Veterinary Care: Exotic Animal Hematology

The Detroit Zoological Society has hosted students from Macomb Community College’s veterinary technician program for the past seven years to teach them about exotic animal hematology. These second-year students spend an evening in the lab at the Detroit Zoo’s Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex, learning about the variance in blood cells in many exotic animal species and understanding why zoo medicine is a very specialized field.

Hematology is a medical term referring to all things related to blood – a major part of diagnosing illness and disease comes from the information we learn by examining a patient’s blood. The special thing about working in the veterinary hospital at the Detroit Zoo is that we are responsible for the healthcare of all 230 species of animals that reside here. Working with such a large variety of species can be fun but it can also be daunting when you realize just how much information we actually need to know.

Part of the laboratory testing performed on the samples that we collect involves smearing a small drop of blood onto a microscope slide, applying a special stain and examining the blood smear under a microscope. We then perform a count of 100 different white blood cells and analyze all of the cells for abnormalities. We also look for things like hemoparasites, which are parasites that can be found in the blood.

Mammal blood is different from bird, reptile, amphibian and fish blood in that mammal red blood cells do not contain a nucleus while the other classes of animals’ red blood cells do. Aside from that major difference, the types of white blood cells in mammals differ from non-mammals along with variations in cells from species to species. For example, penguin blood cells look different than vulture blood cells. In a human laboratory, this same testing is performed by an automated CBC (complete blood count) machine, which automatically counts the cells and reports the values. In a zoo setting, we do not have the same capabilities. Because of the nucleated red blood cells found in many of our patients, these cells cannot be counted by a lab machine and must be counted by hand. Being able to recognize normal and abnormal cells in so many species of animals comes with a lot of practice and many years of experience.

I have continued to practice and hone my hematology skills since becoming a veterinary technician for the Detroit Zoological Society more than 10 years ago. I look forward to continuing our relationship with Macomb Community College’s veterinary technician program and being able to share my specialized hematology knowledge with more local veterinary technician students in the future.

– Erica Campbell is a veterinary technician for the Detroit Zoological Society, operating out of the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex at the Detroit Zoo.

Veterinary Care: A Horse of a Different Color

For more than 20 years, Jeff Powers has assisted the Detroit Zoological Society’s veterinary team in providing the best possible care for the hoofstock living at the Detroit Zoo. Jeff is a certified farrier – a craftsman specially trained to trim and balance the feet of horses, and to place horseshoes, if necessary.  All domestic horses need regular trimming to remove overgrowth and prevent the development of hoof problems.

When Jeff first started coming to the Zoo, his visits were limited to the Barn. We could see right away that he has a special way with animals and is a talented farrier. At that time, a beautiful Shetland pony named Snowflake lived in our care. During an especially lush late summer, she developed inflammation in both front hooves, a condition called laminitis. We treated her with medications to decrease inflammation and discomfort, and called Jeff to see if there was anything else that could be done. He brought his specially outfitted truck, complete with a forge and anvil used to heat and shape metal. He used his blacksmith skills to design a custom set of small, “heart bar” shoes to help relieve Snowflake’s discomfort and allow her hooves to heal. She was immediately more comfortable and made a full recovery.

Since then, Jeff has joined us during exams under anesthesia to trim the feet of both zebras and Przewalski’s horses. We’ve also enlisted his assistance with a few animals that are not equids, including Dozier, a belted Galloway steer. Perhaps our grandest adventure was trimming the hooves of Raspberry, a male reticulated giraffe. When Raspberry was 10 years old, he developed overgrowth of the tips of both front feet. This changed the way that he carried his weight (a whopping 2,250 pounds!). We spent over a year training Raspberry, and were able to teach him to put each foot on a block so we could use nippers to remove the extra hoof. Despite this success, we could see that Raspberry needed a full hoof trim to get his hooves back into proper alignment. The size and height of an adult male giraffe makes anesthetic procedures very challenging. We developed a meticulous plan to orchestrate all of the necessary tasks – the veterinary staff would make sure that the anesthesia kept Raspberry safe and still while Jeff led efforts to trim the hooves. During the procedure, the vet staff was mainly focused on administering and monitoring anesthesia and supporting Raspberry’s head and neck, but we could see the flurry of activity at Raspberry’s feet. I’m fairly certain it was the fastest hoof trim in the history of hoof trims. In no time at all, Raspberry had four perfectly symmetrical, healthy feet.

