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Welfare of primates: physical health

Advice on how to keep your primate healthy - including information on signs of good and bad health, and key resource considerations.

Signs of good and bad health

Keepers of primates should be able to recognise signs of good and poor physical health in the animals they keep. This requires a great deal of time, skill and experience, as primates will often conceal signs of illness.

Physical and mental health are closely linked. For instance, chronic stress is known to affect immunological responses, making animals more sensitive to illness, as well as reproductive performance, survival of young, body condition and a host of other factors.

Keepers should be registered with a veterinary practice that has specialist knowledge of the species kept. A veterinary health plan is recommended, and keepers should contact their veterinary adviser promptly about disease or injury.

Herpes and primates

The herpes simplex virus, present in humans with cold sores, is often fatal to marmosets and tamarins if infected. Keepers susceptible to cold sores should not keep such species. The virus may also pose a very serious risk to some other New World primates and to lemurs. Contact between people with cold sores and primates (including food preparation) must always be avoided.

Some species of primate can carry diseases which may be harmless to them, but deadly to other primate species. There is a particular risk of disease transmission between Old World (native to Africa/Asia) and New World primates (native to Central and South America).

Scars/physical marks on primates

Primates should be free of significant or persistent physical injuries, in particular injuries that require surgical intervention.

Minor 'battle scars' are a natural consequence of social interactions and the development of hierarchies. Potential causes of injury in captive primates, in addition to aggressive interactions, include falls, inappropriate furnishings, falling branches and so on.

It is important that social groups are managed to encourage stability and compatibility, and that enclosure design minimises risk of physical harm to animals. However, consideration should be given to removing from groups those individuals that are subject to persistent and damaging bullying, and rehousing them in more suitable groups.

You should consider the following:

  • regular animal checks
  • veterinary care
  • enclosure furnishings
  • enclosure design
  • group composition
  • changes to group composition

Physical discomfort and pain in primates

All primates should be free of avoidable physical discomfort and pain.

Signs of discomfort and pain include loss of appetite, hair-plucking in specific locations of pain, self-mutilation, change in social position within the group, specific vocalisations, unusual posture and activity, withdrawal from the group, unresponsiveness, and other signs inappropriate to the species.

Ageing primates and those that have suffered from injuries may have arthritis and other manifestations of age and experiences. Management of unavoidable discomfort and pain is essential, and a part of a veterinary health plan.

Primates will often mask signs of pain, and so careful vigilance is required to spot these signs, particularly before they become too severe.

The vast majority of primates evolved in tropical climates. This should be taken into consideration when designing housing, to avoid discomfort by ensuring appropriate temperature gradients, humidity and light levels. This will include year-round heating, and may require additional (artificial full-spectrum) light in winter and masking natural light in the summer.

You should consider the following to ensure a good physical environment for your primate:

  • environmental conditions
  • enclosure size
  • enclosure furnishings
  • shelter
  • enclosure location

Infectious and non-infectious diseases, and signs of ill-health in primates

Primates should be free of both infectious and non-infectious diseases and signs of ill-health.

Behavioural signs of ill-health include:

  • not eating
  • eating less or sometimes over-eating
  • not drinking or drinking to excess
  • inactivity
  • hiding away, withdrawal and becoming unresponsive

Physical signs of ill-health include:

  • dehydration
  • poor body condition
  • poor coat condition
  • crouching/huddled posture
  • diarrhoea and vomiting
  • bloating
  • discharge from orifices
  • excessive scratching and laboured breathing

Metabolic bone diseases may develop in primates if the diet is not properly balanced for:

  • protein
  • calcium
  • phosphorus
  • vitamin D3

Enclosures and primates

Appropriate enclosure size and design can help minimise the risks of parasitic infection and the spread of infectious disease. Care should be taken that vegetation within or near enclosures (including material falling from nearby trees) does not present a risk of poisoning.

Repeated bouts of illness

Repeated bouts of illness can indicate a more serious underlying problem, such as depressed immuno-competence that could be linked to chronic stress.

You should consider the following to ensure the good health of your primate.

  • hygiene
  • contact with people
  • animal checks
  • veterinary health plan
  • veterinary screening
  • quarantine
  • enclosure furnishings
  • enclosure location
  • diet

Weight and body condition of your primate

Primates should be of a suitable weight and body condition for the species and individual. Animals should not be over- or under-weight, lack muscle tone, or show skeletal abnormalities.

Primates should forage for food, requiring mental and physical effort. Commercial food is readily available, and it should be presented so as to encourage foraging behaviour.

Calorific content of the diet, the amount fed, as well as the quality of the diet, can lead to weight and nutritional problems. Behavioural problems may also arise from boredom if the animal spends too little time foraging. Regular monitoring of body weight is essential. Keepers need to know the normal range for individual animals, taking account of their age and dietary needs.

Insufficient quality of the diet (specifically vitamin deficiencies) is known to be associated with the development of a range of health problems, including metabolic bone diseases such as rickets. Inappropriate diets also frequently lead to diabetes in privately kept primates.

You should consider the following to ensure your primate maintains a healthy weight:

  • animal health checks
  • veterinary health plan
  • veterinary screening
  • diet
  • enclosure size
  • enclosure furnishings
  • environmental enrichment

Physical mobility and flexibility and primates

Primates should display a suitable degree of physical mobility and flexibility appropriate for the species.

Primates in captivity can develop conditions such as metabolic bone disease, 'cage paralysis', as a result of a poor diet or inadequate housing. Such conditions can impair mobility and flexibility, and cause deformities of the skeleton.

Exposure to natural light, appropriate to the species, aids the production of vitamin D3. New World species in particular require daylight to avoid these problems. Keepers should be aware of natural reductions in mobility associated with ageing.

You should consider the following to ensure your primate maintains appropriate physical mobility and flexibility:

  • diet
  • enclosure location
  • enclosure size
  • enclosure furnishings
  • environmental enrichment

Oral and dental health and primates

All primates should have good oral and dental health.

Problems with oral health and tooth decay can develop in captive primates, primarily as a result of an inappropriate diet. Monitoring is an essential component of husbandry, to ensure good health is maintained and that rapid treatment is given, if necessary.

You should consider the following to ensure your primate maintains good oral health:

  • animal checks and veterinary health plan
  • diet
  • environmental enrichment

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