WHY ARE PLATYPUS SOMETIMES IN NEED OF EMERGENCY CARE?
Platypus may be displaced from their homes by catastrophic events such as major droughts and floods, be injured by a predator (such as a fox or wandering dog or cat) or become entangled in litter. Platypus are also occasionally discovered a kilometre or more from the nearest natural water body in completely inappropriate settings. This is especially likely to occur in late summer or early autumn, when many juveniles set out to find their own home ranges. These youngsters have been known to end up in all sorts of strange places, including suburban gardens, ploughed fields, swimming pools and roadways.
Platypus can also be accidentally caught by anglers using either baited hooks or artificial lures. Most typically, the hook will become embedded in either the bill or a front foot. When such a situation arises, it is essential that the platypus be freed from the hook before it is released. The platypus bill is fleshy and sensitive (like a human thumb), packed with thousands of sensory receptors needed to navigate underwater and find and capture prey. Hence, simply cutting the line and leaving the hook in the bill is likely to result in a slow and painful death for the animal concerned — from infection and/or starvation. Trailing fishing line may also become entangled in submerged roots or branches, causing a platypus to drown when the animal is unable to reach the surface.
HOW DO I HANDLE A PLATYPUS?
Platypus are wild animals with specialised living requirements. It is inappropriate (and illegal) to take one home and try to keep it as a pet – the animal will not survive the experience.
If you need to assist a sick, injured or displaced platypus, be extremely careful when picking up an animal of unknown age and gender because adult males have poisonous spurs, about 1.5 centimetres long, located on their hind ankles. While the venom is not considered to be life-threatening to humans, it can cause excruciating pain and spectacular swelling.
Unless it is definitely known that a platypus is not equipped with spurs, never place your hands under the animal or support it from below with your leg or arm. Instead, lift the platypus by gripping it firmly around the middle or end of the tail (but not the tail base, which a male can reach with his spurs).
If it is necessary to provide immediate first-aid (or to remove a fishing hook from the bill) try to keep the animal’s eyes covered with a folded piece of clothing or other fabric to reduce its tendency to struggle. Alternatively, consider placing the platypus in a bag, exposing only the part of its body that needs to be treated.
IF NECESSARY, HOW DO I TRANSPORT A PLATYPUS?
If a platypus found in an unusual place appears to be alert and active, it should be taken at once to the nearest creek or river holding substantial water and released so it can begin feeding. If the animal appears to be unwell, it should be transferred as soon as possible (ideally, within a few hours) to a zoo having specialised veterinary facilities. If this is not possible, the animal should be taken to a local veterinarian for examination and treatment.
When selecting a container to hold an animal in transit, be aware that the platypus is extremely strong for its size and very good at squeezing through narrow gaps. A platypus may be confined for a short time in a sturdy cardboard box with a strong cover or lid. Alternatively, a bag such as a pillow case or hessian sack may be used. If these options are not available, make an improvised bag by knotting the sleeves of a long-sleeved garment such as a sweatshirt. Ensure the top of the box or bag is securely closed, though the container must also be adequately ventilated so the platypus can breathe.
HOW DO I PROVIDE SHORT-TERM CARE FOR AN INJURED PLATYPUS?
If a platypus needs to be held overnight before being taken to a zoo or local veterinarian, handle it as little as possible. Try not to stress the animal unnecessarily, for example by resisting the temptation to show it to friends and neighbours.
Platypus are air-breathing animals that spend up to 17 hours a day sleeping in a snug burrow. There is therefore no need to provide a platypus that is being held in captivity for less than 24 hours with a place to swim — instead, help it to conserve energy by keeping it quiet and dry.
The safest way to confine an animal overnight is inside a strong fabric bag (at least the size of a pillow case, so the animal has a bit of room to move about inside the bag). The top must be fastened very securely, for example by knotting a piece of twine tightly around the opening. If the animal’s fur appears excessively wet, dry it gently with a towel before transferring it to the bag. Place the bag and its occupant in a box in a quiet, dark location (such as a closet, with the door closed) where the animal won’t be disturbed by curious pets or children.
The feet and bill of a healthy platypus should feel cool to touch, as its body temperature is naturally lower than a human’s. Because platypus are so well insulated by their fur, it is essential that the place where a platypus is being kept should also be reasonably cool (ideally 20-25oC, and definitely less than 30o C) so the animal doesn’t overheat.
SOME PRACTICAL ADVICE FOR VETERINARIANS
Platypus can be anaesthetised using isoflurane (5% for induction, 2% for maintenance, oxygen flow = 1 litre/minute). Because the platypus is adapted to diving, it can hold its breath for several minutes. The heart rate of an anaesthetised animal may also vary from fewer than 20 to more than 200 beats per minute.
REPORTING A DEAD PLATYPUS
Much more remains to be learned about the factors contributing to platypus mortality. A dead platypus is therefore of great interest to biologists and wildlife veterinarians. If you find a dead platypus, please contact the Australian Platypus Conservancy immediately. If possible, place the body inside a sealed plastic bag and store in a cold place (preferably a freezer) until it can be collected. Even if it is not feasible to save the carcass, the APC would very much like to hear about your find, especially the following details:
Where the body was found (in relation to the nearest natural water body)
- Date when the body was discovered
- A description of any injuries or other clues at the site suggesting the cause of death