I am grateful that Jeff has been able to provide his services to the Detroit Zoological Society and our team at the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex over the years. He has been a steadfast asset to us, and is a trusted and familiar face to both the animal care staff and the horses in the Barn. With regular visits every four to six weeks year-round, it’s my estimation that he has trimmed the feet of the donkeys Knick Knack and Giovanni about 200 times each!! We make a good team, and I look forward to years of continued collaboration.

– Dr. Ann Duncan is the director of animal health for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex.

Veterinary Care: What’s in Your Wallet?

Among the items in my wallet is an identification card that says I am a certified Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) technician. As a zoo veterinarian, this certification is very important to me – and to the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) – because it means that in the event of an environmental emergency anywhere in the world, I can be deployed to help. In addition to myself, two other DZS veterinarians, a veterinary technician and six animal care staff members carry these cards and have this expertise.

HAZWOPER training is required for anyone who may be working in situations with hazardous materials. A big example of this is oil, and all the other toxic chemicals involved in an oil spill. If an oil spill were to occur, and if there are animals affected, they will need care and treatment – which puts the people caring for them in harm’s way. HAZWOPER training is not only about the animals themselves – that is our area of expertise as trained animal health professionals – it is about all the other dangers humans could face while trying to save them.

As part of this training, we learn how to protect ourselves from all the things that could be harmful at a hazardous waste cleanup site. In addition to being exposed to many kinds of toxic chemicals and vapors that can be inhaled, we may also have to protect ourselves from heatstroke or frostbite. This training is required by the government in order for us to lend our expertise to help the animals because if one of us were to become ill or injured, it would only add to the challenges of an already difficult situation. It’s similar to the airplane safety measure of putting on your own oxygen mask before helping a child put on theirs – if those of us trying to help don’t keep ourselves safe first, it puts the animals at even greater risk.

HAZWOPER training is labor and time intensive and requires skilled instructors and specific materials. If an emergency were to happen today, one cannot wait weeks or months to undergo the training, because the animals need help now. When the Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 – the largest marine oil spill in history – many veterinarians and other professionals trained in animal care wanted to help, but without HAZWOPER training, the government wouldn’t allow it. An estimated 2.2 million gallons of crude oil leaked into the Gulf every day for nearly three months. This oil spill affected 400 different species of wildlife, including 8,000 birds, 1,100 sea turtles and 109 mammals. This is exactly why we stay ready – we undergo an eight-hour refresher course annually in order to maintain our certification, which many of us do in our free time, outside of work hours. And because of this, one of the DZS’s veterinary technicians was able to travel to New Orleans that summer and assist with Deepwater recovery efforts.

Thankfully, we haven’t needed to respond to an environmental disaster in the past two years, and frankly, we’d like to keep it that way. But if the worst happens tomorrow and animals need our help, we’ll be on the next plane.

– Dr. Sarah Woodhouse is a veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society and works at the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex at the Detroit Zoo.

Learn more about HAZWOPER training.

Veterinary Care: Performing Cardiac Ultrasounds on Anteaters

For the veterinarians at the Detroit Zoo’s Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex, animal patients come in all shapes and sizes, and we are responsible for investigating and solving all kinds of interesting medical conditions. Although we are experts in zoo medicine, we sometimes seek assistance from veterinary and human health experts, including Dr. Bill Brown, a board-certified veterinary cardiologist. While in his regular practice he examines mostly dogs and cats, he has been assisting us at the Zoo for more than 20 years, during which time he has examined seals, lions, binturongs, polar bears, yellow anacondas and a Hoffman’s two-toed sloth. We recently asked him to assist us in performing cardiac ultrasounds on a species that he had not examined before – giant anteaters.

Giant anteaters are one of my favorite species. There are currently two females living at the Detroit Zoo, ages 21 (well beyond life expectancy) and 9. Anteaters are uniquely adapted to feed primarily on ants and termites, and have several interesting anatomical features. They have an elongated muzzle and a small mouth, which makes it impossible to pass an endotracheal tube into the trachea during exams. They also have no teeth and a very long (up to 18 inches!) slimy tongue, which they use to gather insects and pull them into their mouths. In order to do a full physical exam on an anteater, we need to use anesthesia. Their powerful front arms allow them to tear apart termite mounds quickly, so during these examinations, we cover their large, curved claws with towels and tape to ensure no one is injured should the anteater begin to move.

