Happy feet in real life:

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Enrique, a geriatric jumping penguin from the south, saw his life and comfort improve dramatically when he received custom orthopedic boots.
Photos courtesy of Kimberly Washington

Arthritis is more than just a human health problem. It can afflict a wide range of animals, even penguins. So when Enrique, a geriatric jumping penguin from the south of the Saint Louis Zoo, started having mobility issues due to arthritis in his ankles, the zoo’s veterinary team immediately got to work on a solution. long-term.

The answer: a pair of neoprene boots specially designed to give Enrique both support and traction.

Enrique joined the Saint Louis Zoo from another facility six years ago, and at 30 he is one of the oldest of the zoo’s 19 members. In the wild, rockhoppers typically live for around 10 years.

According to staff veterinarian Jimmy Johnson, DVM, MS, CertAqV, DACZM, Enrique’s keepers noticed that he was moving a bit slower, not climbing as high on the rocks in his habitat, and that he had developed calluses under his feet from an altered gait.

“The keepers have a keen eye and know immediately when something is wrong with one of the animals, which is really helpful in spotting a problem early so we can intervene more quickly,” says Dr Johnson. “We did a full exam and took x-rays to see what his joints looked like, and the arthritis was pretty severe, which is not unexpected in a geriatric animal.”

The vet team tried a variety of treatments, including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for pain, salt water foot baths, and topical creams to treat calluses on Enrique’s feet. “These resulted in a slight improvement, but didn’t seem the most viable in the long run, as the cream wore off every time Enrique went into the water,” says Johnson. “It also took a long time for both Enrique and the staff. So we started to think outside the box.

Johnson designed a type of boot to give Enrique sufficient ankle support while still cushioning the soles of his feet, and contacted Thera-Paw, a company traditionally known for its rehabilitation and assistance products for dogs and cats. , to create a custom prototype. .

Enrique could not get to the Thera-Paw facility in Lebanon, NJ, so everything had to be done over long distances. The penguin’s keepers traced his feet and provided high-resolution photos and videos so that technicians at Thera-Paw had as much information as possible about Enrique and his condition.

Interestingly, Enrique isn’t the first penguin to receive an orthosis from Thera-Paw, said President and CEO Ilaria Borghese. “We have received a number of zoos who have contacted us,” she notes. “We made boots for penguins, flamingos and black-necked swans, all with different problems. But Enrique was quite special, and the Saint Louis Zoo was wonderful to work with. Enrique’s anatomy was a bit of a learning curve, but the zoo gave us the measurements we needed, and detailed the exact purpose of the boots and how they should work, which went a long way in helping us create the best solution for Enrique. “

There was a lot to consider, Borghese says. Above all, Enrique’s boots had to be comfortable enough to wear all day long and allow him to swim, but also provide traction when scaling the slippery rocks of his habitat.

Sometimes Borghese has to be inventive when making a bespoke orthotic for an animal, and Enrique’s boots were no different. For example, the non-slip rubber coating on the bottom of his boots comes from a pair of gardening gloves. “I was gardening for a weekend and realized that the rubber coating on my gloves was perfect for Enrique’s use,” Borghese explains. “I went to the store and bought a value pack of garden gloves and we use them as the base for our penguin boots.”

Enrique's shoes were made in black to match his feet, but in this photo the orange non-slip rubber soles, made from gardening gloves, are visible.
Enrique’s shoes were made in black to match his feet, but in this photo the orange non-slip rubber soles, made from gardening gloves, are visible.

Borghese adds that the biggest challenge in making Enrique’s boots was figuring out how to squeeze his webbed feet into the devices while making sure they were secure enough that he could swim without them coming loose. .

“Penguins have webbed feet that can be bent to fit a narrow opening, but Enrique has arthritis so advanced that his fingers can’t be bent enough to slip his feet into the boots,” Borghese explains. “We designed the boots to open at the back. Enrique’s foot can be placed appropriately inside the boot and then the boot is closed around his foot. It allows for a very wide bunk for its foot, so it’s not too painful when we insert it, but safe enough that it can travel in different types of environments, like climbing over rocks and swimming in the water.

When the big day arrived, guardians for Johnson and Enrique were unsure how he would react to the boots, even if he had complied with the other treatments. “We put the boots on him and put him on, and he didn’t seem to care at all,” Johnson says. “He adopted them right away, walking around and doing his business with the penguins. Then we reintroduced it into the habitat. The guards put them on for short periods at first, then for longer periods until it was a full day from morning to night.

Thanks to the boots, Enrique’s quality of life has improved significantly, Johnson adds. He is much more energetic when he goes out to eat, swims comfortably, and climbs higher on rocks.

“We have really noticed a dramatic change in his activity and his ability to live a normal penguin life since we introduced the boots,” Johnson said. “They are now part of his daily life. “

Enrique’s boots are black, so they blend in with his surroundings, although Borghese laughingly notes that they’re a bit more noticeable now because the rubber soles are bright orange – the only gardening glove color he’s got. she was able to find during her last races. Depending on Enrique’s activity level, each pair should last about six to 12 months before needing to be replaced.

“As a vet it’s very rewarding to develop a treatment option that really helps an animal, but I think one of the results that has been the most rewarding in Enrique’s case is the collaboration we have. had between vets and animal care professionals to really think outside the box and innovate, ”says Johnson. “I would say it’s not unique to Enrique’s case – it happens every day at the Saint Louis Zoo and in accredited zoos across the country. We are constantly learning and innovating, and we are very happy that Enrique has achieved a positive result.

EXPERT VETERINARY CARE HELPS LONG THE LIFE OF ZOO ANIMALS

Much of Enrique’s longevity at 30 can be attributed to the daily care he receives at the Saint Louis Zoo, reports veterinarian Jimmy Johnson, DVM, MS, CertAqV, DACZM.

“Due to the expertise in animal husbandry and veterinary care, as well as nutrition, housing and social dynamics, I think the care we provide at the zoo is very holistic and enables animals like Enrique to live well beyond their intended lifespan in nature, ”Dr. Johnson said. “The wardens are experts in penguin care and biology and can detect the first signs that something is wrong.”

Much of the health care Enrique and all the other animals at the Saint Louis Zoo receive are preventative, allowing problems to be detected before they get serious. “For the penguin population, preventive care includes taking x-rays to make sure they look healthy indoors and performing routine preventive health exams to find and treat problems early,” explains Johnson. “This includes vaccinations, routine blood tests and more. “

Arthritis, which is Enrique’s most serious health problem, is relatively common in older animals in general, Johnson adds. “When detected, the guards keep a close watch to make sure they are able to live their lives to the fullest,” he notes. “When the problem becomes more acute, they can call the veterinary service and we will formulate a treatment plan. “

Don Vaughan is an award-winning writer who writes frequently on topics related to veterinary medicine.


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