Elephant feet and nail problems

The feet in general are the weakest point of the elephants, their "Akilleas heel", because when problems start, they have a tendency to continue, and they may in the end, if neglected, result in the elephants death.

There is a development in Zoos, to change the floor structure and substrate, which in the past was always concrete, in some cases with a top layer of asphalt. In fact, the elephants foot is developed for much softer materials, and the pressure from the body weight, combined with less training and excercise, as well as damp, cold stables, has produced a lot of pain and deaths of captive elephants.

Elephant expert Michael Schmidt, a former chief veterinarian at Oregon Zoo who specialized in the care of elephants for over 25 years, states in his book Jumbo Ghosts: The Dangerous Life of Elephants in the Zoo, "Despite all of our exhaustive efforts to keep the elephants alive in the zoo in Portland, we lost four adult elephants to preventable zoo-genic foot disease while I was there." Schmidt adds, "Zoo-genic foot disease remains the number one source of pain, suffering and premature death for zoo elephants."

Off-hand environment

In hands-on situation, footcare can and should be trained and performed on a regulair basis. In the case of bulls however, they were in the past kept in off-hand situation, which resulted in none or poor footcare, sometimes in combination with sudden hazardus operations under sedation. In some cases the overgrowth of the nails could cause severe pain and locomotion problems. Even by means of veterinairy care, such rare occasions of footcare may even lead to worse problems. Its therefore important to keep off-hand animals in an active protected contact training, and almost daily train footcare routines, in order to avoid complications. (Picture: bull elephant in Ukraine)

Feet and nail problems

Vertical pressure cracks may result in pain, and causing the elephant to put more body weight on another foot, which might later cause the major problems. Vertical cracks, if uncut, will in the end reach the base of the nail, ctreating greater problems, and will take a lot of time to correct. Sometimes years.

If theres vertical cracks they might be carefully rounded with a rasp, letting air inside and kept very clean from dirt. If theres holes with dirt, the hoof might have to be shortened in order to prevent more dirt being stucked. After applying skin softening and moistering cream such as Pana-Veyxal (Germany), Corona Cream (USA) or Salicylevaseline, (Try to avoid any cream containing animal fat, since fat is said to make the wall of the nails weak) for some days, the skin above the nail can be carefully trimmed down with a rasp. If theres very long skinparts hanging loose from the foot, they may be removed with a knife or a tang. This part of the skin will then need to be moistured with cream, and it may take upto a month before it is properly attached to the nail again. For some time, increase the hygiene of the foot an nail, spraying the foot or soaking it in a footbath for some minutes after shower in a light desinfection or Beta-Isodona. After this apply cream, especially in cracks and in the pocket between the base of the nail and the skin. Repeat before the nightmeal is presented.

Winters are in general a good period to concentrate on such problems, since the elephants are spending more time inside, and theres hopefully more time for the keepers to put attention on the feet.

It may here be stated the bad feet of elephants in a zoo doesnt have to be a result of neglection in care by the elephant keepers, it may also be the case that the Zoo is run by a director that put the general health of the elephants in a less priority, and the keepers may simply be to busy to clean areas of hippos and rhinos, that theres not time for the elephants care. Theres not much to do with this case of problems, animals and people has always suffered under stupid leaders in the past, and will probably do so in the future.

Footcare overdoing

Too much footcare is a problem seldom addressed and discussed, although both keepers and elephant suffer from this. More or less all young elephant handlers, when becoming in charge of an elephant group, are overdoing the footcare. The focus on a flat, "nice", clean footsole leads to regular shortening of the sole, so the weight and fllor pressure becomes more concentrated on the nails, rather than on the sole. Longterm, ongoing problems of verticals cracks in the nails, are not only caused by too long nails, but also develops when the soles are kept too short. If the feet are simply left for some months (winter/stable time), but kept clean, the sole will begin to grow out, and change condition into a leatherlike, strong sole, which takes up a considerable part of the pressure, releasing the nails from over-pressure.

Similair problems occure whe the fron part of the nails are rasped too often, since less experienced handlers like a white, "clean" nailwall, which shines nice. But the brownish, "ugly" nail wall has a protection layer, which should not be removed.