A recent survey of the 50 zoos caring for giant anteaters in North America showed that cardiac disease is one of the top five causes of illness in those aged 6-15 years. Young anteaters can also develop heart disease, and all ages can develop dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). This condition results in an enlarged heart with thin chamber walls, and has been shown to occur in anteaters whose diet consists of inadequate levels of taurine. We have been aware of this nutritional need for years, and therefore structure the diets for the anteaters at the Detroit Zoo specifically to avoid DCM.

We perform cardiac ultrasounds during routine exams to visualize the anatomy and function of the heart. In the past, we have found that their narrow chest shape and broad ribs make it difficult to obtain the images we need, especially from the right side. Dr. Brown was able to obtain all of the standard views and measurements taken during a cardiac echocardiogram, and found that both anteaters have normal heart anatomy and function, which means that their heart valves are not leaky, and their chamber walls are normal in thickness.

– Dr. Ann Duncan is the director of animal health for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex at the Detroit Zoo.

Veterinary Care: Rattlesnakes, Kitty Litter and Conservation

Snakes. They seem to evoke either a sense of fascination or a sense of fear – not much in between.

Since biblical times, snakes have often been portrayed as representations of evil, which certainly hasn’t helped their image. However, I have found that it just takes getting to know and understanding these beautiful creatures – their biology and their place in the ecosystem – to gain the respect and admiration that they disserve. I am a huge fan. So, when recently given the opportunity to participate in conservation efforts of an endangered species of rattlesnake – in its natural wild habitat and in our own backyard – I was more than excited!

The Eastern massasauga rattlesnake is a shy and beautiful venomous rattlesnake. It is small by most rattlesnake standards – usually only averaging about 2-3 feet long as an adult, with an intricate light and dark brown pattern down its back. It is the only rattlesnake native to Michigan. While it once ranged widely in the wetlands of the upper Midwest and Great Lakes region, extending north to parts of southern Ontario, because of human encroachment (draining of wetlands for roads, farmland and development), and human persecution (killing out of fear, poaching for private collections) much of the massasauga’s habitat has been lost or become fragmented, and the population is in decline. There is also an emerging disease concern, snake fungal disease, which appears to be affecting wild populations of snakes – including the Eastern massasauga – in Illinois, Ohio, and a number of other states. They are now considered threatened throughout most of their range, and in 2016 were listed as threatened in Michigan under the Endangered Species Act, providing some legal protection for the species.

The good news is that there are still pockets of small but thriving populations in parts of Michigan. There is also a passionate collaborative network of conservation-minded organizations partnering together to actively study these populations. Their efforts in cooperative population management, field research and conservation, and public education help protect and manage massasauguas both in captivity and in the wild.

 

The Association of Zoos & Aquariums’ (AZA) Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake Species Survival Plan (SSP) was formed in 2009. The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) is an active supporter and participant in this program, and our curator of reptiles, Jeff Jundt, is currently the SSP coordinator. This accredited zoo-based SSP network has a dual mission: to maintain genetic diversity of the massasauga through cooperative breeding programs within accredited zoos and aquariums, and to promote its conservation in the wild.  With this mission in mind, the SSP found a perfect conservation partner in the Edward Lowe Foundation.

Edward Lowe invented Kitty Litter, the country’s first packaged cat litter. He went on to develop Tidy Cat and other brands of kitty litter and was a successful entrepreneur. He and his wife Darlene later established the Edward Lowe Foundation, located in southwestern Michigan, in the heart of some of Michigan’s best massasauga habitats.

The foundation also has dual missions: to promote entrepreneurship through training and support programs, and to promote local land stewardship. When the foundation’s interest in knowing more about massasaugas and how they and other species of plants and animals were being impacted by land management practices emerged, a perfect conservation partnership was formed. The Edward Lowe Foundation property not only has beautiful meeting facilities and a willingness to host the massasauga SSP participants and other researchers and biologists interested in local wildlife and plant conservation, it sits in the heart of native wetland habitat where a strong population of these rattlesnakes are still found. The SSP participants have been meeting each May at the Edward Lowe Foundation facilities since 2009 and have been part of a collaborative long-term population study.

I was invited to one such meeting this spring. With invitees from more than 20 participating zoos, it made for a large but enthusiastic group. The amount of herpetological experience and knowledge present was quite impressive! These folks LOVE what they do, and they are passionate about massasaugas and the work they are doing to contribute to their conservation. I can also tell you that it is hard work.

