Veterinary Care: Baby Jane’s Prenatal Check-ups

While newborn photos of a female baby chimpanzee have gone viral on our social media accounts, they weren’t the first images taken of little Jane. During mom Abby’s 33-week pregnancy, Detroit Zoological Society staff performed eight ultrasounds of the baby, who is named after legendary primatologist and anthropologist Dr. Jane Goodall.

Staff works diligently with the great apes who live at the Detroit Zoo to develop behaviors that allow us to monitor their health. The gorillas and chimpanzees open their mouths to let us look at their teeth, show us their hands and feet and lean against the mesh to allow the administration of vaccines. Most of the chimpanzees will press their chests toward the mesh so we can take images of their hearts with an ultrasound probe.  Abby quickly learned to position herself and allow us to put the probe on her belly so that we could monitor her growing fetus. After a few practice sessions, we invited an OB (obstetrical) ultrasound technician to the Zoo to take the standard measurements collected during pregnancy in human women.

Abby was a cooperative patient and always appeared excited to see us. She would prop herself on a ledge and eat peanuts during each exam, allowing the peanut shells to pile up on her growing belly.  There are limits to the ways we can position the probe, and we were not always able to get every measurement at every visit. In the early months, we were able to measure the length of the fetus from the crown to the rump; as the baby grew, we measured the circumference of the head and abdomen and length of the long bones, including the femur and humerus. We were also able to see the position of the fetus and measure the heart rate. With each exam, we added data to our growth charts, and were pleased to see steady growth and development. We also became increasingly confident that the baby was a girl.

Abby is the third chimpanzee mom that has allowed us to conduct obstetrical ultrasounds, and since 2008 we have been able to collect measurements from three pregnancies, including youngsters Ajua and Akira. Using these measurements and data from two scientific publications, we were able to make a solid prediction of Abby’s due date – July 14, the date of the first annual World Chimpanzee Day! As this date approached, animal care staff began round-the-clock checks to look for signs of labor. Just three days before the due date, we performed a final ultrasound exam. We were pleased to see that the baby was still growing according to expectations. We could see her face and watch her open and close her mouth and wiggle her arms and legs. Most importantly, we could see that the baby had a strong heartbeat and was positioned with her head down, which is the correct position for a normal delivery.

Anyone who has anticipated the delivery of a baby knows that due dates are not an exact science. But Abby delivered her baby at 12:01 a.m. on July 14, one minute into the day predicted as her due date, and the delivery was without complication. Being able to monitor babies during pregnancy allows us to prepare for any issues that might arise, and to intervene if needed. Abby is a wonderful mom, and is taking good care of Jane. She seemed excited to show off her new baby to the other chimpanzees, and held her against the window for everyone to see. We look forward to watching her grow and thrive in her habitat at the Great Apes of Harambee.

– 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: 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: 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.

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: 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.