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.

Veterinary Care: From Kitty Cats to Big Cats

Two years ago, I left everything that was familiar to me to take a position as a veterinary technician for the Detroit Zoological Society. For the previous 14 years, I’d been working at a small animal veterinary practice. I enjoyed this time spent taking care of dogs and cats, which often consisted of collecting blood, placing intravenous catheters, cleaning teeth, administering medication, taking X-rays, monitoring anesthesia and assisting the veterinarian in surgery. But the day had come that I decided to leave the small animal veterinary world and begin my journey in zoo medicine.

I thought these two worlds would be extremely different, but I quickly learned how similar they really are. I still do all of the same work, just on a larger variety of animals – not to mention some much larger in size. At times, there are unique challenges. For example, while I’ve had plenty of experience collecting blood from 10-pound cats who are not at all happy to be at the vet, blood collection from a 260-pound lion is a completely different ball game.

A major part of my job at the Detroit Zoo’s Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex is collecting blood for routine testing, which is an important part of preventative healthcare in both domestic animals and zoo animals. We analyze blood to evaluate organ function – especially kidney function in aging cats – electrolyte status, hormone levels and more. If an animal becomes ill, blood tests can help to identify the health issue so we can develop treatment plans. Routine blood testing is just as important on healthy animals because it gives us a good baseline for comparison if the animal becomes ill in the future.

I was soon faced with the challenge of collecting blood from a feline without holding her or even sharing the same space with her. Luckily for me, the animal care staff trains the animals for voluntary blood collection, making it possible for us to complete the task. Training a medical behavior like this is a gradual systematic process that happens before blood is even collected. It requires the zookeepers to have a lot of skill and patience.

In November of 2015, I had the pleasure of meeting Erin, a 16-year-old female African lion. She had begun her training for blood collection five years prior, and participates in the training willingly. When she does what is asked of her, she’s given treats and verbal praise, such as, “Good girl, Erin”. She can decide not to participate whenever she likes, but most days she seems to enjoy the challenge of doing each behavior.

When training for blood collection begins, animal care staff first teaches an animal to place herself in the front area of her indoor holding area and to lie down when given a verbal cue to do so. Next, the zookeeper uses a long, hooked pole to gently pull her tail through a small gap located at the bottom of the stall door. They then hold her tail still so that I can place a tourniquet on her tail. Lastly, I visualize and palpate Erin’s tail vein and insert the needle to collect the blood sample.

Erin practices training weekly and we collect blood from her every six to 12 months. This helps Erin remain comfortable with medical procedures such as blood collection, administering injections and applying topical medications, if needed. We are able to accomplish these things with Erin’s willing cooperation and the use of anesthesia is not necessary, which is safer and more enjoyable for everyone.

Similar to domestic cats, large cats often get kidney disease as they age, which can cause high blood pressure. Every two months, a blood pressure monitoring device is used to measure Erin’s blood pressure values. In this case, the zookeepers practice the same training used for blood collection, but when the zookeeper gains access to Erin’s tail and holds it still, l place a blood pressure cuff on it instead of a tourniquet. Her blood pressure is measured by the same method that is used in humans; two values are taken into account: systolic pressure and diastolic pressure. With the information gathered over time, we are better able to identify if a health problem is developing so we can begin treatment sooner.

I cannot tell you enough how incredible it is to be part of this veterinary team who, along with the animal care staff, provide excellent care for the animals residing at the Detroit Zoo.

– Stacey Baker is a veterinary technician for the Detroit Zoological Society and works at the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex at the Detroit Zoo.

Veterinary Care: The Detroit Zoo in Winter

The days have grown shorter and the temperatures colder over the last few weeks. During these chilly months of the year, I am often asked the question, “Does the zoo close during the winter?” The answer is “No!”, but things do change for both the people and the animals during the winter. The Detroit Zoo is open to visitors every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day, and all of the animals at the Zoo remain here year-round and need daily care. We have at least one veterinarian and one veterinary technician at the Zoo every day, including holidays. In fact, the winter remains a very busy time for the veterinary staff.