My experience in snake field conservation stems mostly from my participation in Virgin Island, Mona Island and Cuban boa field conservation programs. The habitats of these beautiful non-venomous snakes are generally hot, rocky, arid, coastal and depression forest terrains found on small islands in the Caribbean, and most fieldwork studying them is done at night when these animals are more active. Not so with the massasauga.

In the spring, these rattlesnakes are emerging from their overwintering hibernation sites – mostly crawfish holes along and within wetland areas interspersed with tall cattails and reeds. These habitats are laden with muddy sink holes, tall reeds, poison sumac and ticks. It can be 80 degrees and sweltering in the morning, and then pouring rain and 50 degrees in the afternoon. None of these are deterrents for the SSP meeting attendees.

Interspersed daily between the SSP business meetings to review and make recommendations regarding captive population management and breeding, we attendees were eager to get out into the field to study the wild population. Those of us participating were often in the field for four to eight hours of the day in search of rattlesnakes.

Dressed in field gear covering us from head to toe to protect against the poison sumac, mosquitoes and ticks, and wearing heavy rubber wading boots, we carried special snake restraint tongs, cloth bags and buckets for safe capture of any venomous snakes we encountered. (All participants have been trained in safe approach, handling, and restraint of venomous snakes.) With this cumbersome preparation, we happily ventured into the designated wetland habitats in search of the elusive massasauga!

Admittedly, my skills in the field were limited. I am happy to say that I only lost one of my boots to the muddy abyss and came away without a sumac rash, but did not have any luck finding massasaugas on my own. I was of most use in the lab, where I could put my veterinary skills to work on any snakes delivered so that important biological data could be collected, recorded and processed. I teamed up with two long-standing massasauga biologists and researchers, Linda Faust and Eric Hileman, along with SSP veterinarian Randy Junge, all of whom led this part of the project and kept everything organized and running smoothly.

Each snake brought in was given a physical exam, weighed, measured, and had a small amount of blood collected for testing and DNA studies. They were also photographed (coloration patterns on their skin are unique identifiers) and tags were placed if they were of sufficient size. Females were given ultrasounds to record their stage of follicle development. All of this information was carefully recorded and is being compiled for current and future use for population and land management studies.  The snakes were released back to the location they were found usually within one or two hours. I am happy to report that of the 55 snakes that were found this year, all appeared healthy with no evidence of emerging snake fungal disease. What a meeting!

I have been a zoo veterinarian for more than 25 years, and have much experience working with massasaugas and other venomous and non-venomous snakes in the zoo setting. I hope I have kindled some passion for snakes in some of those who may read this.

I have been given many wonderful opportunities while working with the Detroit Zoological Society. I must say, it never gets old working with people who are passionate about what they do, and being able to participate in projects that make a difference, no matter how small your role may be.

– Wynona Shellabarger DVM, is a Detroit Zoological Society veterinarian who works at the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex at the Detroit Zoo.

Understanding Cardiac Health in Great Apes

Cardiovascular disease isn’t just the leading cause of death for humans, it is also a health issue faced by great apes. These majestic creatures – chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos – share 98 percent of human DNA. As is the case with humans, it is apparent that we need to investigate and understand the cardiac health of these animals.

Fifteen years ago, the Great Ape Heart Project (GAHP) began to form in order to address this responsibility – two zoo veterinarians, a human cardiologist and a veterinary epidemiologist put their heads together around the topic. Early on, they recognized the critical need for a multidisciplinary approach to investigate and understand cardiovascular disease in these special animals. In the years since, they have enlisted the help of a number of passionate and hard-working medical experts and scientists – the team now consists of zoo veterinarians, human and veterinary cardiologists, ultrasonographers, human and veterinary pathologists, epidemiologists, nutritionists, geneticists and zookeepers. They use clinical, pathologic and research strategies to aid in the understanding and treatment of cardiac disease in all of the ape species, with the ultimate goal of reducing mortality and improving the health and welfare of captive great apes.

Members of this project recently convened at the Detroit Zoo for what was the largest working group meeting the GAHP has held to date.

Much progress has been made over the years – with generous funding from Zoo Atlanta and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the GAHP has been able to hire a project manager to move their initiatives forward and coordinate the development of an extensive database to store the information needed to unravel this complicated health issue. A website has been developed, containing all of the information needed for veterinarians to understand how to contribute to the project and provide feedback about their patients. Additionally, normal cardiac parameters for gorillas and chimps have been established, which is an important step toward early recognition and treatment. Human and veterinary pathologists have worked together to improve tissue collection techniques and agree upon the terminology used to discuss findings. Together, they’ve been able to identify aspects of heart disease that are shared between great apes and humans, and this has helped inform future directions for research.