Sometimes the wall of the base of the nail changes in quality, it starts to get weak and soft and looses its protective surface (1). This might then develop into a horizontal crack(2), and the upper lamell will loose its contact with the underlying lamell.If this occurs, this crack will also be filled with dirt and sand during the day, which causes the opening to grow. In most cases thers nothing more to do than opening this crack(3), removing the loose parts of the nail until you reach the part of the nail which is better attached. This problem needs intensive care with hygiene and nail cream, and simply has to grow away. It is recommended to take some sample of the tissue and send to a lab, in order to check if fungus is connected to the problem. especially if theres a connection to fungus, but also just in general, Theres a tendency that keepers is trying to correct those problems only with rasp and knifes, neglecting the fact that the foot has to be kept clean in order to stimulate healing. A daily footbath of Beta-Isodona or Iodine will approve the healing process, and I recomended to make such a foot bath daily, at least after bringing the elephants inside in the evening from the enclosure, but even better, also in the morning after the (hopefully??) daily shower.

    Putting epoxy on the nails

    Lately, more experiments has been made to keep deep or long vertical cracks from developing more, by means of Epoxy. Apearently a product called SBS Hoof Patch has had positive results. Mike C writes at EMA discussion board: "Basically after the crack is trimmed out you place two blobs of epoxy on either side of the crack, then connect with a patch strip cut to appx 1/2 inch wide followed by more epoxy to reinforce it. In this way you stabilize latteral pressure that may cause it to migrate higher up the nail and it also keeps the crack open so you can clean it if necessary. You can also put some epoxy above the crack on the unaffected part of the nail to help prevent a crack from continuing further, but it is most important to ensure that the lower nail is trimmed frequently to alleviate pressure".

  • Introduction to elephant footcare
  • Good and beed feet, how they should look
  • Trimming the elephant feet
  • Foot and nail problems, and suggested solutions

Recommended literature:


31 Deceased elephants due to foot problems.

OriginAgeBirthDeath dateDeath reasonParentsArrival
Death location
+ -Karla-EM
leg and foot problem, (arthrosis?)
x 1970-06-13
Cottbus Zoo
+ -Himeko-EM
foot problem
x 2013-09-11
Himeji Zoo
+ -Msichana-LA
chronic foot problem
x 2015-00-00
Seneca Park Zoo
+ -Hiroko-EM
foot problems
x 1970-05-03
Osaka Tennoji Zoo
+ -Tusko-EM
foot problems and Elephant TB (Mycobacterium tuberculosis)
x 2005-06-20
Portland Zoo (Metro Washington Park Zoo)
+ -Molly-EM
foot problems
x 1968-05-07
Stuttgart Wilhelma Zoo
+ -Schöpfi-EM
foot problem, osteomyelitis
x 1960-10-07
Dresden Zoo
+ -India-EM
foot problems
x 1963-05-04
Lodz Zoo
+ -Pak Bahadur (Bahadir)-EM
operation due to foot problems
x 1955-00-00
Izmir Zoo
+ -Jenny-EM
foot problems
x 1996-09-11
Tennessee Elephant Sanctuary (TES)
+ -Miniak-EM
did not survive operation due to foot problems
x 1953-00-00
Circus Knie
+ -Abu-LA
foot problem and heart attack
x 1990-00-00
Abu Camp
+ -Kinga-EM
foot problems
x 1963-10-15
Krakow Zoo
+ -Trulli-EM
foot problems, foot cancer
x 1960-06-25
Karlsruhe Zoo
+ -Assam-EM
after operation for foot problems
x 1968-08-06
Kharkiv Zoo (Kharkov Zoo)
+ -Anna-LA
arthtritis foot abcess foot problem
x 1993-06-15
Vienna Zoo
+ -Siporex-EM
foot problems
Frank x Lene (Lena)1973-10-03
Hannover Zoo
+ -Siam-EM
foot problems
x 1964-08-28
Paris Zoo Vincennes
+ -Max-EM
foot problem
x 1983-06-09
Munich Zoo
+ -Ola-EM
foot problem
Cole Bros. Circus (Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus)
+ -Anakoli-EM
foot problems
x 1986-00-00
Woburn Safari Park
+ -Shiva-EM
anorexia and foot problems?
x 1992-06-07
Cricket St Thomas Wildlife Park
+ -Lisa-EM
foot problems
x 1988-08-00
Bowmanville Zoo
+ -Birma (Bierma, Bolette)-EM
foot problem
x 1988-03-24
Belfast Zoo
+ -Tasja (Rhena)-LA
foot problem
x 1968-00-00
Rhenen Zoo
+ -Dima-LC
foot problems
x 1954-00-00
Frankfurt Zoo
+ -Bambina-EM
sepsis foot problem
x 1939-04-27
Stockholm Zoo (Skansen)
+ -Punchi (Lotte)-EM
chronical foot problems
Rostock Zoo
+ -Nepala-EM
foot problems
x 1956-00-00
Riga Zoo
+ -Maharanee-EM
foot problems
x 1949-01-01
Wellington Zoo
+ -Sultana-LA
foot problems?
x 1907-06-25
Bronx Zoo

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