Riverbanks makes care of aging animals is a priority

On World Lion Day, Riverbanks Zoo and Garden celebrated the care the animal and veterinary teams provide to the king of the jungle and all the Zoo’s residents. Many of the animals at Riverbanks are advancing into their golden years and require senior care, including Zuri the male lion, a cancer survivor, whose 19th birthday was August 15.

As the animals age at Riverbanks, they must be closely monitored. In November 2019, during a routine examination, a squamous cell carcinoma was found at the base of one of Zuri’s claws.

“We perform these exams for exactly this reason—to find problems before they become a clinical problem for the animal,” said Dr. Martha Weber, Director of Animal Health at Riverbanks.

With the help of surgeons, internal medicine specialists and oncologists, the lion’s affected toe was amputated, and regional lymph nodes were removed successfully.

“Pathology showed that we removed all cancerous tissue. We anesthetize him for complete exams once a year to monitor his overall health and make sure that he does not develop any new cancerous lesions,” said Weber.

Catherine Connell, Cat/Bear Supervisor at Riverbanks, expanded on Zuri’s annual training and treatments.

“We train him daily for paw presentation to check the foot visually,” Connell said. “His yearly routine exams include an in-depth physical of his body to see if anything is concerning and needs to be checked. We have also trained him for blood draws from his tail to monitor his health.”

In keeping with the goal of ensuring the best care possible for all the Zoo’s residents, Riverbanks recently bought a medical grade therapeutic laser to improve the quality of life for aging animals. The laser uses infrared light to alter cellular chemistry, which decreases inflammation and pain while promoting healing.

“There are many medical and surgical applications, but my main hope is to use the laser as an adjunct to medicines for arthritis management in our elderly animals,” Weber said.
Right now, Riverbanks is primarily using the laser on goats, who are easy to hold for treatment. Keepers have started training the gorillas and some cats to accept laser treatment voluntarily. Koshka, the Zoo’s elderly Amur tiger, has undergone laser treatment under anesthesia to help with a wound caused by an ingrown claw.

Advancements in veterinary medicine, training, and husbandry techniques are helping animals live longer in zoos and aquariums around the U.S. As a result, animal care professionals continue to develop plans to address the needs of geriatric animals.

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