which is common in geriatric cats.

Two of the Zoo’s small cats have been successful with voluntary blood draws, using two separate methods that are tailored to their individual personalities. The Zoo’s eldest small cat, a 17-year-old caracal named Azalea, was trained to allow her tail to be manipulated through a special port, created by the Zoo’s maintenance team, during medical training sessions. Although a caracal’s tail is very short, the carnivore care team and veterinary team worked together to draw blood from the tiny veins in her tail. This has helped caretakers immensely when preparing to alter her care plan in her advanced age. On the other spectrum, the Zoo’s youngest cat, a two-year-old bobcat named Dodger, is also trained for voluntary blood draws. Unlike Azalea, Dodger’s blood is not drawn from his tail. Because of Dodger’s playful personality and interest in his caretakers, he was trained to present his front legs so that caretakers could draw blood from larger veins. Dodger now readily places his legs through the same port that is utilized in Azalea’s training sessions, similar to how blood is drawn from humans.

The Zoo’s carnivore team is looking forward to continuing this training with the other small cats who call the Zoo home, as they strive to further improve the healthcare of their animals.

Are you cat fan? Join us and Bob Moore Subaru on Sunday, August 8, for International Cat Day, and enjoy learning more about our feline family while participating in event activities. Learn more on the Zoo's Facebook page. 

- Libby Hayes, senior carnivore caretaker

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