Blood Sample from Gao Gao

Gao Gao doing what he does best--eating!

Gao Gao doing what he does best–eating!

I was motivated to attempt my first blog post after seeing some comments and questions in the giant panda blog about “taking a blood sample” to ensure that our pandas our healthy. What a great opportunity to share with our panda fans the work we do in the clinical labs at the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park!

Our veterinarians determine when blood (or urine or feces) should be collected from animals, such as the giant pandas. Reasons could be for a health checkup or before anesthesia or to investigate a potential health issue. One of the analyses performed on the blood sample is called a CBC (or complete blood count). The sample collected from Gao Gao during his exam last month was sent to the Clinical Laboratory at the Zoo’s Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine to be analyzed.

This is a photo of one of Gao Gao’s healthy white blood cells, surrounded by normal red blood cells.

This is a photo of one of Gao Gao’s healthy white blood cells, surrounded by normal red blood cells.

The CBC includes a careful look at the white blood cells, red blood cells, platelets, and packed cell volume. White blood cells are the cells that protect us from disease and foreign materials. The number of white blood cells counted in the blood can help determine if the animal is fighting an infection. Red blood cells transport oxygen throughout the body, and a low number of red blood cells may reflect anemia. An adequate number of platelets ensure that the body’s clotting mechanism is normal. The packed cell volume (PCV or hematocrit) helps the veterinarians determine if the animal is dehydrated, fighting a disease, or is losing blood somewhere.

The laboratory technicians also put a drop of blood on a glass slide and smear it out to make a nice thumbprint shape. After we put the slide in a special stain, we are able to look at the cells under the microscope. We then report to the veterinarians what we see. Certain cell shapes and colors can indicate whether or not the animal is healthy. We can also see if there are enough platelets present and if there are any parasites in the blood. Data from these tests, among others, complete the CBC.

All of this information helps our veterinarians quickly assess the health of an individual animal. During Gao Gao’s last exam, his CBC was normal for adult giant pandas, and he was returned to his exhibit a happy panda!

Niki Zarcades is a clinical laboratory technician at the San Diego Zoo.