Compared to animals in the wild, those in human care tend to live significantly longer lives, sometimes doubling life expectancy. This presents unique challenges to Zoo staff and requires innovations to ensure quality of life is maintained for senior animals.
Frequent issues faced by animals in their golden years are cataracts and dental problems. The Zoo’s veterinary staff are trained in oral health procedures like pulling teeth and have a number of specialists who consult on more complex cases.
A few years ago, an animal was facing a series of mouth infections and abscesses. After three procedures to remove infected teeth, the animal was still having issues with mouth infections. Veterinary caretakers tried adding antibiotic bone cement to the sockets to gradually release antibiotics over time around the areas of infection. This innovative treatment proved successful!
Another common age-related ailment is arthritis, which creates inflammation and pain in the joints of geriatric animals. One innovative way vet teams are treating joint issues is with cold laser therapy.
“Cold laser therapy applies varying wavelengths of light that affect tissue on a cellular level, reducing inflammation and pain while accelerating the growth of healthy new cells,” said Jennifer D’Agostino, OKC Zoo director of veterinary services. “While it only takes about 15 minutes to perform each treatment, it requires a various amount of behavioral training to teach the animals how to stand and position themselves so treatment can be applied.”
Cold laser treatment is also used for wound treatment. While use in humans has become commonplace, it’s a relatively new addition to the zoo medicine toolkit.
Zoos are increasingly aware of the needs of animals at different stages of their lives and how their behavior and their needs might evolve throughout time. This means training animal caretakers to be aware of even the smallest change in the emotional and physical wellbeing of each animal.
“We assess all of our animals’ welfare daily looking at factors such as ability to get food and water, how responsive the individual is to stimuli, social behavior, and physical signs of pain or distress, among others,” said Kimberly Leser, OKC Zoo Curator of Behavior Husbandry and Welfare. “Our caretakers are a great resource for monitoring welfare as they engage with their animals daily and are able to detect when behavioral changes – even seemingly minute changes like body movement or different whisker positioning – occur.”
If food becomes difficult for an animal to process as they age, staff can change diet or more finely chop up their food. If an animal has problems climbing or jumping, habitat modifications can occur. For example, when some of the Zoo’s snakes were found to have arthritis, caretakers updated their habitats to reduce the amount of twisting and bending required to move around the space. Another common modification involves adding a soft substrate like sand for older animals to rest upon.
When these methods stop being effective, the Zoo’s commitment to whole life care and animal welfare also includes the difficult conversation about end of life.
“It’s always a tough and uncomfortable topic, but death is a part of life and something we have to face head-on,” D’Agostino said. “If an animal starts to show signs of decline, we put them on end of life care monitoring. When we see that end of life is imminent and pain can no longer be mitigated with treatment, we make the difficult but necessary decision to humanely euthanize and spare the animal unnecessary suffering.”