Bloodsuckers to the rescue
Thursday 29 May 2008
A team of bloodthirsty assistants are helping vets carry out routine health checks on animals at ZSL London and Whipsnade Zoos, using a revolutionary painless technique.
Kissing bugs (Dipetalogaster maxima) are being employed by the ZSL veterinary team, as part of a revolutionary pilot project, to suck blood samples from animals who would normally need to be anaesthetised before undergoing this simple procedure.
You wouldn’t really want to kiss these bugs though. They feed on blood from animals by piercing the skin, releasing pain-reducing substances so the host is unaware of the procedure.
So far, kissing bugs have successfully taken blood samples from a hippo, cheetah, giraffe, elephant and white rhino.
ZSL Veterinary Officer, Tim Bouts, said: ‘This pioneering procedure means we can take a stress-free blood sample from an animal that we otherwise would need to sedate or anaesthetise.
‘The process is non-invasive and painless for the animal. It might take somewhere between 10-30 minutes to get a decent sample dependent on how hungry the bug is, how quickly it finds a blood capillary and how thick the skin of its host is.'
The bugs are bred and screened in Germany before use to ensure they do not carry diseases that are transferable to the animals.
This innovative practice of obtaining blood samples without causing stress to animals forms part of a study by curator André Stadler from the Wuppertal Zoo in Germany, researching the use and effectiveness of kissing bugs in zoo species.
This species of kissing bugs, Dipetalogaster maxima, is suitable for this work because they inhabit a foggy desert in South-West Mexico where food is scarce, meaning they have to take every opportunity to feed and make sure they feed quickly.
The use of kissing bugs may also provide a means to collect blood samples from species that have proven difficult to sample by conventional approaches, including smaller animals where veins are inaccessible.
ZSL is leading the way in introducing this gentle and less invasive method, which will reduce the stress placed on large animals normally anaesthetised for blood sampling procedures.