Many of the animals are able to enjoy the cooler temperatures of winter. Some animals that experience much warmer temperatures in the wild are able to grow heavier hair coats and acclimate to a Michigan winter. But even for these, enjoying time outside is always a choice – we keep the doors open so the animals can come inside whenever they choose. We also modify diets during the winter months. Some animals need more calories to keep themselves warm, and hoofstock and other herbivorous animals need access to more hay and browse to replace the pasture and plants they enjoy during the summer. For extra fun, we bring the snow indoors for some of the animals to enjoy. The chimpanzees especially love to play in snow mounds that we bring indoors.

During the winter, there are often fewer visitors in the Zoo, and this has some advantages. Moving a 275-pound tiger to the hospital for radiographs and an examination is a challenging task at any time of the year. We use a large Sprinter van to transport our patients, and a second van to transport the people needed to lift and move them into the hospital. When possible, we always prefer to move large patients around the Zoo on days when we have fewer guests. There are also patients that prefer cooler temperatures. Over the last two years, we have been transporting penguins one at a time to the hospital for examinations under anesthesia. So far, we’ve examined more than 50 penguins! The habitat at the Polk Penguin Conservation Center is kept at a brisk 40 degrees Fahrenheit, so the winter months are a perfect time of year to move penguins to the hospital and keep them comfortable during the process.

Winter is a great time to visit the Zoo. The Polk Penguin Conservation Center offers a new experience every time I visit, and some days you can enjoy moments of near solitude with the penguins. The red pandas and Japanese macaques are especially active at this time of year, and a fresh snowfall transforms the zoo into a truly beautiful place.

You can also experience the magic of winter during our evening Wild Lights event, featuring 5 million lights and activities for guests of all ages. We all have more than four months of winter to enjoy/endure. I find the best way to get through the winter is to get outside and enjoy it! So, I’ve rummaged through my office closet for my winter hat and gloves, started wearing my long underwear, and I am embracing the winter season! Hope to see you at the Zoo!

– 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: Cutting-edge Technologies in Amphibian Conservation

Last week I was able to attend a very exciting advanced conservation training course to learn assisted reproductive technologies (ART) in amphibians. The meeting was hosted by the Omaha Zoo, and was offered by the Amphibian Taxon Advisory Group (ATAG). I was one of a small group of zoo and conservation scientists invited to learn cutting-edge technologies that have the potential to have a tremendous impact on the conservation of endangered amphibians.

At the Detroit Zoo, we’ve been using hormone treatments to help with reproduction in Wyoming toads and Puerto Rican crested toads for more than 10 years. Recently, Dr. Andy Kouba from Mississippi State University has been able to modify these treatments for use in other species, and to develop techniques for collecting eggs and sperm for in-vitro fertilization (IVF). Two years ago, I traveled to his laboratory to learn these techniques for dusky gopher frogs, and within a few months we became the third zoo to reproduce amphibians via IVF.

The goal of the ART course was to provide in-depth information concerning reproduction in frogs, toads and salamanders. This course was taught by Dr. Kouba and two of his colleagues, and represented the first time that husbandry staff, veterinarians and conservation researchers have come together to discuss assisted reproductive technologies. The attendees brought together a wealth of knowledge, and experiences working with hellbender salamanders, Chinese giant salamanders, Oregon-spotted frogs and others. We talked about the impacts of hibernation, temperature, humidity and social cues on reproduction, and the challenges we have encountered in the past. We learned about the historic use of hormones in amphibians, and how this information can be adapted to new species. We also learned how to gently collect spermic urine from male amphibians, and to stimulate females to lay eggs. We learned how to examine developing tadpoles under a microscope, and cyroperservation techniques for sperm. We also learned how to use ultrasound to monitor egg development in females. During the week, we put these skills to practice, and were able to produce fertilized eggs from Puerto Rican crested toads, American toads, tiger salamanders and Asian black spiny toads (for the first time!).

At the Detroit Zoo, we have number of very endangered species of amphibians, including some that have never or only rarely reproduced outside of the wild. Over the next few months, we will be able to start using cryopreservation to save genetics from these critically endangered species. The skills learned at the ART course will allow us to continue to be leaders in amphibian conservation, and to hopefully successfully breed Japanese giant salamanders, giant waxy tree frogs, and other endangered species at the National Amphibian Conservation Center.

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