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Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Tiger Attack

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The recent attack by a captive tiger upon three men at the San Francisco Zoo is a reminder that captive "big cats," no matter how seemingly domesticated, remain wild and unpredictable animals.

My good friend Luanne Freer, M.D., discussed tiger attacks in her chapter on wild animals in the textbook Wilderness Medicine. With some editing, here is what she had to say about the strength and ferocity of a tiger attack:

"Over the last 5 centuries, an estimated 1 million people have been eaten by tigers. In the 19th century, the tigers’ toll in India averaged 2000 victims per year. Man-eating tigers in India between 1906 and 1941 ate an estimated 125 persons each, and one was reported to have killed 436 persons. From 1930 to 1940, the annual number never dropped below 1300. In the late 1940s, the rate of humans killed dropped to about 800 per year, where it remains.

An adult tiger is so powerful that the human victim is often killed instantly. It is not unusual for a limb to be severed with a single bite. A swiping blow to the human head is of sufficient force to cause a skull fracture. Like many big cats, a tiger typically strikes without warning from behind, biting the head and neck and often shaking its head violently to sever the victim’s spinal cord. Tigers are a major threat to the lives of humans in the cats’ native regions. Although the number of tigers in the world is dwindling rapidly, they are still the number one animal killer of humans.

Man killing almost invariably results from stress (wounds or old age) or lack of
habitat and natural prey that forces the animal to prey on humans. A tiger subsisting solely on human meat would have to kill approximately 60 adults a year, and documented cases in selected regions have approached this rate over periods of up to eight years. However, unlike lions, tigers are not thought to become exclusive man eaters. Some tigers have become opportunistic man eaters in lieu of plentiful natural prey, and tiger biologists hypothesize that these animals have become unafraid of man."

In addition to the extraordinary trauma that can be inflicted by a tiger, lion, or other large cat, there is the complication of infection from germs prevalent on the teeth and claws of these animals. Notable among these infections is that caused by Pasteurella multocida. The astute clinician will be aware of the potential for a P. multocida infection following a tiger attack, and treat the victim with an appropriate antibiotic(s), such as ciprofloxacin, cefuroxime, or cefoxitin, to attempt to avoid the onset of an infection.

Portrait of the Tiger by LeRoy Neiman

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.

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