This team has demonstrated that a small group of very committed people can make tremendous strides toward improving the health and well-being of animals in our care. At the Detroit Zoo, we’ve been at the forefront of research, using implantable loop recorders to understand the impact of cardiac arrhythmia on heart disease in chimpanzees and gorillas.

A thousand dollars in proceeds from our recent Pool for Primates fundraising event was donated to the GAHP by the Detroit chapter of the American Association of Zoo Keepers, Inc. The Detroit Zoological Society is committed to contributing to this important work and ensuring that great apes worldwide live longer, healthier lives.

– Dr. Ann Duncan is the director of animal health for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex.

Preventative Care Ensures Quality of Life for Zoo Animals

Spring has sprung! This time of year brings April showers, blooming daffodils, lawns to mow and the delightful warmth of the sun finally reaching our skin. It also brings mosquitos, an aspect of the season I do not enjoy. While their numbers are still low, they are staging a comeback and before long, I’ll be carrying bug spray with me in my bag.

With mosquitos comes heartworm season, a time when veterinarians and pet owners are reminded of the importance of the preventive care they provide the animals in their lives. Taking preventive measures is the best way to avoid bigger, more difficult problems in the future. At the Detroit Zoo, we have an extensive preventive medicine program that addresses vaccinations, parasite prevention, nutrition and regular examinations.

Vaccinations are one of the most important tools available to prevent disease in animals and people. In zoo medicine, we refer to literature to determine the safest and most effective vaccines available for the species in our care. We also communicate frequently with zoo and animal health colleagues to better understand diseases of concern. Each month, we participate in a One-Health conference call with veterinarians from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and public health officials from the Department of Health and Human Services. We discuss the diseases currently posing a risk to humans and animals alike, talk about the most common diseases and discuss newer threats, such as avian influenza and Lyme’s disease. At the Detroit Zoo, we use vaccines to prevent many of these diseases, including rabies, distemper, leptospirosis and tetanus. Contagious diseases can be introduced to the animals by wild raccoons, skunks, rodents and feral and pet cats that enter the Zoo, and it’s important that we protect susceptible zoo animals. We use vaccines developed for domestic horses, cows and cats to protect the zebras, elands and lions.

Heartworm disease is another focus of preventive care. Heartworm is transmitted by mosquitos and can go undetected until infection poses a serious health risk. You may know that heartworm disease infects dogs and cats, but you may be surprised to learn the array of animals at the Zoo that can be affected. Seals, arctic foxes, bush dogs, lions, tigers, otters and wolverines are all treated year-round with a monthly preventive treatment. I am happy to report that in my more than 20-year career, we have never had an animal test positive for heartworm disease at the Zoo. If your dog or cat is not being treated for heartworm, it’s important to have them tested first, and then to start them on prevention as soon as possible. It’s never too late to get started.

Examinations are another important part of preventive care. Every day, the animal care staff observes each animal at the Zoo, noting any abnormal appearance or behavior to the veterinary staff. Many health problems are detected through these diligent observations, but we also periodically perform a  hands-on exam to be sure we aren’t missing anything. During examinations, we take radiographs to check for arthritis; feel for bumps and skin problems; examine the eyes with an ophthalmoscope, and use ultrasound to check the heart and abdominal organs. We do a careful dental exam and scale and polish the teeth – this is often the most important thing we do to improve health. During these exams, we also collect a blood sample and run tests to get an impression of overall health and check for diseases of concern.

One of the most rewarding things as a veterinarian is to find a problem before it becomes life threatening and fix it. With close observations, exams and regular care, we tip the odds in favor of finding problems early and being able to intervene, but this is not always possible. Last year, I lost my beloved golden retriever to cancer after a very sudden illness. Even though I miss her, I am at peace because I know that there isn’t anything I could have done to change her end-of-life story. Here at the Zoo, the animal care and veterinary teams strive to do the same. We do all that we can to find problems early, to treat illness when possible, and to help animals nearing the end of their lives maintain the best-possible quality of life. I’m proud of the care that we provide the animals at the Zoo, and glad to share these stories.

– Ann Duncan is the director of animal health for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex.