The hypothesis that hypocalcaemia may play a role in dystocia in captive Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) was investigated. The objectives of the study were to measure the total calcium concentration in elephant plasma; assess the changes in parameters of calcium metabolism during a feeding trial; investigate a possible relationship between calcium metabolism and dystocia; and assess bone mineralisation in captive Asian elephants in vivo. The following parameters were measured: total and ionised calcium, inorganic phosphorous and magnesium, the fractional excretions of these minerals, intact parathyroid hormone, 25-OH-D3 and 1,25-OH-D3. Radiographs were taken from tail vertebrae for assessment of bone mineralisation. The mean (sd) heparinised plasma total calcium concentration was 2·7 (0·33) mmol/l (n=43) ranging from 0·84 to 3·08 mmol/l in 11 Asian elephants. There was no significant correlation between plasma total calcium concentration and age. Following feeding of a calcium rich ration to four captive Asian elephant cows, plasma total and ionised calcium peaked at 3·6 (0·24) mmol/l (range 3·4 to 3·9 mmol/l) and 1·25 (0·07) mmol/l (range 1·17 to 1·32 mmol/l), respectively. Plasma ionised calcium concentrations around parturition in four Asian elephant cows ranged from 0·37 to 1·1 mmol/l only. The present study indicates that captive Asian elephants might be hypocalcaemic, and that, in captive Asian elephants, the normal plasma concentration of total calcium should actually be around 3·6 mmol/l and normal plasma concentration of ionised calcium around 1·25 mmol/l. Given the fact that elephants absorb dietary calcium mainly from the intestine, it could be concluded that elephants should be fed calcium-rich diets at all times, and particularly around parturition. In addition, normal values for ionised calcium in captive Asian elephants should be reassessed.
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