Dolphin Awareness Month is coming to an end, and we’ve spent the month highlighting dolphinsdolphin trainers, and 10-year-old dolphin fan Mary Tipton. However, it’s also important to highlight the care that goes into making sure our dolphins are healthy and thriving. Dr. Tonya Clauss has worked at Georgia Aquarium for 12 years and is the Senior Director of Animal Health. In her role, Dr. Clauss serves as the head clinical veterinarian. While she and her team are cross trained in all species and aspects of aquatic animal medicine, Dr. Clauss has a special interest in critical care, wound healing and elasmobranch anesthesia and immobilization.

Dr. Clauss tells us more about her path to become a veterinarian and the importance of preventative medicine for not only dolphins, but for all species.

How did you become a veterinarian?

I grew up in Florida and had a variety of pets, as well as horses and goats growing up.  I loved the water and being outdoors.  I knew from the time I was a small child that I wanted to be a veterinarian.  Deciding to become an aquatic animal veterinarian was a decision I made late in my undergraduate studies at the University of Florida.  I completed undergraduate degrees in Animal Science as well as Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, and went on to finish a Master’s degree in Environmental Engineering Sciences with a focus in Wetlands Ecology.  I finished my Master’s research while I was a freshman in Veterinary School at the University of Florida. 

How did you get into your current field, and why did you decide to work with marine mammals?

As a graduate student and veterinary student, I knew that I wanted to focus on aquatic and wildlife medicine, so during my four years of veterinary school, I focused any free time or independent study time on those areas.  I was fortunate to be hired by Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota, Florida as a staff veterinarian right after veterinary school.  Prior to joining Georgia Aquarium, I also worked as the Director of Veterinary Services for Pelican Man’s Bird Sanctuary, a wildlife rehabilitation facility, in Sarasota, Florida, and as a Research Affiliate with The Florida Aquarium in Tampa, Florida.  I joined the Georgia Aquarium team in February of 2005 as an Associate Veterinarian and Laboratory Manager, and have since worked my way up to the position that I hold now.  Having grown up in Florida, I learned about manatees and dolphins very early in life.  I had a fish tank with marine fish and invertebrates by the time I was 5 years old.  My appreciation for all aquatic animals was strong from a very young age.

What preventative health procedures do dolphins receive?

At Georgia Aquarium, dolphins receive routine, voluntary physical examinations consisting of auscultation (the practice of listening to hearts, lungs, and other organs) with a stethoscope to listen to the heart and lungs, eye examinations with an ophthalmoscope, and ultrasound examinations of the internal organs.  The dolphins are behaviorally conditioned to provide blood samples for routine analysis, much like what people or pets do.  They also provide what we call chuff samples from their blow hole, and samples of their stomach fluid for analyses as well.  We also routinely analyze fecal samples just like other veterinarians do with domestic animals, like dogs and cats.

Why is preventative healthcare important?

There is an old saying that says, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” We believe strongly in preventative health management for the benefit and well-being of the animals.  By monitoring them closely and implementing a preventative medicine program, we are able to detect even the smallest changes in their health.  Not only does preventative healthcare enable us to respond quickly to illness, but it also allows us to detect changes that can occur as animals age.  Detecting geriatric changes at the onset gives us the opportunity to proactively manage the animals through those changes. For instance, like people, a dolphin may not hear or see as well as they get older.  When we do routine examinations, we can better understand when they start to have those deficiencies and work with their animal care and training staff to manage the individual animal needs.

What is your favorite part of your job?

While the hands on animal activities are very gratifying – who doesn’t love to interact with a dolphin –  the best part of my job is knowing that I’ve made a difference. Not just for one animal at a time, but for whole species, for aquatic animals in general. As a veterinarian at Georgia Aquarium, I keep the animals in our habitats healthy so that they can educate and inspire guests, but I also get to carry out clinical scientific studies and do work with wild aquatic species participating in population health assessments.  When our guests see the animals at the Aquarium, they are often inspired to care more about wild aquatic animals and their natural environments – then we can tell them the stories about the research and conservation endeavors that we carry out.  My favorite story, the one that made me realize how important my role is, happened several years ago.  I witnessed a little girl face to face through the habitat window with a sea otter for the very first time. She was so excited that she actually started to cry.  They were tears of joy and excitement. She told her mom right then and there that she wanted to be a marine biologist. That’s when I knew that I’m really making a difference!

With the expertise of animal experts like Dr. Clauss, zoos and aquariums provide new insight and research into aquatic medicine. Georgia Aquarium is a leading 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, and is to committed to working on behalf of all marine life through education, preservation, aquatic conservation and research, and exceptional animal care. Our state-of-the-art health facility, the Correll Center for Aquatic Animal Health, helps us provide top-quality care to all of our animals thanks to our world-class veterinary team led by Dr. Tonya Clauss.

For more information on Georgia Aquarium’s veterinary research, please visit Don’t forget to follow Georgia Aquarium on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram to stay up-to-date on all things #DolphinAwarenessMonth.